In their evocative work Nanuk Braiding My Hair Before Bingo (2019), Darcie Bernhardt paints us a scene from their childhood in Tuktuuyaqtuq (Tuktoyaktuk), Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, cross-legged at the feet of their nanuk, or grandmother, who is working their long dark hair into a braid before an evening at bingo. A stack of cards already lies expectantly on the floor. The room feels quiet and reflective from the looseness of Bernhardt’s signature style that intentionally evokes the haziness of memory.
“Because my paintings are memories, they often appear ‘unfinished.' I’m trying to express the way we recollect images that we’re not completely sure about. They’re often fuzzy, almost empty,” they explain. “I’m [working] to translate what I can remember and how badly I want to remember more.”
Darcie Bernhardt Nanuk Braiding My Hair Before Bingo (2019) Oil 91.4 x 61 cm
Bernhardt, who draws inspiration from artists familiar to the Inuit art world, such as Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), as well as those further from home such as Nigerian-American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, focuses their practice on domestic spaces and depictions of family as well as complex, abstracted compositions. The child of a seamstress, the artist recalls their early years spent surrounded by sewing patterns as well as elders and artists that would come to their home to teach their mother as she learned and perfected her craft—influences that are represented clearly across Bernhardt’s paintings. “I think what is important for my work now,” they say of these moments’ influence on their work, “is being able to reclaim and rearticulate my understanding of art, also through trying to reconnect with my culture.”
While much of Bernhardt's practice is inspired by their childhood in the North, some of their recent pieces are guided by their experiences of relocating to the South in 2016 and adjusting to their current home in Halifax, NS. After a week spent learning to swim for the first time in the waters of Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in Nova Scotia during the summer of 2018, they produced I Learned How to Swim with my Fanny Pack (2018) using a colour palette drawn from the cool eddies of fresh water and the moosehide fanny pack they wore throughout their visit. “I didn’t learn how to swim until that summer because it was the only time the water had been calm enough compared to the rough oceans around Tuktuuyaqtuq. It’s a special piece because I was never fully comfortable around water until then.”
Bernhardt’s debut year in the Canadian art scene has been a dizzying carousel of achievements. In the Spring of 2019 they graduated from NSCAD University; they opened their first solo show, Ouiyaghasiak, in February at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax, NS; following soon after came their March 2019 installation of a charcoal animation at Montreal’s Nuit Blanche Festival in the group exhibition Memory Keepers 1; and the inclusion of a selection of their pieces in Worn Inward at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax from June to October.
Darcie Bernhardt Daydreaming About Icefishing (2018) Oil 152.4 x 167.6 cm
Adding to their busy year—which also included a trip to Venice, Italy, for the 58th Venice Biennale and a subsequent publication in a special issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly on their experience—Bernhardt was the featured artist at the Inuit Art Foundation’s booth at Art Toronto 2019, introducing their work to the fair’s thousands of visitors. Their featured works, Jijuu Playing Bingo (2018), Nanuk and Nanogak (2018) and a larger-than-life vinyl print of their swirling red and blue Cutting Caribou (2018), offer a small sample of their affectionate snapshots of their family life growing up in Gwich’in and Inuvialuit communities. Inspired by the hunting and butchering practices of country food, the patterns of Cutting Caribou represent shapes and sequences intimately familiar to the artist. “During the winter and fall we’d harvest all the caribou. I love to create the same abstract forms you’d see while you’re cutting up caribou because I love the colour combinations of the meat, cartilage, sinew and membranes.”
The Art Toronto spotlight also enabled the acquisition of Bernhardt’s paintings by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and the RBC Art Collection, marking the emerging artist’s first major institutional acquisitions and renewing Bernhardt’s dedication. “At the beginning of this year, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to continue to paint,” remembers Bernhardt. “But now that I’ve taken a breather and learned to articulate my ideas and seen that there’s interest, I’m excited to make more work.”
Through the many forms their visual storytelling takes, Darcie Bernhardt invites their audience into a deeply personal process of the reclamation of their cultural, community and familial ties as they express them through carefully articulated pattern and colour while capturing the fleeting nature of memory.
This Profile was made possible through support from the RBC Foundation’s Emerging Artists Project.
This Profile first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.