When buffalo hide meets hydrogen peroxide

Photo credit - Harlan Pruden
Photo credit – Harlan Pruden

(VANCOUVER, BC) What happens when a buffalo hide meets hydrogen peroxide? A powerful work of art happens! If you are going to be in Vancouver’s Chinatown area before July 4th be sure to swing by Centre A Gallery (229 East Georgia St.) to see the recent work of Two-Spirit artist Richard Heikkilä-Sawan (Cree/Mohawk).

Richard is an artist born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a recent graduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design. His biological mother is of Finnish descent and his biological father is Cree/Mohawk. Richard draws from his Finnish and Aboriginal heritage that both provide a catalyst and a context for his diverse creative practices.

Adopted at two months by a Mennonite couple, he was not raised within his culture and only discovered his First Nations ancestry at the age of thirty-two. This unique personal narrative allows him to approach Aboriginal issues from a binary perspective. He also recently ‘came out’ as gay/Two-Spirit to his kids, family, friends and colleagues—a personal milestone that greatly informs his artistic practice as a member of a double minority. Richard draws upon recollections of his rich experiences when grappling with cultural signifiers of utopia/dystopia, violence/compassion, and dissimilarity/identity, and his art practice speaks to the human condition within these themes.

Richard’s recent installation of “Freedom Flag” adorns the north wall of the gallery –  north  being a home of winter where the knowledge of elders and the Old Ones exists and is a place of true wisdom on the medicine wheel. “This work is an unequivocal statement of self,” said Richard, “This twice shot-through rainbow-dyed buffalo hide is an emancipatory piece that unabashedly celebrates the human spirit’s capacity to overcome convention, violence, and social insecurity in order to confront and proudly proclaim one’s identity.”

Jessica Molčan, a cosmologist by trade and artist by choice, assisted with lifting the natural colour of “Freedom Flag”. “This was a first working with animal fur,” said Jessica, “even though I’m a vegetarian, I couldn’t say no to Richard. This work is a powerful statement of his identity and heritage and his personal journey as a proud indigenous Two-Spirit artist. It was so great to be able to work with Richard!”

Aside from the bleaching process, the major portion of the making of “Freedom Flag” took place over a period of one day. The buffalo winter hide purchased from Pacific Leather & Hide, was soaked in vats of dye; the six very wet strips were then hand stitched together by a team of volunteers to prepare for stretching as one would a painting canvas support upon stretcher bars to dry. “The next day, when I returned to the studio and saw it – it spoke to me and wowed me!” said Richard, “it gave me goose bumps”. This process is documented on Richard’s web site: http://www.rhsimagine.com/current_projects.html