Walking on Turtle Island

Suiling Yan (b. 1967, China) is a visual artist. She creates paintings, ink drawings and etchings inspired by the beauty of nature. 'Treasures' from nature serve as subjects for her paintings. Recently, landscape is also a theme. In May 2022, she stayed as an artist-in-residence of MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women's Art) in Winnipeg, Canada. This project was made possible in part by the Mondriaan Fund.

MAWA Winnipeg: Mentoring Artist for Women's Art is an art center in Winnipeg run by women artists committed to helping women and non-binary individuals advance in the arts. Annually, MAWA offers a residency for international artists (female and non-binary). For a month, a guest artist stays at MAWA's apartment to reflect on work, conduct research, experiment, create new work, et cetera.

My AiR program at MAWA was scheduled for July 2020. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it kept getting postponed, but in 2022 I was finally able to travel to Winnipeg to spend the entire month of May as a visiting artist.

I had never been to Canada before, so I mostly wanted to use the time to look around and get inspired. Turtle Island is what the indigenous people call the continent of North America. Walking is the best way to see things there. That's why I called this project "Walking on Turtle Island.

Hospitality and friendship

Thanks to MAWA's welcoming reception, I quickly felt at home in Winnipeg. My apartment was above MAWA's office. Adriana Alarcon, the coordinator, arranged some practical things like a phone and a bus pass. Natasha Boone, my "Winnipeg Ambassador," was wonderful and showed me my way around the city.

Several times I went out with her, her husband and little son and we had a very sociable time together. Through MAWA I also got to know people and with the help of my new friends I was able to see and experience many interesting things.

MAWA activities

MAWA has a calendar full of activities, not only on art and gender issues, but also indigenous culture is on the agenda. I participated in two workshops, "Cross-culture beading" and "quilling. At beading we learned the native beading technique.

The quill workshop was organized by MAWA in collaboration with the Manitoba Museum. The accompanying teacher was Jennine Krauchi, a well-known Metis artist. It is a kind of embroidery technique, but using the shaft of porcupine quills instead of beads or thread. Over two days, I and about 30 participants (mostly indigenous in origin) learned the process, from harvesting, cleaning to dyeing and finally creating a work. We were also given a tour of the museum's lab by condervator Dr. Mathews in between, and we were able to admire beautiful antique native art.

Because of Covid-19, there was a small audience at my artist talk. I used slides to tell about my ' journey' as an artist over the years. The reactions were very positive. After this, great ideas for activities for my residency emerged. A day trip was planned together with Adriana and her friend Lucy Pavez (artist) to Steep Rock, a three-hour drive from Winnipeg. Through Adriana, I got in touch with Ariel Gordon and Sally Ito, two writers and poets with whom I would go treasure hunting along the Red River (mudlarking).

The diversity in Winnipeg's art

Among others on the "First Friday culture route," I saw that there are several art institutions for artists of different groups, such as MAWA for women and a gallery for artists with disabilities "Arts Access Ability Network Manitoba. At the invitation of Adriana and Lucy, I attended the opening of Mujer Artista-la Cura/the cure, a very interesting exhibition by a group of Latin American women artists. Although they operate separately, the various art institutions do interact.

Indigenous people and culture, history and now

The Fork, where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River, is the heart of Turtle Island according to the Anishinabe people. This historic site has a long history of six thousand years. On this important site, the Canadian government, with the consent of the indigenous people, built the Canadian Human Rights Museum. A visit to this museum and a walk along the river, where there are many information boards, taught me much of the history of this country, mostly about the oppression and discrimination against the ethnic minorities, especially the indigenous people.

There is hope for a better future

In the city, there were many native people walking (wandering) around. They seemed to be lost. Near my apartment was the food bank for the homeless and addicts. On the last Friday, I walked past it to see the murals. The colorful murals were a sharp contrast to the vagrants walking or sitting there. Many of them indigenous. The city's most famous mural is the mending (the recovery), with a meter-tall Indigenous woman sewing up a broken heart with needle and thread. The Canadian government has acknowledged the oppression of Indigenous people in colonial history and is now talking about reconciliation (reconciliation). At official openings of exhibitions and on museum websites, it is emphatically stated that one is on Treaty 1 land, the original land and water of the indigenous peoples. The entire indigenous community has suffered greatly and the process of healing will take generations to come.

Despite the harsh history and current conditions, the wonderful indigenous culture and art lives on. At Winnipeg Art Gallery is the largest collection of Inuit art on the continent. At the Crosscultural Bea-ding and Quill Workshop, I have seen people enthusiastically working to preserve Indigenous art and culture. There is hope for a better future.


With Adriana and Lucy, I visited Steep Rock, known for its beautiful cliff near Lake Manibota. That day it was cold and raining. There was ice on the lake. Fortunately, there was a pavilion near the water where we could picnic before hiking. The Latin American girls had brought lots of goodies with hot tea. Because of the weather, there were few tourists and the scenery was beautiful and serene. Together in the silence we listened to the clinking of the ice pieces in the water, a special moment.

Later I went on another day trip with Lucy to Narcisse Den (for the natural wonder with thousands of mating snakes) and Lake Winnipeg (nice and sunny and springtime). Because of the high water, the snakes were not really active yet, but the nature alone was very worthwhile.

Looking back, I saw that almost every day there was an activity where I got to see and learn something new

In the city I walked several times along the rivers the Red River, Assiniboine River and also in natural parks. Due to the high water, the trees in the special landscape were in the water. In Canada, wildlife also lives in the city. At mudlarking, I saw a groundhog. Squirrels are everywhere as well as Canada geese (the Canadian people hate them). In the small forest Bois-des-Esprit, I was suddenly face to face with a deer.

Found treasures

Looking back, I saw that almost every day there was an activity where I got to see and learn something new. I did some drawing in my sketchbook, but mostly I took a lot of pictures. Manitoba is rich in indigenous legends and fraught with the heavy colonial past. The history is visible and palpable in the landscape. The knowledge and images I acquired provide inspiring materials for new works. With a suitcase full of treasures, I returned to the Netherlands.


At Dollarama, a Canadian version of Action in Winnipeg, I found small wooden panels for hobby painting. One oblong panel is about the size of my smartphone. The idea arose to make a series of thirty-one panels with Manitoba's landscape as the theme. The number symbolizes the thirty-one days of the residency. Through painting, I walk again in the landscape. The series I call Walking on Turtle Island - Treaty 1 landscapes.




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