Artist as Activist

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Treaty Dress
Treaties, Treaty Dress, flags, American flag, British flag, function, beauty, deconstruction, reconstruction, postmodern, dress, acrylic painting, Canadian portrait, monster, ideals, politics and history, government policies, Aboriginal peoples, dress imagery, soul, sarcasm, dress, treaty, flags, sewing, rudeness,
start quotePeople became interested in me because it was sarcastic and rude... People like rude Indians for some reason, so you get some sort of cachet by being bad.end quote-- Ruth Cuthand

Ruth Cuthand is right. Her work Treaty Dress from 1986 is rude, but in the best possible way. In this work, she takes sections of the American and British flags, rearranges them and sews them together. This is not a careful sewing, however.  They are slapped against one another, attached for  functionRefers to the intended use or purpose of an object. The term is often applied to manufactured products, particularly crafts, and when discussing designs for architecture. Though sometimes said to be non-functional, art is expected to function in various ways, including: to beautify, to adorn, to express, to illustrate, to mediate, to persuade, to record, to redefine reality, to redefine art, to provide therapy, to give unselfconscious experience, to provide paradigms of order and/or chaos, and to train perception of reality. Anything that is not functional is called nonfunctional. Often the decorative qualities of a thing are considered nonfunctional. (  rather than for beauty, despite the fact that the new shape they combine to form is a dress.

We could read this work as a  portraitA work of art that represents a specific person, a group of people, or an animal. Portraits usually show what a person looks like as well as revealing something about the subject's personality. Portraits can be made of any sculptural material or in any two-dimensional medium. Portraiture is the field of portrait making and portraits in general. Portrait is a term that may also refer simply to a vertically-oriented rectangle, just as a horizontally-oriented one may be said to be oriented the landscape way. (  of Canada. Caught between American imperialism and British imperialism, the young country is forced to find its own way--which might seem to be an imperialism of its own. Patched together from parts of other countries, the country proposed by Cuthand’s Treaty Dress is like Frankenstein’s monster: a mixture of ingredients and half-resurrected ideals which, ultimately, fail to adjust. Canada as monster - rude indeed.

This rudeness comes not from a lack of consideration. In fact, it is the careful
consideration of politics and histories that allow Cuthand to be so “rude.”

Canada’s policies relative to Aboriginal peoples, and the alternate enforcement and willful ignorance of its own treaties, even suggest that Canada is a country where rudeness is not just possible, but is a defining national characteristic.

“I have been working on a  seriesA number of things or events standing or succeeding in order, and connected by a like relation; sequence; order; course; a succession of things; as, a continuous series of calamitous events. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  of shirt/dress images since 1983. The
shirts/dresses have their historical roots in the Ghost Dance Religion of the late
1800s. Over the years the images have evolved into clothing of the soul. The
image is used to visualize the great mystery of life within each of us. In 1985, while
studying in Montana, I began working with sewn canvases. The sewn edge and
the movement of the loose  canvasCommonly used as a support for oil or acrylic painting, canvas is a heavy woven fabric made of flax or cotton. Its surface is typically prepared for painting by priming with a ground. Linen — made of flax — is the standard canvas, very strong, sold by the roll and by smaller pieces. A less expensive alternative to linen is heavy cotton duck, though it is less acceptable (some find it unacceptable), cotton being less durable, because it's more prone to absorb dampness, and it's less receptive to grounds and size. For use in painting, a piece of canvas is stretched tightly by stapling or tacking it to a stretcher frame. A painting done on canvas and then cemented to a wall or panel is called marouflage. Canvas board is an inexpensive, commercially prepared cotton canvas which has been primed and glued to cardboard, suitable for students and amateurs who enjoy its portability. Also, a stretched canvas ready for painting, or a painting made on such fabric. Canvas is abbreviated c., and "oil on canvas" is abbreviated o/c.  (  reinforces the dress imagery.” (Cuthand, 1988)

additional resources A New Look for the '90s
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Things to Think About
  • Thinking about how Cuthand defines her attitude as “rude,” look at other political artworks on the ARTSask website, or anywhere else (website or art galleries). Are there political or even angry works that have an attitude other than rudeness? What other attitudes might define these other works?
Advanced Activity

