Icon, the Sense of the Sacred (2009)

by Louise Vigneault

The installation with a painting depicting Jesus placed on the wall, and one buffalo skull on either side, connected by red string to a third buffalo skull placed on the ground, in front of the painting.
Eruoma Awashish, Icône, le sens du sacré (Icon, the Sense of the Sacred), 2009. Installation, mixed media (skulls, strings, paint, framing), variable dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist.

Icon, the Sense of the Sacred is an installation in which artist Eruoma Awashish offers a representation of Christ as an Indigenous figure, wearing a loincloth and a feather on his head. His eyes are open, staring at the viewer. Red ribbons connect his chest to an upper space. Buffalo skulls are placed on each side of the figure, while a third sits on the ground. The skulls are also connected by red ribbons, and encircled with a gold halo, like Christ.

Installation is a mode of expression used by an artist to bring together various components in an immersive space in order to give viewers a visual, contemplative, multi-sensory, and emotional experience meant to challenge preconceived ideas, transform perceptions, raise awareness, and provoke reflection. In this space, Eruoma Awashish appropriates Christian references that she combines with Indigenous beliefs to give them a new meaning and produce a third space, that of a dialogue between Indigenous realities, stemmed from the territory, and non-Indigenous realities, emerged from an experience of displacement, as is the case with European Americans.

Atikamekw cultural heritage

Artist Eruoma Awashish grew up on the Obedjiwan reserve (located in Haute-Mauricie, in the Centre-du-Québec region) and was born in 1980 to an Atikamekw father and a Francophone Quebecer mother. She did not attend residential schools and therefore did not experience the trauma of being separated from her family and forced to abandon her language and culture. While she remains aware of the impact of assimilation pressures on her culture and territory, she manages to live in relative harmony with both cultures, pursuing studies in the urban context of the majority, and carving out a place for herself in the art world. In her interdisciplinary practice, she explores painting, assemblage, performance, and installation, using everyday objects as well as organic materials: wood, plumes, bones, feathers, and plants. Awashish brings together various components from often opposing worlds to create dialogues and provoke reflections on biracialism, building bridges between the past and the present.[1]

The buffalo skull to the left of the installation has its left half painted gold and one red string tied to each of its horns. It is mounted to the wall on a gold disk with a dotted border decoration.
Eruoma Awashish, Icône, le sens du sacré (Icon, the Sense of the Sacred) (detail), 2009. Installation, mixed media (skulls, strings, paint, framing), variable dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist.

Composed of three communities located in Haute-Mauricie—Obedjiwan, Wemotaci, and Manawanthe—the Atikamekw Nation has kept a profound connection to their ancestral territory and still speak their original language (Atikamekw is part of the Algonquian language family). A traditionally nomadic people, the Atikamekw have also preserved their hunting practices. This activity, which has long been essential to their survival, is carried out in a spirit of exchange and negotiation with the animals, which are perceived as equals, beings with a soul. In order to safeguard the harmony with their environment, to maintain the balance of the ecosystem, the Atikamekw are careful to thank the animals for the sacrifice of their life and to honor this link of reciprocity and interdependence, through certain rituals. In this context, the bones and remains of animals play a role of intermediary and concrete witness of this communication. They also symbolize the link maintained with the parallel spaces.[2] Among Indigenous artists, these organic materials are very often used to evoke a process of repair, healing, or a dialogue between the material and spiritual dimensions, between the universe of the living and that of the dead. In the piece Icon, the Sense of the Sacred, the three haloed bison skulls therefore embody a new trinity, the quest for balance necessary for the continuance of life, the survival of souls and bodies, and the search for harmony in the cohabitation of beings with each other and with their environment.[3] The red ribbons that connect the skulls refer to this communication, which is no longer carried out by speech but by different senses.[4]

Christian cultural heritage

For Eruoma Awashish, Catholic religious references are part of her family background, not only on the Quebecer, but on the Atikamekw side as well. The history of the Atikamekw people reveals that they have had an ambivalent relationship with the Church, caving in, during difficult times, to the pressures of the missionaries, in order to obtain assistance or material advantages.[5] Tensions arose, however, when missionaries denounced certain traditional beliefs and rituals and imposed censure. As a young person, Eruoma Awashish did not understand why her people continued to adhere to a religion that had caused them so much harm. She then realized that Catholicism had nevertheless contributed to the perpetuation of Atikamekw spiritual practices, through an exercise of accommodation between beliefs, a syncretism, that is, a combination of two cultures or two belief systems that were apparently opposed, but that had elements in common, some similar foundations. In the conversion campaigns, this syncretism contributed to the assimilation strategies of the missionaries, but it also allowed Indigenous people to maintain their beliefs through that which was imposed. This syncretism is present in Icon, the Sense of the Sacred.

Painting of Jesus in blue, yellow, red and white segments, with a golden disk behind his head and his arms outstretched, looking directly at the viewers. The background is red and yellow, and plants decorate the bottom of the painting. Four red strings connect from his chest to the top of the painting.
Eruoma Awashish, Icône, le sens du sacré (Icon, the Sense of the Sacred) (detail), 2009. Installation, mixed media (skulls, strings, paint, framing), variable dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist.

