Reflecting Dis-ease: eh ateh pahinihk ahkosiwin—Rethinking pandemics through an Indigenous lens

7 August 2020 – 8 November 2020

10:00 — 5:30

About the Exhibition

Curated By

Timothy Long & Felicia Gay

Organized By

The MacKenzie Art Gallery


Sim Gallery

Works from the MacKenzie Art Gallery Permanent Collection.

“The question we have, really, is what sort of society do we want going forward, because COVID’s just a mirror.”  This insightful statement by mental health expert Dr. Kwame McKenzie reminds us that disease does more than just attack a person’s health; it represents a challenge to the way we live together as a society. Disease is also dis-ease, in that it encompasses not just sick bodies, but also damaged psyches, relationships, and livelihoods. While the COVID-19 pandemic has stirred reflection about our societal ills in ways that seem unprecedented, this is not the first time that disease has changed the course of history. The four Indigenous artists in this Permanent Collection exhibition, Ruth Cuthand, Robert Houle, Norval Morrisseau, and Edward Poitras, show how the pandemics that followed European contact decimated the peoples of North and South America and permanently changed the shape of life on Turtle Island.

eh ateh pahinihk ahkosiwin is a Swampy Cree term loosely interpreted as “sickness that is spreading to many.” The pattern and agency of transmittable diseases in Indigenous communities changed drastically after European contact, with Indigenous people having no immunity to newly introduced viruses and bacteria such as measles, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and, most devastating of all, smallpox. These pathogens made consistent appearances throughout the fur trade era and subsequent periods of economic expansion connected with land settlement and resource extraction. In Canada, many children died from disease as a result of the intolerable conditions at residential schools, where forced labour was a common practice, as well as during the sixties scoop.

Will history repeat itself? If COVID-19 is a mirror and we peer closely at our colonial histories in the context of eh ateh pahinihk ahkosiwin, will we decide to consider how Indigenous communities are affected today? We only have to look to northern Saskatchewan to see how minimal access to healthcare has impacted Indigenous communities during this current pandemic, or south of the border to discover that  Navajo and Dine Nations have the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the United States, surpassing states like New York. It’s hard to wash your hands without clean running water.

The works in this exhibition are a troubling mirror, but they also ask us to consider, as Dr. McKenzie suggests, what sort of society we want going forward. Critical mass has been reached for a society ill-at-ease with racial injustice towards  those who are Indigenous, Black, or people of colour. The pause provided by COVID-19 is an opportunity to ponder these pressing issues and place our current moment in longer perspective.

Ruth Cuthand

Ruth Cuthand’s most recent work, Surviving: COVID-19, reminds us of the disproportionate effect this new virus has had on Indigenous communities both in Saskatchewan and elsewhereIt brings into the present moment her Trading Series (2009), in which she reflects on the pandemics and epidemics that have historically affected Indigenous communities both locally and globally. For this earlier series, Cuthand created seductive and sinister images of the viruses and bacteria brought by Europeans to the Americas, such as typhoid fever, chicken pox, whooping cough, measles, and, most devastating of all, smallpox. These hauntingly beautiful images expose the terrible exchange which saw glass beads traded for epidemics of disease, beauty for destruction, and in later times medical knowledge for cultural understanding. The images also allude to a Cree understanding of the world. The word for bead in Cree is animate, meaning it is alive; this subtle cultural reference points to her work—and the viruses they represent—as living beings. 


Ruth Cuthand is a Saskatoon-based artist who has a national reputation for her politically engaged work, through which she explores themes of racism, colonialism, tradition, identity, and disease. Cuthand was born in 1954 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan of Plains Cree, Scottish, and Irish ancestry. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (1983) and Master of Fine Arts (1992) from the University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, SK). Cuthand’s work has been exhibited in numerous group exhibitions, including: MASS MoCA’s (North Adams, MA, USA) 2012 travelling exhibition Oh, Canada. In 2011, the Mendel Art Gallery (now Remai Modern) organized a nationally touring retrospective of her work titled BACK TALK: Ruth Cuthand (works 1983–2009), which was accompanied by a bilingual (Cree/English) catalogue. Other significant solo exhibitions include: Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink (dc3 Art Projects, Edmonton, 2016), Dis-Ease (Red Shift Gallery, Saskatoon, 2010) and Location/Dislocation (Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK, 1993) Her first solo exhibition, Trace of the Ghost Dance, took place at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 1990-1991. Her work is collected by numerous institutions such as the Canada Council Art Bank, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, Thunder Bay Art Galleryand Remai Modern. Cuthand is represented in the MacKenzie Art Gallery permanent collection by nine paintings, one drawing, six beaded textiles, and five mixed media prints. In addition to her art practice, Cuthand was instrumental in developing the Aboriginal Art History courses at the University of Saskatchewan; she also taught art and art history courses at the Saskatoon Campus of the First Nations University of Canada. In 2013, she was awarded the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Art Award honouring her achievements and contributions to the arts of Saskatchewan, and in 2015 the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan named her an Alumni of Influence. Most recently, in 2020, she received a Governor General’s Award in Media and Visual Arts.

