Tracey-Mae Chambers didn’t find her focus as an artist until she embraced her First Nations heritage.
After learning her parents were of Métis and Ojibwa descent, it became clear.
“I knew I was First Nations, but not what," Chambers said. "Once I knew, the education could begin. I could direct my energy.
"Not having that was really difficult. It’s like I can’t go forward unless I look back and know more about my heritage.”
While her heritage influences her work, Chambers’ abstract acrylic paintings are not obviously “First Nations” art.
But that’s not the point, she said.
“First Nations art does not have to be what is considered a traditional art form,” she said. “People see my pieces and say ‘I thought you were a First Nations artist’ and I don’t know how to answer that. I am First Nations and I painted it.
“There is a plethora of work done by First Nations artists.”
Chambers is one of 26 artists showcasing contemporary First Nations artwork as part of the 27th annual First Nations Art exhibit at the Woodland Cultural Centre, running until July 27.
“We always hope that people will walk away with a better idea of what contemporary First Nations art is,” said Janice Monture, executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre. “Our culture is living and thriving in today’s society and you can see that through the art that is created.”
The exhibit features 54 pieces, including paintings, photography, pottery, sculpture and ink drawings, done by established and up and coming First Nations artists.
Some pieces have obvious First Nations influences, some are political in nature, some historical, some pay tribute to ancestors and others deal with current issues.
“(The artists) make references to these things, but they put the whole of themselves into it,” Monture said. “Every one piece is different.”
The annual juried exhibition started during the early 1970s as a way to give First Nations artists from Canada and the United States a space to showcase their work. While First Nations art can now be seen in mainstream galleries across the continent, the exhibit is still a way to shine a spotlight on the artists' work, Monture said.
“It’s still important to give them that space,” Monture said. “We do it to showcase new artists, as well as giving artists the chance to showcase in a professional setting.”
Since it’s inception, the exhibit has been there to help start the careers of many famous First Nations artists, including Shelley Niro, Daphne Odjig and Kent Monkman.
“A lot of First Nations artists in this country got their start here, or came in at the start of their career,” Monture said. “There is a huge list of artists that have come out of here.”
Having a space to display her work among other First Nations artists is what makes the exhibit special to Chambers.
“It promotes a sense of community,” she said. “Even though we don’t live in the same area, this is a community and (the exhibit) offers a great venue for that.”
Walking into the exhibit for the first time, Chambers said she was shocked by the amount of talent her community has to offer.
“It’s just so gorgeous,” she said. “When I came in I was stunned. I just always feel like I’m in the company of such wonderful people.
“People might think the exhibit would be more traditional, but it’s so wonderful coming here where it is more eclectic.”
Visit www.woodland-centre.on.ca for more information.