From Ninga Mìnèh by Caroline Monnet

Photo by Denis Farley

Caroline Monnet exhibition Ninga Mìnèh addresses unkept promises

We spoke to the Anishinaabe/French artist about her work at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Ninga Mìnèh is Anishinaabemowin for “promise.” It’s also the title of multidisciplinary artist Caroline Monnet’s first solo exhibition in Canada, showing now at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Curated by Sylvie Lacerte, the exhibition consists of 18 artworks reflecting on a long history of unkept promises by the Canadian government towards Indigenous peoples. Monnet, an artist of Anishinaabe and French heritage, used common building materials and vibrant patterns inspired by Anishinaabe craftwork to create pieces that speak to the sub-par living conditions in Indigenous communities.

Caroline Monnet Ninga Mìnèh
From Ninga Mìnèh by Caroline Monnet

“The inequality (facing Indigenous communities) interests me and it enrages me — the fact that there are such stark inequalities on our planet, and in a country as developed as ours,” she explained at the MMFA’s virtual vernissage for the exhibition on April 23.

In the wake of the pandemic, we’ve lived through stay-at- home orders and been advised at length of the importance of handwashing. But with Ninga Mìnèh, Monnet highlights that even those basic rights, a safe home and access to clean water, are not a given for many Indigenous peoples.

Housing in many Indigenous communities was hastily built with improper materials, and communities today struggle with overcrowding. Despite the federal government’s promise that they will eradicate all drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities before March 2021, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in December 2020 that over 20 communities will still be without clean water after that deadline.

“What happens when your home isn’t safe?” Monnet asks, standing among the pieces of the exhibition.

Caroline Monnet Ninga Mìnèh
Caroline Monnet. Photo by Ulysse Del Drago

The piece “We Shape Our Homes and Then Our Homes Shape Us” provides an answer to this question. Made out of weaved sill gasket insulation, the material is embroidered with a colourful design and the words of the piece’s title. It reminds us that we are inevitably affected by the environment we live in, and an unhealthy environment will have consequences on our overall health. Monnet explains that the piece also speaks to the need to mobilize for better housing.

“Havoc” is an artwork composed of square segments of gyprock on which black mould has been colonized to create an intricate black and white pattern. The mould on the artwork is no longer active, but when still alive it is toxic to live with, and it can be found in houses on Indigenous communities. The title refers to mould as well as other issues with the repercussions of unsafe housing on physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Monnet worked with a laboratory in Joliette to create the pieces since mould is a dangerous substance. “It kept me on my toes,” she laughs. There’s also a metaphor in the idea of “colonizing” the mould on the gyprock, and the fact that the mould could not be completely controlled as it also developed in some unintended places.

Despite the severity of the issues Monnet is highlighting with the exhibition, the vibrancy of the colours used and the intricate, at times very delicate patterns adorning the materials also evoke pleasant, playful emotions. This is because, while speaking to unkept promises, Monnet wanted to impart a feeling of hope: a promise for a better future. This double meaning to the notion of promises can be seen throughout the different artworks.

“It’s important to me that the exhibition stays accessible to a broad public,” says Monnet. There is an important political message to the works, but also a revelling in the beauty of the designs, the poetry of circular and square shapes meeting in one piece, the unexpected grace of standard building materials turned into works of art.

Ninga Mìnèh exhibition
From Ninga Mìnèh by Caroline Monnet

Monnet says she is grateful that she is able to bring this important conversation to the halls of the MMFA where the works can be seen by a wide audience. As Monnet continues to assert her place in Quebec and Canada’s arts scene, this may be her first solo exhibition in Canada, but it is undoubtedly not the last. ■

Ninga Mìnèh is on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through Aug. 1. For more, please visits their website. This feature was originally published in the May issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the Montreal arts scene, please visit the Arts & Life section.