The ribbons linking the Indigenous Christ to the sky allude to the Sun Dance ceremonies performed by the Plains Indigenous peoples, a rite of passage to test the warriors’ endurance and bravery. Hanging by their chests, they had to stoically endure pain for several days with stoicism. Thus, in the same way that the ordeal of the warriors pushed them to go beyond their limits and transcend their condition, the crucifixion of Jesus and the exposure of his wounds, his stigmata, testified to his sacrifice, but also to the transcendence of his condition as well as that of humanity, through the redemption of his faults and the overcoming of his weaknesses.

Thus, shifting Christian references to the benefit of incorporating Indigenous realities allowed the artist to break the relationship of domination exerted by the Church on her people, but also to overcome the oppositions between the two cultures, and establish a dialogue.[6] Intercultural crossings highlight the similarities in the beliefs of Atikamekw and French Catholic people, and reveal the universal dimension of the experience of interdependence between cultures and the challenges common to humanity.



About the author

Louise Vigneault is a professor in the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the University of Montreal. A specialist in North American art, Vigneault has a particular interest in collective imaginaries, cultural constructions, and identity representation strategies. She authored Identité et modernité dans l’art au Québec : Borduas, Sullivan, Riopelle (2002), followed by Espace artistique et modèle pionnier : Tom Thomson et Jean-Paul Riopelle (2011), both published at Éditions Hurtubise HMH. Vigneault’s research also focuses on contemporary indigenous creations. She published a monograph on Wendat artist and chief Zacharie Vincent titled Zacharie Vincent : une autohistoire artistique (Hannenorak, 2016). She is a member of the Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur la littérature et la culture québécoises (CRILCQ) and the Centre interuniversitaire d’études et de recherches autochtones (CIERA).



Further reading

Awashish Soucy, Sabrina. “Portrait of My Favorite Artist: Eruoma Awashish.” NewJourneys.ca. April 8, 2016. https://newjourneys.ca/en/articles/portrait-of-my-favourite-artist-eruoma-awashish.

Debeur, Thierry. Debeur Atikamekw Eruoma Awashish 2. Debeur interview with Atikamekw artist Eruoma Awashish during an exhibition at La Maison des peuples autochtones (previously La Maison amérindienne) in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec. YOUTUBE. March 16, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QsC7TJDM-k.

Doran, Anne. Spiritualité traditionnelle et christianisme chez les Montagnais. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005.

Gélinas, Claude. Entre l’assommoir et le godendard. Les Atikamekw et la conquête du Moyen-Nord québécois (1870-1940). Quebec: Septentrion, 2003.

Ihcatikamekw. “Portrait d’artiste – Eruoma Awashish.” In collaboration with the Cooperative Development Initiative program. YOUTUBE, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylx1-Ldhg80.

La Fabrique culturelle. “Projet 140 – Eruoma Awashish : Connectée à ses origins.” La Fabrique Culturelle. Télé-Québec. March 7, 2014. http://www.lafabriqueculturelle.tv/capsules/17/projet-140-eruoma-awashish-connectee-a-ses-origines.

Laugrand, Frédéric. “Pour en finir avec la spiritualité : l’esprit du corps dans les cosmologies autochtones du Québec.” In Les autochtones et le Québec, Des premiers contacts au Plan Nord, edited by Alain Beaulieu, Stéphan Gervais, and Martin Papillon, 213-32. Montreal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2013.

Marcoux, Gabrielle. “Ossements et animaux dans l’art autochtone actuel,” Recherches amérindiennes au Québec 55, no. 2-3 (2015): 25-32. https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/raq/2015-v45-n2-3-raq02806/1038039ar/.

Ruestchmann, Clara. “La voix du territoire. Représentations territoriales plurielles dans l’œuvre d’Eruoma Awashish.” Master’s thesis, Université de Montréal, 2019. https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/handle/1866/22517.

Sioui Durand, Guy. “L’onderha.” Inter: art actuel 122 (2016): 4-19. https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/inter/2016-n122-inter02349/80412ac/.

Sioui Durand, Guy. “Icône : le sens du sacré.” Inter: art actuel 104 (2009-2010): 51. https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/inter/2009-n104-inter1507835/63965ac.pdf.

Thériault, Yvon. L’apostolat missionnaire en Mauricie. Trois-Rivières: Édition du Bien Public, 1951.

  1. Clara Ruestchmann, “La voix du territoire. Représentations territoriales plurielles dans l’œuvre d’Eruoma Awashish,” Master’s thesis, Université de Montréal, 2019, 12-13, https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/handle/1866/22517.
  2. Gabrielle Marcoux, “Ossements et animaux dans l’art autochtone actuel,” Recherches amérindiennes au Québec 55, no. 2-3 (2015): 25-32.
  3. Marcoux, 26-29.
  4. Ruestchmann, 58.
  5. Ruestchmann, 36-37.
  6. Marcoux, 31; Thierry Debeur, Debeur Atikamekw Eruoma Awashish 2. YOUTUBE. March 16, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QsC7TJDM-k.


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