The Trailblazing History of an Indigenous Art Collective

BAR HARBOR, Maine — In an act of art-historical and cultural retrieval, Wabanaki Modern: The Artistic Legacy of the 1960s “Micmac Indian Craftsmen” spotlights the short-lived but trailblazing history of an Indigenous craft center in the Elsipogtog First Nation in eastern New Brunswick, Canada, then called Big Cove. Launched in 1962 as an economic stimulus enterprise for the Big Cove Band of Micmacs, among the poorest reserves in the country, the collective designed notecards, tapestries, porcelain, and other objects that gained a worldwide audience. 

The exhibition offers a sampling of the work produced over the 10 or so years the Micmac Indian Craftsmen (MIC) was in operation. A significant part of its output consisted of “hasti-notes,” silkscreened notecards on thick paper featuring traditional Wabanaki stories accompanied by stylized graphic illustrations. By the end of 1964, the cooperative had silkscreened more than 300,000 cards. 

Big Cove-born Michael Francis (1923–1995) was the MIC’s principal artist. A survivor of one of North America’s notoriously abusive residential schools for Native people — what cultural historian Gerald McMaster in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue calls “a key tool in the cultural genocide carried out by the colonial government” — Francis found a kind of salvation in making art. 

Display of Royal Tuscan’s “The Micmac Indian Legends of the Little People” fine china set (1964)

Inspired by a chance meeting with graphic artist Francis Hamabe (1917–2002) at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, around 1950, Michael Francis developed a signature style that integrated geometric abstraction with traditional motifs. In its striking arrangement of abstract forms, “The Micmac Indian Legend of Tatler—the Loon” exemplifies the modern quality of his work. After the minimal government funding ceased in 1966, the collective struggled to survive. The end came with a fire in the early 1970s that destroyed the MIC studio. 

The handsome exhibition catalogue provides valuable historical context for the venture. The essays, printed in English, Micmac, and French, recount the Canadian government’s appalling record of mistreatment of the country’s Indigenous peoples. Emma Hassencahl-Perley, a Wolastoqey artist, curator, and educator, notes how the Big Cove community faced the same social issues Indigenous communities found across Canada: “poverty, racism, control from Indian agents, and high unemployment rates.” On top of that, the government’s response to Indigenous art and artists was “steeped in racism, with a classification built upon an image of the ‘primitive other.’”

“This is a humanist art that was never dormant; we just lost sight of it for much too long,” writes John Leroux, manager of collections and exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, where the exhibition originated. Thanks to Leroux and his colleagues, this “model for the ascent of Indigenous arts in the 1960s and 1970s Canada” now claims its proper place in Canadian art history.

Michael Francis’s “Micmac Legend of the Wild Goose” (1964), tapestry created for the New Brunswick Teachers’ College in Fredericton, NB, handwoven by Ivan Crowell, wool, 46 x 69 inches; University of New Brunswick, Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre collection
Michael Francis loon 2
Michael Francis, “The Micmac Indian Legend of Tatler—the Loon” (1964), depicted on Micmac Indian Craftsmen silkscreened wall hanging; serigraph on deerskin, wood, 18 x 6 inches; New Brunswick Museum, New Brunswick Craft Collection

Wabanaki Modern: The Artistic Legacy of the 1960s “Micmac Indian Craftsmen” continues at the Abbe Museum (26 Mount Desert Street, Bar Harbor, Maine) through October 2024. The exhibition was organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and curated by Emma Hassencahl-Perley and John Leroux.

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