Ruth Cuthand (Canadian [Plains Cree/Scottish/Irish], born 1954), Trading: Small Pox, 2008, acrylic paint, glass seed beads on beading medium mounted on suede board, 61 x 45.7 x 3.1 cm. Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with the support of the York Wilson Endowment Award, administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Robert Houle

The eight panels in Robert Houle’s installation Palisade I represent the eight forts captured by the Odawa Chief Pontiac and his confederates in the summer of 1763 in response to British expansion in the Great Lakes area. Painted various shades of green, the panels also recall the signal Pontiac intended to use to attack Fort Detroit: a wampum belt flipped to expose its green side. Also included in the installation is the digital collage Postscript, which was originally used in the production of a billboard in Saskatoon by AKA Gallery/TRIBE. In it Houle reproduces the postscript to a letter written by Lord Jeffrey Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in North America, in which he instructs Colonel Henry Bouquet to provide gifts of smallpox-infected blankets to their Indigenous adversaries as a means of ending their resistance—through genocide. Houle brings his reflection on the impacts of smallpox into the present by including in Postscript a newspaper article from 1999 reporting the decision of governments to preserve live samples of the smallpox virus, even after the disease had been effectively eradicated. Through the works in this installation, Houle underlines the irony that while the disease which so greatly aided the colonial enterprise has been eliminated (thanks to the efforts of those same colonizers), the underlying structures and attitudes of colonialism are, like a virus, still being reproduced. 

Read More about Robert Houle’s Palisade 


Robert Houle is a Toronto-based artist who has played a pivotal role in the post-colonial history of North American visual art. Born in 1947 in St. Boniface, Manitoba, Houle spent his early childhood at Sandy Bay First Nations, where he attended The Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Hyacinth School. In 1961 the artist moved to Winnipeg to attend the Assiniboia Residential High School. Houle holds a B.A. in Art History from the University of Manitoba (1972) and a B.A. in Art Education from McGill University (1975). As an educator, Houle was a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University for fifteen years. Houle co-curated New Work by a New Generation (MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1982), which was the first major exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art from Canada and the United States. His first solo show at a public art gallery was the touring exhibition Robert Houle: Indians from A to Z (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1990)—the exhibition was presented by the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 1991. Other major solo exhibitions include: Shaman Dream in Colour (Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, 2016), Paris/Ojibwa (Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris, France, 2010; Art Gallery of Peterborough, Peterborough, ON, 2011), Sovereignty over Subjectivity (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1999), and Premises for Self-Rule (Garnet Press Gallery, Toronto, 1994). Recent group exhibitions of note include: Re:collection (Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown, PEI, 2017), and Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes (National Museum of the American Indian, New York, NY, 2013; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2014). His work has been collected by myriad institutions, including: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Art Gallery of Ontario, Canadian Museum of HistoryMcMichael Canadian Art Collection, National Gallery of CanadaRoyal Ontario Museum, and Winnipeg Art Gallery. Houle is represented in the MacKenzie Art Gallery permanent collection by one painting and one installation. Houle was awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2015) and the Toronto Arts Award for Visual Arts (2001). He has received Honorary of Doctor of Laws degrees from Ontario Tech University (2016) and University of Manitoba (2014). 

Robert Houle, (Canadian [Anishinaabe/Ojibway], born 1947), Palisade I, 1999, oil on canvas, watercolour on paper, lithographic print installation, measurements variable. Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program.

Edward Poitras

Edward Poitras’ Blanket relates the physical communication of pathogens, like smallpox, to the digital communication of information via the internet. The work, which features the complete genetic code for a particular strain of the smallpox virus, was originally developed as a digital file that was intended to be spread “virally” over the internet. Poitras later created a digital print of the file on a sheet of paper the dimension of a small blanket. Through this gesture, Poitras recalls the intentional spread of disease by European colonizers through the “gift” of smallpox-infected blankets to Indigenous people (see Robert Houle’s Palisade I in this exhibition for an example of this practice). At the same time, the work asks us to consider how communication technologies, which “blanket” the world today, virulently replicate codes of racial violence with even greater efficiency. 


