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a solo exhibition by Olivia Whetung. 

June 22 - August 17, 2024



Referencing a colloquial expression used by European settlers dating back to the early 1800s, the title of this exhibition, ROOT HOG OR DIE, critically points to the myopic perspective that champions an ‘everyman for themself’ attitude in the pursuit of survival at all cost. In the agrarian milieu from which the catch-phrase comes, it reflects a mindset of amassing fortunes from the environment at any expense, even if to the detriment of the very land that makes those fortunes possible. It's an early example of when settler capitalist inclinations entered into interpersonal vernacular and the culture at large. When colonial settlers came to the Americas, they brought with them domesticated pigs, an animal that never existed prior, in this environment. They were let loose into the wild to fend for themselves, and over time, they evolved into a feral species. This is where ROOT HOG OR DIE originated. Through the process of survival, they’ve become invasive and destructive to the environment as their populations have expanded. This history and its reverberations serve as an apt metaphor for the domineering economic and political system–capitalism—we all uphold and are endlessly pressed to toil under in varying degrees. And how this very system encourages us to prioritize our unquenchable desires, often sacrificing the health of the land, waters, air, non-human creatures, and the larger ecosystem to which we are invariably connected. 


For the exhibition, Olivia Whetung created a beaded sculptural object in the form of festive bunting flags likely to be seen at an agricultural fair or a party. The flags come together to spell out the ROOT HOG or DIE idiomatic slogan, which became a prized rhetoric to live by. It was/is the idea of “pulling oneself by their own bootstrap,” as a similar saying goes. It is a physically impossible, if not an absurd, action to perform. Yet, it professes a notion of success through total self-reliance and the presumed result of hard work. The piece gets at the irony behind this catchphrase, distrusting the idea that anyone exists on an individualistic island of their own making.  


Whetung’s work here is closely attuned to a relationship with the land, one not from estrangement but rather from a place of accountability and reciprocity. In the exhibition’s suite of prints, described by the artist as ‘bead paintings’ (her expanded alternative to working with actual beads) and titled Unplanned Offerings, Whetung creates visual observations of her garden whereby the germinations she cultivated became unwitting sustenance for the non-human creatures that discovered them. By having her cultivated vegetation available to these non-human organisms (birds, amphibians, rodents, gastropods and other native pollinators), her garden enters into a kind of symbiosis with the larger ecosystem. Instead of controlling the bounty of her harvest to satisfy her and her family’s needs exclusively, thereby devoiding these creatures from her garden and, consequently, their survival means, Whetung finds a valued relation in their existence. 


This valued relation is, in a way, seen in another beaded work, Rabit feeds the Forest, made from Swarovski crystal pearls depicting rabbit droppings in snow. The artist elevates the status of disfavored animal byproducts as crucial to the environment’s own nourishment and, by extension, integral to our very survival on the land. 


Another sculptural work depicting culturally undervalued objects is lateral harvest bags used by farmers; one of the most essential jobs albeit one of the lowest paid in the labour force. The artist meticulously beaded the bags with text and colourful illustrations of crops. In her version, Whetung also modelled the functional bags after Ojibwe bandolier bags, which are decorative cultural objects and symbols of status, endowing the harvest bags and labourers who use them with a renewed significance. The textual feature for one of the bags read BREAD LAND DIGNITY. They are words informed by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth as he discusses the two most basic yet critical lifelines for a meaningful existence as the colonized person: bread and land. This piece is particularly poignant and resonant as families the world over in Gaza, as I write this right now, are starving and fighting for their homeland. 


On the other harvest bag, the artist illustrates the words: DECOMMODIFY FOOD. The text is a response to sentiments shared by a book that was instrumental in the artist’s thinking around food politics: A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism by Eric Holt-Giménez. One of the discussion points is because food is needed by everyone to survive, it shouldn’t be a commodity that is traded. As long as food is treated as a commodity, there will be injustice and unequal access to adequate nutrition. 


Ultimately, this exhibition invites us to consider the larger environment we live and work in as living and breathing. It asks how we can sustain the environment that sustains us and see it as an essential partner with which we are more intricately enmeshed than we commonly acknowledge. The sentiments in these gathered works encourage us to think about what we are going to give to the environment rather than what we are going to take from it. 


As part of the exhibition, Whetung has set up a beading resource space where visitors can experience, learn and play with the material the artist uses in her creations. 


 - Luther Konadu

A member of Curve Lake First Nation and citizen of the Nishnaabeg Nation, Olivia Whetung is a visual artist working with beads, printmaking, and digital media. Her current work focuses on ecology, biodiversity, food justice, and native presence.

Her work has been the focus of solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (2024), OPTICA Gallery, Montreal (2022); Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2019); and Gallery 44, Toronto (2018). She has contributed to two-person and group exhibitions across Canada and in the United States. She has been awarded the Ontario Arts Council Indigenous Emerging Artist Award (2020), The Joseph S. Stauffer Prize (2019), the John Hartman Award (2018), and the William and Meredith Saunderson Prize for Emerging Artists (2016). She earned her MFA from the University of British Columbia in 2016.

She’s part of the exhibition, ‘Radical Stitch’, which is currently at the National Gallery of Canada and previously at the McKenzie Art Gallery. She currently resides on Chemong Lake, Ontario.

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