The politics of clothing: Social studies link and First Nations studies

Ruth Cuthand created a body of  paintingWorks of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is either a tightly stretched piece of canvas or a panel. How the ground (on which paint is applied) is prepared on the support depends greatly on the type of paint to be used. Paintings are usually intended to be placed in frames, and exhibited on walls, but there have been plenty of exceptions. Also, the act of painting, which may involve a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's other concerns which effect the content of a work. (  relating to dresses and shirts. She used these as a vehicle through which to present her views about on-going historical/political issues for  First NationsFirst Nations is a contemporary term referring to the Indian peoples of Canada, both status and non-status (definition from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada). To find out more about Canada’s First Nations, go to: Assembly of First Nations: Village of First Nations: Canada’s First Nations: Wikipedia:   people, women in particular. Her work continues to raise issues about exploitation, control and  marginalizationThe act of leaving someone outside of society or a group.  of First

Nations women. Just by imposing images of flags, representing the two major powers who were responsible initially for colonizing Aboriginal people in North America, she has made a bold statement worth a thousand words.

Write your own interpretation of Cuthand’s artwork and decide if and how the artist has made a strong statement about assimilation. Consider the following:

  • The flags of two governing powers imposed over a personal garment.

  • Symbolically taking away the individual decoration that might have been shown on the shirt and replacing it, might implicate a whole reverse (deliberate act of replacement) of cultural values.

  • The inorganic colours of the flags as opposed to traditional colours made from earth sources might be interpreted as either an exploitation of nature or as an influence from the American artist Jasper Johns who made paintings about flags

In the end, the implication about Cuthand’s garment, is that it is also possibly a female garment.

Research and read Ruth Cuthand’s statements about her work. Find out more about issues connected to First Nations’ women.

Explore issues facing First Nation’s women through the page in the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan on  First NationsFirst Nations is a contemporary term referring to the Indian peoples of Canada, both status and non-status (definition from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada). To find out more about Canada’s First Nations, go to: Assembly of First Nations: Village of First Nations: Canada’s First Nations: Wikipedia:   Women (found here). The article quotes:

Before  colonizationThe act of colonizing, or the state of being colonized; the formation of a colony or colonies. To plant or establish a colony or colonies in; to people with colonists; to migrate to and settle in. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  occurred, women in Aboriginal communities enjoyed status and equality. Research and make a list of some of the issues you think might have changed this situation.

Helpful links

Residential School Residential School Children

Credit: J.F. Moran / Library and Archives Canada / PA-102575 Credit: Library and Archives Canada/PA-023096

How some European artists used clothing to present their fantasies about  IndigenousNative; produced, growing, or living, naturally in a country or climate; not exotic; not imported. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  people which resulted in long-lived myths Edward Curtis

Cuthand has referred to the exploitative methods used by 19th century explorer/photographer Edward Curtis His objective was to record what he thought of as a vanishing race of people. He knew that there was a huge audience for the “exotic” and traveled with a trunk full of props and artefacts for his Aboriginal subjects to wear when he photographed them.

You can view his work and an online feature of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, at . This exhibition views Curtis as a valuable pioneer in historical photography. How does Cuthand’s view differ?

For more on Edward Curtis, go to:


In the late 19th century (the 1800s), this famous artist had a fantasy about how he thought the world should be far away from France. He went to the island of Tahiti, hoping to find simple “happy” people living a primitive life, and especially semi-clothed, desirable women. The French public expected him to return to France and awe them with scenes of a tropical paradise. Instead, on Tahiti, Gauguin found quite a modern town and women who dressed decorously as had been suggested by missionaries at least a century before.

Gauguin wanted to paint his fantasy, so he used photos from ancient Greek friezes, Javanese Temples and erotic images of the times to create his  imageryAn image is a picture, idea, or impression of a person, thing, or idea; or a mental picture of a person, thing, or idea. The word imagery refers to a group or body of related images. (  of Tahiti. It was a world that never existed.

