Leith Mahkewa looks forward to a homecoming of sorts as she returns to Western as the incoming Indigenous artist-in-residence beginning in September. The master beadwork artist anticipates using her practice to connect with new audiences once stitch at a time, while also growing as an artist herself.
Mahkewa is currently based in Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Territory of Kahnawake (Quebec) where she lives with her husband and four children. Mahkewa’s roots are through the Oneida Nation of the Thames. She has family in the area and attended Brescia University College, so coming back to London will be a return to a familiar setting.
This opportunity to take a chance on something new is exciting for Mahkewa. “It felt like the right time in my life to take a chance and commit myself to a new endeavour,” she said.
Western’s Indigenous artist-in-residence role was initiated in 2021 based on the university’s commitment to anti-racism and the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The program supports a First Nations, Métis or Inuk artist in the research, creation and production of new artistic work.
The position includes access to studio space, equipment, staff support and other resources at Western. It will include periodic activities that intersect with coursework and departmental events. The inaugural position was held by Kelly Greene from 2021-2022.
“The department of visual arts is thrilled to welcome Leith Mahkewa as the 2023-2024 Indigenous artist-in-residence. Leith is an incredible beadworker from the Oneida Nation of the Thames. Her project proposal for the residency is looking at engaging the Oneida community to create a cradleboard using the bead technique,” said Alena Robin, department chair and associate professor of art history at the department of visual arts.
“We look forward to learning from Leith and collaborating with her. A final exhibition is planned in the ArtLab in May where we will be able to admire her work,” said Robin.
Through her role in the department of visual arts, Mahkewa is looking forward to expanding her own skills while also learning more about the contemporary art world and how faculty and students approach their artistic practice. As this will be the first time that she has left her home in many years to undertake a new experience, she feels she will easily connect with students as they too find their way in new situations.
As a mentor to students in the arts community, Mahkewa looks forward to opportunities for outreach to Indigenous students in the London region and on campus, and to collaborate on art projects in small groups that will culminate in a final exhibition. Mahkewa is keen to showcase the talent of other local artists in the area and learn from them as well.
After graduating university, Mahkewa immersed herself in learning Kanien’kéha (Mohawk language) and has recently been working at Kahnawà:ke Education Center in Kahnawake (Quebec), as a Kanien’kéha Teacher Coach. Through this mentorship and educator role, she was able to connect directly with those working in the Kanien’kéha language revitalization field, something very important to Mahkewa as a mother of first language speakers. She recently created a hand-beaded and stitched outfit for her daughter’s graduation, which was truly a labour of love.
Steeped in ancestral traditions
Prior to coming to campus in September, Mahkewa will be participating in the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market which has featured thousands of Indigenous artists from Turtle Island for over a century. The market gives artists the opportunity to connect and be judged by experts in Indigenous art fields. Mahkewa has participated since 2014 and it gives her the opportunity to showcase Haudenosaunee or Iroquoian style raised beadwork, a three-dimensional art form with origins in the Victorian era. Mahkewa has family ties to the region as her late father is Hopi and Tewa from Arizona.
“I created a niche unique to my Oneida/Chippewa/Hopi/Tewa family lineage. My personal style often juxtaposes the geometric shapes found in my Hopi family pottery patterns, and Haudenosaunee–inspired floral designs. The complexity of both cultures and design styles, when combined and manipulated, creates a one-of-a-kind form of beadwork.”
Mahkewa’s beadwork, though steeped in ancestral tradition, continues to transcend generations, and find new ways to speak to contemporary experience.
“My art makes a social statement that speaks to the current social realities of Indigenous life, whether the devastating lack of access to clean water or the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The beaded mask ‘I am protecting you from me’, a piece created to acknowledge the loss of life during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, uses red monochromatic beads representing the blood that flows through us and how we are interconnected to each other and our environment.”
“I am proud to be part of the revival of raised beadwork within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. I will continue to create pieces that highlight my cultural values and the integrity I have as a strong Onkwehón:we woman.”