Black Indigenous teen artist’s voice and message celebrated at gallery reception Wednesday

Maria Hirsi, centre left, speaks at her artist talk on August 20, 2020. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Maria Hirsi’s voice filled the Hicks Gallery Wednesday.

Hirsi is one of the youngest artists to have a dedicated exhibit of her work in the gallery, located on the second floor of the Arts Centre. The 18-year-old graduated from Carlton Comprehensive Public High School this year.

An invite-only reception and artist talk was held Wednesday afternoon to celebrate Hirsi’s exhibition, titled 11 Main Street.

“The theme of this, I guess when I started this collection, was just the place you call home, your identity and family,” said Hirsi in an interview when the show opened in July.

“Because, really, anyone who sees my art can either relate to it or know that they had it different. But my home is with my family and that’s the place I’ll always be loved and my identity revolves around a place and discovering new things.”

Hirsi worked off of photographs from her childhood home in Meath Park to create each of the 15 artworks. The children that lived there were always sent to the basement, spending their time covering the walls with doodles.

“It was our way of expressing our feelings of hurt because we were being sent away and told to leave our parents alone,” wrote Hirsi’s description of a piece titled ‘Kids to the basement.’

“Eventually we caught on that they would let us get away with almost anything, as long as we stayed downstairs.”

Some of the paintings are inspired by more lighthearted topics, such as watching wrestling or playing Mario. Others, though, explore harsh themes of race.

Most artist talks involve conversations about the themes of the show or how the works were created.

But Hirsi felt many of the pieces, each accompanied by a short write-up, speak for themselves.

She took a different approach.

Standing at the front of the gallery, she performed a poem called ‘Half-Breed’ that she had written while creating her art collection. She wore a shirt that had the same message. The poem is about her mixed Black and First Nations ancestry. It’s associated with a painting in the exhibition called ‘Act Out.’

One of the lines in the poem is also included on the back of the painting.

“Not Native enough, nor n— enough,” Hirsi wrote — the first line of Half-Breed.

As Hirsi spoke, her voice filled the gallery. A video of the presentation is available on the Mann Art Gallery Facebook and Youtube page. The video below starts at her reading.

As she finished her poem, Hirsi paused.

“Let yourself be a kid. Let yourself be angry,” she said.

“Don’t hold things in because you’re never going to let them go. I’m just letting things go.”

Hirsi’s work was created alongside Melanie Mirasty as part of a Carlton program called Collection Builders for Social Justice,

“Maria and I had this day where she had these beautiful, captivating photos and I said to her, ‘I think this is a collection,’” Mirasty said Wednesday.

She turned to Hirsi.

“You had something you needed to share. It was in your heart already, a seed that was planted and this is … what you created.”

Mann Art Gallery Acting Director/Curator Lana Wilson helped to arrange the particulars of the exhibition. She was blown away that this teen artist already had a comprehensive body of work.

“I was really surprised,” Wilson said during the artist talk.

“It’s a really difficult thing to create a body of work that explores one idea so thoroughly. It’s such a difficult thing to do.”

She talked about the importance of highlighting voices that traditionally have been kept out of public art galleries.

“We know the gallery as an institution comes from such racist, classist, sexist backgrounds,” she said.

“We know who has been excluded from this white box, and we know we need to do more, but we need to know that we don’t want to tokenize you. Your work is strong, your voice is powerful and it changes us.”

Mirasty agreed. She was so inspired by Hirsi that she’s invited the teen to return to the program as a mentor for other youth who are looking for a way to share their voice.

“Never before have young people been thought to have the potential to do this,” Mirasty said,

“Maria and I had conversations about Indigenous youth having the opportunity to ensure this space isn’t inaccessible.”

Hirsi’s role, Mirasty said, will be to reduce that distance. It’s one thing, she said, for her to stand up and talk, it’s another for young artists to be able to hear from someone who’s done it. She said Hirsi has a “special light … that goes on to impact so many others.” 

“We’re so excited what your personal voice will bring,” Mirasty said.

“That’s the power, not just somebody talking about it, but creating it. That light is going to go off and do special and amazing things.”

She’s not the only one excited to see how Hirsi is using her voice.

Melanie Mirasty’s father-in-law is Saskatchewan’s Lieutenant Governor Russell Mirasty, the first Indigenous person to hold the role in Saskatchewan. He first met Hirsi at Carlton, and said he and his wife Donna were “honoured” to attend Hirsi’s opening reception.

“I know you’ve expressed some of your own personal challenges in your work, and that’s fantastic and forces us to really look at your work, your words, but also challenging our own thinking about what you say,” he told Hirsi during the reception.

“That’s such an important thing because we often get stuck in our own little worlds and don’t take the time to think about how other people … experience their own life.”

The lieutenant governor credited the gallery for welcoming Hirsi into its space.

“It says a lot about the gallery itself to support Maria and her journey,” he said.

“She’s a very young Indigenous person who has great talent and it’s a real honour for us to be a part of this day,” he said, adding that it’s important to celebrate young Indigenous people who have something to say.

 “This is just one way of doing that, to express themselves and share their story but also to force us to think about her messages and what she’s trying to express.”

Following the reception, Hirsi said the experience of seeing her body of work on the walls of the gallery was “unreal.”

“It’s beautiful. It looks beautiful. It’s better than I’ve ever seen it.”

She also said having the lieutenant governor there was “really cool.”

“He is an inspiration to me. Being the first Indigenous lieutenant governor, I wanted him to come and speak Cree and he did exactly that.”

Hirsi is also excited to be able to use her voice and her experience to help others bring their talents to light.

“There have been more stories … that haven’t been told. I hope there’s someone who grew up in a basement like this, and they were the weird one, the quiet one who was always observing and really relate to it and feel like they belong somewhere,” she said.

“There’s a lot of talent. It’s celebrating and bringing them up. Maybe that’s my position, to give them encouragement and make sure that they have the extra support they need to let them know that they’re really good and they are going to make something great.”

— with files from Jayda Taylor