Lego is being used to shine a spotlight on history-making Indigenous leaders in a new exhibit at Red Deer’s Fort Normandeau.
Images of Métis leader Louis Riel, as well as First Nations Chiefs Poundmaker, Crowfoot, Red Crow, Wanduta, Capilano, and Dan George are showing in the Indigenous Portraits in Lego exhibit, by Greg Sawisky.
The Ponoka physician created these striking images from historic photos with after-market Lego pieces and a free software program (called Lego Art Remix) that pixelates the photos into Lego designs.
While he used a playful medium, Sawisky embarked on this project in the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation, to draw more public notice to important Indigenous leaders, whose historic contributions are sometimes unfairly relegated to “footnotes.”
“There are stories we should be telling, sharing and repeating (but) the history of this country has not been taught well. It has been superseded by colonial history,” said Sawisky.
In his investigations for this project, he was particularly struck by the history of Chief Crowfoot and his “prescient understanding” of what was to come.
The Blackfoot leader could see no future for his people if they didn’t carve out a space for themselves in this new North America, which was quickly filling up with European immigrants, said Sawisky. Although a warrior, Crowfoot argued for peace instead of warfare. In 1877, he helped negotiate Treaty 7 between the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee) and Queen Victoria of England.
Canada’s treaty system was not a perfect solution, said Sawisky, but he believes the chiefs “did what they could to secure a future for their people, and they deserve more respect and attention than they have been given.”
His use of Lego for the portraits started as a ‘therapeutic” winter project that calmed his brain and helped balanced out some of his workday stresses, he recalled.
Since his oldest child, now seven, plays with Lego kits, Sawisky decided he would ‘play’ along beside him with his own project.
His first effort, about four years ago, was trying to re-create a Van Gogh self-portrait with tiny building blocks. But as the pixelating software wasn’t as good at the time, the project was put aside until more recent advances enabled him to finish it.
Sawisky was left pondering what to do with about 1,000 leftover Lego pieces — until he came across a historic photograph of Canadian Metis leader Louis Riel, which seemed an appropriate use for the white and grey pegs.
“I thought I already have everything that I need… and I really liked how it turned out.”
With more Lego pieces to use up, Sawisky next found a photo of Chief Dan George. The Canadian Indigenous actor, musician, poet, author and Salish chief is best known for starring opposite Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1971.
After putting the Dan George portrait beside his Louis Riel one, Sawisky began formulating his idea for this series of Indigenous portraits.
“There is all this history of this county… but only the history of fur traders and Sir John A. MacDonald was reiterated,” said Sawisky. He hopes to re-balance this, in part, through an exhibit that stands to capture the attention of younger viewers, in particular.
The Indigenous Portraits in Lego exhibit continues at Fort Normandeau until Aug. 30.
More of Sawisky’s Lego re-creations — this time of famous artworks, including Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic, can meanwhile be seen at the Ponoka Library, also until the end of August.