Advanced Activity

Take this challenge! Become a fashion entrepreneur.

Are we still oppressed by the fashion industry in being persuaded to wear clothes that might not suit us, fit us, or may not be eco-friendly in use of fabric?

Imagine you are a director of a fashion house. You want to provide an alternative to what’s out there and make a difference.

  • You might want to scan them into a computer and enhance them in a photo manipulative program.
  • Consider the following in your designs:
  • Make them attractive so you will want to wear them.
  • Choose a fabric that you think is eco-friendly and will be easy to clean (you can invent a new one if you like!)
  • Decide how they will be made and where. Who will make the clothes and how much will you pay them?
  • How much mark-up will you take? How can you make the clothes affordable?
  • Which designers do you like and who might be trying to do some of the above?

You can use photographs of traditional clothing from a culture of your choice as starting points and  designA plan, or to plan. The organization or composition of a work; the skilled arrangement of its parts. An effective design is one in which the elements of art and principles of design have been combined to achieve an overall sense of unity. Also [applied design], the production of attractive and well crafted functional objects. Subcategories of the design arts include: architecture, bonsai, fashion design, furniture design, graphic design, ikebana, industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture, stagecraft, textile design, and Web page design. (  a new fashion item. For example, footwear (shoes or boots), jacket, coat, pants, dresses, shirts/tops…Here are three images of the Ariaal, nomadic herders of Kenya:



Online Activity
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Create a clothing label with a message


Studio Activity

Thinking about clothes: World cultures

In the past, communities around the world developed clothing to suit their climate/geographic location, lifestyle and available materials. As life was generally built around how to survive, they knew how to use everything they had in an economic way, and only take what they needed. Human beings survived this way for centuries, until Western  colonizationThe act of colonizing, or the state of being colonized; the formation of a colony or colonies. To plant or establish a colony or colonies in; to people with colonists; to migrate to and settle in. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  brought new ways, imposing ideas about what should be worn. Depending on what culture and part of the world you were from, western clothes could be uncomfortable, impractical, and even might make you sick.

For example, when white society moved into the islands of Papua New Guinea colonizers persuaded islanders to give up their grass skirts, because they thought them indecent. The skirts, however, were eco-friendly and when they got dirty, islanders just made new ones! Besides, in a hot equatorial climate, grass skirts were comfortable and cool.  Once people started to wear western fabrics, they did not know how to keep them clean. At first, they had no soap and often developed debilitating skin diseases.

Go to The Huli People of Papua New Guinea to see images of traditional Papua New Guinea clothing.

Decide what kind of crafts and skills might be required to make clothes in the following traditional cultures:  Inuit, Japan, Scottish, Cree, India, South Sea islanders, Canadian Mennonite

  • Do you think that if these crafts were not used, some of their culture was, or will eventually over time, be lost?
  • Continue your research into other cultures around the world.

Finally, ask yourself:  Are fashion designers influenced by “ethnic” clothing? Find some examples in fashion magazines.


Author unknown.  <‘Beyond Words: Gilbert Boyer, Ruth Cuthand and Elizabeth MacKenzie, Paul de Guzman, Nelson Henricks, Kelly Mark. Nadia Myre, Sylvia Ptak, Rober Racine.’  <Indepth Art News, Bishop’s University Art Gallery, Lennoxville, Quebec.  Retrieved from the Internet on October 20, 2008 from:

Cuthand, Ruth.  ‘S. Ruth Cuthand.’  Saskatchewan Indian, Indian Art Supplement, July/August, 1988.  Retrieved from the Internet on October 20, 2008 from:

Ministry of Education (Saskatchewan).  2007.  Grade Three Visual Art Unit Overviews, Unit 4:  Government curricula on Treaty Dress.

Sinkewicz, Paul.  ‘Ruth Cuthand:  artist uses interesting methods to make her point.’  Saskatchewan Sage, May, 1999.  Retrieved from the Internet on October 20, 2008 from Aboriginal Faces of Saskatchewan

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning