New art exhibit allows public to engage with songs written by inmates

Cheryl L'Hirondelle demonstrates the interactive element of “Here I Am,” one of four pieces in her exhibit in the Mann Art Gallery from Sept. 17 to Oct. 22. (Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald)

A new art exhibit in Prince Albert submerses viewers into the stories of Saskatchewan inmates.

Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s solo exhibit Why The Caged Bird Sings – Immersive Engagements, in partnership with Common Weal Community Arts, is on display at the Mann Art Gallery from Sept. 17 to Oct. 22. An interactive opening reception takes place on Thursday evening from 7 to 9 p.m.

The show consists of four pieces, one of which was on display at the gallery last September in Wintercount and Other Freedom Songs.

L’Hirondelle began conducting songwriting workshops in correctional facilities in 2008. She would come into the workshop with a melody, and the inmates had to write the lyrics in three days.

The fourth day of the workshop was spent rehearsing, and the fifth recording. L’Hirondelle would then spend weeks producing just that one song.

“They were incredibly creative and incredibly inventive, so really it wasn’t that much of a stretch. They’ve just never had the opportunity or been validated to say ‘Your ideas are good,’” she said in an interview on Tuesday.

“There’s this beautiful closeness that you get when you spend a week with people. There was a lot of love, there was a lot of laughter. It wasn’t without its moments of tension because there’s a point in any sort of creativity where you’ve got to just push and get through it.”

L’Hirondelle has incorporated her Indigenous identity with the pieces. Building off of the Wintercount and Other Freedom Songs exhibit, the song, written entirely by a group of youth, is presented with a tanned hide.

Visitors can write a message to the inmates and place the note on the hide. At the end of the show, L’Hirondelle will scan them and send them to the correctional facility.

Visitors can write messages to the inmates and place notes on the tanned hide. (Photo by Kevin Bertram)

“It’s a real lift for the new detainees who are there to go ‘Wow, there’s people who actually care enough to send us a message, so it actually has quite a powerful impact,” she said.

A winter count is a tool that people would use to keep track of tribal histories, such as when someone was born or died. However, because the youth who wrote the song are detained, they can’t fill the winter count—the notes allow the public to do that.

Another one of the pieces is called “Here I Am.” Visitors will walk into the gallery and see screens showing 10 women talking on a payphone.

If you pick up the phone next to one of the screens, you will hear that woman singing a song. Some have emotion in their voices.

“You can just walk by this and ignore it, but there’s 10 women at a payphone and they’re all trying to tell you something. Will you sit down and listen to at least one of them?” said L’Hirondelle about the work’s meaning.

“We do it on the streets every day, we see people on the streets and we just ignore them.”

Over top of the phones is panorama of nature. Institutions may have thick walls and a sense of structure, said L’Hirondelle, but the only thing truly keeping people together is Mother Earth.

The final two pieces, “The Beauty Within” and “Mother Nature’s Powers (To All Our Nation),” are new.

Viewers can see “The Beauty Within” through a virtual reality cardboard visor. A link on the Mann Art Gallery’s website will lead you to a video, then you can put your phone inside of the visor.

For “Mother Nature’s Powers (To All Our Nation),” you can step on to a cushion inside of an enclosed area in the gallery, where your movements trigger different images on the screen surrounding you.

Like last year’s exhibit, there will be a listening station to hear all nine of the songs created in L’Hirondelle’s workshops. Seven of the songs were created in Prince Albert correctional facilities.

She hopes that the exhibit will show the public that people who are incarcerated are just that: people.

“Most people that are incarcerated really just were colouring outside of the lines, the laws have made certain lines,” she said.

“We also know that there’s a lot of racism, we have to acknowledge that there are some people who are more targeted.”

Judy McNaughton curated the show as the artistic director for Common Weal Community Arts. She, too, hopes the exhibit shines light on overrepresentation that otherwise wouldn’t be visible.

“The work that Cheryl does and the beautiful artwork that has emerged from her experiences working with the women in corrections and the people in corrections I think makes those massive issues visible and finds a way to connect it to people who’d never know what’s happening in corrections,” said McNaughton.

“I think it makes it real.”

She’s been working with L’Hirondelle since 2002. This project has taken the back seat at times, she said, but “it always comes back” because of its importance.

The opening reception, taking place on Thursday evening, contains more interactive elements.

Guests are encouraged to either sit in their vehicles or a lawn chair to sing along to the songs and watch a projection on the side of the building using the free virtual reality visor. The projections are the work of a special guest from the Indigenous Peoples’ Artists Collective, VJ Carrie Gates.

Guests will also receive drive-in style snacks, such as popcorn.

To RSVP to the reception, contact the Mann Art Gallery at (306) 763-7080 or