Edward Poitras is a painter, sculptor, photographer, set designer, and performance artist, who has been included in numerous major exhibitions of contemporary Indigenous art since 1980. Born in Regina, Poitras is a member of the Gordon First Nation, where he currently lives and works. His studied in the Indian Art Program at the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, Saskatoon, under the direction of Sarain Stump (1974) and the art program at Manitou College, La Macaza, Québec, led by Domingo Cisneros (1976). Poitras taught at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (now First Nations University of Canada) and the University of Manitoba. Poitras was the first Indigenous artist to represent Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale (Venice, Italy, 1995). His solo exhibitions include: Horses Fly Too: Bob Boyer/Edward Poitras (MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1984)Indian Territory (Mendel Art Gallery, 1988)Marginal Recession (Dunlop Art Gallery, 1991)JAW REZ (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1996), and 13 Coyotes (MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2012). Major group exhibitions include: New Work by a New Generation (MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1982)Canadian Biennial of Contemporary Art (National Gallery of Canada, 1989), IV Biennal of Havana (Havana, Cuba, 1991), INDIGENA: Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples on 500 Years (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992), The Post-Colonial Landscape (Mendel Art Gallery, 1993)Lost Homelands: Manuel Pina, Edward Poitras, Jorma Puranen, Jin-me Yoon (Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Kamloops Art Gallery, 1999-2000), Qu’Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys (Mendel Art Gallery, 2002)and Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures (Audain Gallery, Vancouver, 2010). His work can be found in the collections of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Canadian Museum of History, National Gallery of Canada, Remai Modern, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, and Saskatchewan Arts Board, He is represented in the MacKenzie collection by six sculptures, one painting, one installation and two prints. In 2002 he was one of the inaugural recipients of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. 

Edward Poitras (Canadian, born 1953), Blanket, circa 1998–99, digital print on paper, edition 1/4, 100.8 x 103 cm (image). Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with funds donated by Taylor Automotive Group in memory of Bobbie Taylor.

Norval Morrisseau

In White Man’s Curse, Norval Morrisseau uses the Woodland genre of painting to hold up a mirror to colonization through Anishinaabe iconography and teachings. In this image of a shaman leading a Christian missionary, lines connecting the figures indicate an exchange of ideas and a relationship to each other as living beings. The relationship, however, is far from positive. The telltale marks of smallpox cover both their bodies, revealing the movement of pathogens between them. Through the positioning of the colours green on red, the missionary is shown to be a man who thinks with his head. The shaman, by contrast, is identified as thinking with his heart through the layering of red on green. As Carmen Robertson has pointed out, these subtle articulations of colour differentiate western and Indigenous worldviews and point to deeper sources of dis-ease.


Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007) was a self-taught artist of Ojibwa descent and member of the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. He is credited for originating the “Woodland School of Art,” which is a fusion of European easel painting with imagery from Ojibwe Midewiwin Society scrolls and pictographic rock paintings. In 1950 Morrisseau was stricken with a severe illness, and during the healing ceremony he was honored with the powerful name Miskwaabik Animiiki (Copper Thunderbird); subsequently Morrisseau chose to sign his artworks with this name, written in Cree syllabics. He was born in Thunder Bay and was raised on the Sand Point Reserve near Lake Nipigon. Morrisseau has been included in a number of ground-breaking exhibitions throughout his career. His inaugural solo show at Pollock Gallery (Toronto, 1962) marked the first exhibition of an Indigenous artist in a contemporary art gallery in Canada. He was the only painter to represent Canada in legendary exhibition Magiciens de la Terre/Magicians of the Earth (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, 1989). Recognizing a lifetime of achievement, Norval Morrisseau—Shaman Artist: Retrospective Exhibition (National Gallery of Canada, 2006) marked the first retrospective of an Indigenous artist at the National Gallery of Canada. More recently, 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2013) examined his trailblazing contributions to the emergence of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada as part of the PNIAI. His work is included several public collections, including: Art Gallery of Alberta, Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Canadian Museum of History, Glenbow Museum, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, National Gallery of Canada, Royal Ontario Museum, and Winnipeg Art Gallery. Morrisseau is represented in the MacKenzie Art Gallery collection by six prints, one painting, and one drawing. Morrisseau received the Canadian Centennial Medal (1968), was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1973) and was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada (1978). He received an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from the McMaster University (1980). He was acknowledged as Grand Shaman of the Ojibway in Thunder Bay (1986) and was honored by the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs Conference in Ottawa (1995).

Norval Morrisseau (Canadian [Anishinaabe/Ojibway], 1932–2007), White Man’s Curse, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm. Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program.