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Indigenous-designed Lunar Lanterns light up the night in Varley Art Gallery Courtyard

Lunar Lanterns
One of the GTA's most imaginative lantern displays is in the Varley Art Gallery Courtyard in Markham.

Lanterns have been part of Asian Lunar New Year celebrations for more than 2,000 years. In recent times, they’ve also become a Lunar New Year tradition in the Greater Toronto Area.

One of the most imaginative and inclusive displays can be found in the Varley Art Gallery Courtyard (216 Main Street Unionville, Markham) until February 29.

Six artists of Indigenous ancestry have created designs for the Lunar Lanterns exhibition, which is part of the LunarFest GTA celebrations. Organizers of this year’s festival have embraced the theme “Born to Be Free”.


“In the Year of the Dragon, LunarFest wishes that everyone can see beyond the traditions we were taught, and create new traditions that allow us to coexist in celebration,” the LunarFest GTA website states. “Through arts and culture, let’s explore the many ways we are Born to be Free!”

One of the Lanterns, Let Your Spirit Soar, was designed by Kihicho-Manito Madaouskarini Algonquin First Nation Artist Sherry Crawford, who’s also known as White Bear Standing.

Image created by Sherry Crawford, also known as White Bear Standing.

“The painting is a visual symphony of symbols and meanings,” Crawford explains on the LunarFest GTA website. “The circle, a representation of the Medicine Wheel, is a testament to the ceaseless flow of life’s energy. The faces adorning the sides are a tribute to our evolving selves through each stage of life, while the faces below serve as a gentle reminder of our ancestors.”

Designers of lanterns share Indigenous stories

Loretta Gould, who’s Mi’kmaq from the Waycobah First Nation, designed Fox & Mouse. In her artist’s statement on the LunarFest GTA website, she points out that “4 represents the 4 directions”. Then, she asks if anyone looking at the artwork can spot them all: “4 holes under the snow, 4 trees, 4 fish, 4 circles in the lungs”.

Image by Loretta Gould.

“The lines inside the lungs mean Life with our people,” Gould continues. “The fisherman represents my father – He’s hardworking and this is where he has a little time to himself. Ice fishing is one of his favourite things to do. And when he gets smelts, he gives them out to our community.”

Another artist, Nathalie Bertin, created Rise, which she describes as “a bear standing with its nose towards the sky”. Bertin is of Metis, French, and Algonquin heritage. She points out that Rise’s background represents a contemporary version of a Metis sash.

“The bear represents courage,” Bertin declares in her artist’s statement. “The red is often associated with the colour of blood that was shed by Metis peoples who had the courage to stand up for themselves in order to remain free.

Image by Nathalie Bertin.

“The bear also symbolises courage in the Seven Sacred Teachings,” she continues. “This teaching asks us to have the courage to fight when it is needed but also to know when it’s best to walk away. Fighting can also mean simply doing what you need to reach your highest potential.”

Remembering a beloved grandmother

Another of the lanterns was designed by Michiikenh Kwe (Autumn Smith), who calls her work Wild Rose. The Anishinaabe artist from the Caribou Clan/Magnetawan First Nation says that it honours her deceased grandmother, Eminawaagozidkwe-ban of Rabbit Island on Wikwemikong Unceded reserve.

“That name was given to her by her sister-in-law shortly before she passed on,” the artist says in her statement on the website. “It means ‘woman who brings good feelings.’ Before that she had a different name, which meant ‘evening rose woman.’ My grandpa used to call her Rose.”

According to Kwe, her grandmother was funny and liked to laugh. And the piece “captures the good feelings my grandma would bring to everyone who was lucky enough to know her”.

Image by Michiikenh Kwe (Autumn Smith).

Lynx-headed dragon

Meanwhile, Elliott Doxtator-Wynn designed a lynx-headed dragon, which is part of “Ojibwe true history and legend”, according to the Anishaabek / Kanien’keha’:ka artist’s statement. Entitled Mishibizhew Miinwa Animikii Bineshi Kwe, it’s inspired by stories and petroglyph depictions of this being in the Great Lakes area.

“It is said that Mishibizhew is a water spirit, covered in both scales and fur,” Doxtator-Wunn states. “It is also said it has a sharpened tail made of copper. As part of the celebration for the Year of the Dragon and honouring Asian heritage, this depiction incorporates the being with 5 visible toes as well as the inclusion of gold to represent power, wealth, longevity, and happiness.”

Image by Elliott Doxtater-Wynn.

He adds that Animikii Bineshi Kwe (Thunderbird Woman) “is a very powerful and prominent being in Indigenous culture.

“Being depicted as a woman in connection to Mishibizhew works in a couple of ways,” Doxtator-Wynn continues. “Traditionally, female energy is connected to water, in this case interacting with a water being. She is adorned with 7 feathers to honour the 7 Grandfather teachings. The 2 feathers on her head show her as married. She is holding a cleansing bowl and burning medicines as an offering to bring balance.”

Image by Ali Istanda.

Taiwanese Indigenous artist designs one lantern

Five of the six artists are from Turtle Island (North America). The sixth hails from Taiwan.

Ali Istanda is a member of Bunin tribe, whose traditional territory crosses the island nation’s central mountain ranges. Her lantern design, 13 Months, refers to the extra month in his traditional tribal calendar, which follows the moon.

The LunarFest GTA website notes Istanda’s wish that everyone can rest in this 13th month and reminisce about all the good things of the previous 12 months.

The Lunar Lanterns exhibition continues at the Varley Art Gallery Courtyard until February 29. For more information on LunarFest GTA, visit the website. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website.


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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society is grateful to be held on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, that is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We acknowledge our privilege to be gathered on this land, and commit to work with and be respectful to the Indigenous peoples whose arts and stories inspire us to bring communities together.