In mid-August Eeyou Istchee became the latest region to require masks in public indoor places to prevent the potential spread of Covid-19. While their principal purpose is to contain infectious respiratory droplets, a growing number of artists have turned masks into a platform for creative expression.
Cree artist Flora Weistche recently unveiled a particularly magnificent beaded mask in a Facebook post that has already been shared over 170 times. She has also accepted a request by the Museum of Indigenous People in Prescott, Arizona, to display photographs of her creation.
“It was actually my son who convinced me to bead the mask,” Weistche told the Nation. “I was looking for a project to do and my son said everyone is making masks, you should bead an epic one.”
Living away from Waskaganish in suburban Montreal, she sees beading as an act of decolonization and a deeply symbolic tribute to the land and people she loves. “It’s a way for me to connect with my culture,” she explained.
While developing the mask over about 50 hours during the last few months, she was inspired by the courage and integrity of Cree leadership.
“I was thinking about all the people trying to prevent the virus from entering Cree communities,” explained Weistche. “Bella Petawabano [chairperson of the Cree Health Board] kept coming to my mind. I was so amazed she was still working diligently even though her husband caught the virus – I decided to name the mask after Bella.”
The mask’s 10 floral patterns represent the 10 Cree communities, including three “forget-me-not” flowers dedicated to families who lost loved ones to the virus – the late Emma Trapper from Mistissini, George Masty from Whapmagoostui and former chief Fred Blackned from Wemindji.
This intricate symbolism was conceived during the brainstorming process when she sketched floral patterns inspired by nature and online research. After carefully measuring the materials purchased from nearby Kahnawake, she beaded directly onto tanned deer hide, guiding the flowery outlines by initially placing her paper drawings over top.
“I really like using floral, maybe because my name is Flora,” reflected Weistche, who is a self-described slow beader because of a missing knuckle. “Doing that mask was hard for my hand but I kept going. When I start something, I have to finish it.”
Weistche has watched her mother bead and sew clothing throughout her life and remembers first threading coloured beads into a bracelet at the age of three. However, after beading avidly in high school she stopped completely for 20 years until an idea for beading her father’s last caribou hide arose from a dream.
This was the seed for “My Grandmother’s Garden” (Nuuhkum Unihtaauchihchikin), an immense project that gained her national attention two years ago. After years immersed in that creation, she felt a sense of disconnection until her 16-year-old son Tristan, nicknamed “Dutch”, encouraged her to get back to beading.
“It was a fun project with my son, although he didn’t bead with me,” said Weistche. “He takes the photos and models. When I did the mask, it helped me a lot. Beadwork kept me busy, away from the TV – it kind of healed my mind.”
As the pandemic forced her to convert her sewing room into an office for her full-time job, she made a workspace upstairs where she worked on the mask at lunchtime, after supper and on weekends. When it was finally ready, she shared it first with the families to whom she paid tribute before making it public.
While Weistche has resisted posting on beadwork pages because of negative messages from anti-maskers, she is considering adding her artwork to websites selling custom-made masks. There is a burgeoning market for such personalized items printed with uploaded photos, providing wearers an opportunity to stay stylish yet socially responsible.
Although she has been lately wandering the house looking for things to sew in that familiar stage between projects, Weistche is already preparing for her next big undertaking. She recently took out a hide she had stored and is now consulting with other artists to determine how to best sketch on it.
“Contacting other artists is very helpful,” Weistche shared. “Natasia Mukash from Whapmagoostui gave really good tips for starting my project. My dress is going to be dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”