The history of a digital trailblazer

A virtual exhibition celebrating the creative talent, innovation of Buffy Sainte-Marie

Image provided by Urban Shaman

For those who want to get a taste of Winnipeg’s art scene this month without having to physically go to a gallery, look no further than Buffy Sainte-Marie: Pathfinder, a virtual exhibition on now through the Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery.

Curated by Natasha Desrochers Lowenthal, the exhibition is a retrospective on Sainte-Marie’s artistic career, spanning multiple decades and predominantly featuring her digital artwork and how it reflects and intertwines with her personal and professional life. The exhibit is also available to view in person by booking an appointment to visit the gallery.

Pathfinder is as much an art exhibition as homage to Sainte-Marie’s lifelong career in music and activism. Alongside Sainte-Marie’s digital art, the exhibition includes various ephemera ranging from handwritten notes and preparatory sketches by Sainte-Marie to handcrafted and beaded objects and newspaper clippings about the artist’s various endeavours. Accompanying all these items is a soundtrack consisting of snippets of Sainte-Marie’s music, which plays on a loop while viewing the virtual gallery.

Due to the vast amount of material, parallels can easily be drawn between all the facets of Sainte-Marie’s creative practice and personal life throughout the exhibition, providing a rich and thorough view of the artist and her work that lends an almost documentary-like feeling to the show. While this incredible amount of biographical information felt almost excessive at times, for visitors who may have a limited knowledge of Sainte-Marie, this ephemera helps to paint a picture of who she is as a person and what she has done with her talents thus far.

This documentary feeling is also aided by the layout of the gallery space itself, which is quite museological in its arrangement, with items grouped cleanly around the perimeter of the gallery in a straightforward manner. The gallery’s dark blue walls contrast beautifully against the bright neons and jewel tones of Sainte-Marie’s artworks, drawing viewers toward the walls as they slowly navigate the room, whether it be in person or digitally.

Some standout pieces in the exhibition are those that highlight Sainte-Marie’s ability to bridge physical and digital worlds with an element of psychedelic spirituality mixed in. Although many of Sainte-Marie’s works reflect these ideas, some personal favourites were “Ayahuasca Jaguar 1 and 2.” Arranged side by side, the pair act like a diptych in which the same scene is depicted with a sense of passing time through the various colour and texture changes across the two.

The repetition of certain images throughout the gallery was particularly striking as well, which demonstrates how Sainte-Marie pulled from her past work and the world around her to continually remix imagery into something brand new and meaningful. One of these works was “Fallen Angels (Twins),” a reinterpretation of a portrait of Sainte-Marie by photographer Simon Fowler, which was used as the cover of her album Coincidence and Likely Stories.

One critique of Pathfinder is that since it is quite extensive and contains much to read, the looped soundtrack that accompanies the exhibition can become a distraction — luckily, this has an easy fix, as one can just turn down the volume on their computer or mute it entirely to fully concentrate on the works at hand.

Overall, the experience of viewing this work within the virtual gallery was fantastic — it allows one to get a sense of how the space feels and more accurately understand the relationships between each of the works throughout the gallery space, all from the safety and comfort of your own home, which is important in these wintry pandemic times.

Pathfinder harnesses a positive, excited energy and truly feels like a celebration of all that Sainte-Marie has contributed to the world throughout the course of her career. Sainte-Marie’s work is powerful, and her blending of the physical and digital worlds and how they relate to her culture, personal narratives and world history makes this exhibit a must-see this winter.

You can catch Buffy Sainte-Marie: Pathfinder until March 5.