People look at paintings, outdoors What We Remember: Darwin Peters exhibit at "Live at the Kisanii Hub," Toronto Culture Days 2022. Photo by Eilish Waller.

Cultivating Connections: Pikangikum to Toronto

July 23, 2023
People look at paintings, outdoors
What We Remember: Darwin Peters exhibit at “Live at the Kisanii Hub,” Toronto Culture Days 2022. Photo by Eilish Waller.

Cultural exchange strengthens ties between two Ontario communities

July 21, 2023 | By Chyler Sewell

What We Remember – Darwin Peters Exhibition was a 3-day visual arts exhibition that honoured the steps that were taken before us, and the steps that we trace in the present as we move towards futures of connection and wellness. The exhibition featured paintings on canvas from self-taught Ojibwe artist, Darwin Peters. The exhibition was hosted by the arts organization Jamii as part of the “Live at the Kisanii Hub,” a cultural event held in the Toronto Esplanade community during the 2022 Ontario Culture Days Festival.

This exhibition is the result of a years-long relationship between Darwin Peters’ home community, Pikangikum First Nation, and the Esplanade, through Jamii. It’s a journey that began in 2018, as a dream to connect communities throughout Ontario. Jamii, meaning ‘community’ in Swahili, reached out to 3 other communities in Ontario. The team at Jamii “connected with people there through neighbours in [their] community,” Isorine Marc, Founder and Alchemist at Jamii, shared when asked about the process. It was important that, in starting these relationships, they didn’t outsource the connections, so that they could be personal and genuine in practice.

Woman taking photo of two people looking at sky Workshop at Pikangikum First Nation. Photo by Isorine Marc.
Man smiling at camera Darwin Peters visits Toronto's Esplanade. Photo by Isorine Marc.
Man and woman holding artwork pose for photo What We Remember – Darwin Peters Exhibition. Photo by Anushay Sheikh.

Pikangikum First Nation is a beautiful and welcoming community located in northwestern Ontario. It has one of the highest language retention rates for Anishinaabemowin, Ojibwe peoples’ traditional language, and is home by the water, much like Toronto’s Esplanade community.

“There’s an intent to honour the relationships there,” Marc shared. And that was precisely what they did. Jamii and Pikangikum spent years building upon their relationship with art as the medium. They focused primarily on portraiture work in order to share the lived experiences of people within community, combining visual art skills with photography skills and connecting people of different generations alongside people from different communities. The two communities continued visiting each other in their respective physical geographies. Even amidst the confusion and disconnection of the pandemic, Jamii and Pikangikum continued holding space for the relationship they had built.

With the lifting of restrictions in 2022, Jamii was able to invite and host visual artist, Darwin Peters, in Toronto. Peters began as a self-taught artist more than 16 years ago, and has recently completed a mural in partnership with Jamii to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day 2023. Peters’ dream “was to become a painter. Like Norval Morrisseau. [He] wanted to be like him, to share [his] art for people”. And with his first trip to Toronto in 2022, Peters was able to celebrate that dream again.

At the What We Remember exhibition, Peters connected with the Esplanade community, having his work on display outdoors for 3 days. The visual arts component of the exhibition was accompanied by storytelling performances from other Indigenous artists, as well as songs from a West African perspective, all to celebrate the connections that are thriving within Toronto and the Esplanade. Community members living in Toronto stopped by and nearly sold out Peters’ work, delighting in the vibrantly colourful pieces that are rooted in nature and reflect the beauty of his home.

During his time in Toronto, Peters was able to fulfill a longtime dream of his: to see his role model, Norval Morrisseau’s paintings in person. Peters visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as Toronto City Hall to view Morrisseau’s work. The wave of emotion that washed over Peters’ face was undeniable, as he gazed upon the work of the man considered to be the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art.

After returning home to Pikangikum, Darwin Peters participated in a portrait interview with Jamii and said that “artists can make their dreams become a reality”. Peters’ trip to Toronto was only the beginning. He is continuously making his arts dreams reality, connecting with people through his art and living into the relationships he’s built with people far from home.

Though the steps we take may wash away with the tides, the water remembers. The water remembers and carries these stories, so that no matter the distance between us, these memories will remain.

Follow Darwin Peters on Instagram to support his work and follow along on his journey: @peters_art208.

Chyler Sewell is an Anishinaabekwe from Garden River First Nation literary artist and facilitator, currently based in Hamilton.