Spirit Song Festival's 10th edition brings communities together through art, storytelling

From left to right: Sarah Prosper, a Mi'kmaq dancer and artistic director from Eskasoni, First Light resource program coordinator Kathy Walsh, Eastern Owl member Rebecca Sharr, First Light executive director Stacey Howse, Eastern Owl drummer Jenelle Duval, and Mi'kmaq visual artist Meagan Musseau. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
From left to right: Sarah Prosper, a Mi'kmaq dancer and artistic director from Eskasoni, First Light resource program coordinator Kathy Walsh, Eastern Owl member Rebecca Sharr, First Light executive director Stacey Howse, Eastern Owl drummer Jenelle Duval, and Mi'kmaq visual artist Meagan Musseau. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

After strutting down a red carpet and snapping pictures with friends, Mi'kmaq visual artist Meagan Musseau watched a digital art display she curated come to life in front of a room full of people.

But for Musseau, the evening was about more than the art display. It was a chance to come together as a community and celebrate Indigenous voices and culture.

"It made me feel really proud to just feel that elevation and to feel that presence, and to feel so many ancestors in the room," said Musseau. "It felt good."

The Spirit Song Festival — which began as a small event in St. John's in 2013 — is back in the city for its 10th edition. This year's festival is a weeklong celebration, with events happening throughout downtown St. John's until Saturday.

The festival opened Sunday with a digital art exhibition featuring the work of five Indigenous artists from across the province. The exhibition, called Heart of the Root, consisted of five documentary-style videos showcasing each artist working in their own creative space in their hometowns.

"A lot of times as artists, we're having to travel to the urban centre," said Musseau. "So I wanted to flip that and travel to the artists."

The videos played simultaneously on five separate projectors, allowing guests to walk to each screen to learn more about the art being created.

"It makes me so happy because it looks like a big storybook," said Musseau. "And the storybook … it's rooted by love and it's grounded by love."

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

Art as a way to build community

In one of the videos, Inuk artist Monika Rumbolt taught audiences about caribou tufting, which she says is now considered an endangered practice. But she says the exhibit allowed her to pass on this traditional knowledge to others, including Indigenous youth.

"This festival is so much more than exhibitions," said Rumbolt, who's from southern Labrador. "It is the creation of community."

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

Rumbolt says the exhibit was also a great way to teach people about Labradorian art and artists. She said immersing oneself in art is a way to understand and appreciate what communities and people are experiencing.

"Art is not just art, it is a platform for advocacy," said Rumbolt. "And it's just a beautiful way to start reconciliation."

When Megan Samms saw her art displayed on a projector screen, she says she didn't feel any nerves because she was surrounded by such a warm community.

Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

"This is such a cosy family-driven festival, and with all the five films being shown at once, these are my kin and neighbours showing at the same time," said Samms, who is a natural dyer and handweaver based in Codroy Valley.

"So there was comfort there and familiarity, relationality. So I didn't feel nervous. I felt proud of everybody and I thought they did beautiful work."

Weeklong festivities

Other events taking place throughout the week include live music performances and panel discussions, a dance party and ulu-making workshops hosted by Mina Campbell.

Campbell taught audiences how to make an ulu during Sunday's exhibition as one of the featured artists. She began making ulus — knives traditionally used by Inuit women for cutting and skinning animals — around three years ago when the pandemic began.

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

Campbell said it was a thrill to see her work displayed on the screen.

"It was pretty exciting and scary, but exciting and fun."

Musseau has participated in the Spirit Song Festival for the last four to five years, and says she's happy to see how the event has grown over time.

"In terms of an Indigenous arts festival, coming out of the Atlantic region, this is what's up," said Musseau. "It feels so good to have participated and also witnessed that growth and to see so much presence and so much attendance."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador