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Waterfront art is a soaring, thoughtful ode to Indigenous ways of thinking

All Our Relations features luminous hand-blown glass beads in intricate depictions of animals, trees, healing plants, earthly elements and celestial beings.

Hamilton’s latest public art commission All Our Relations rises from the freshly paved James Street Plaza in a space that is still in the process of becoming its future self. Unveiled with great ceremony on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, it exists for now behind construction fencing, caught between the concrete flow of James Street to the south and manufactured shorelines to the north while the transformation of its West Harbour site remains ongoing.

Built from cold steel and shining glass, there is an undeniable tension between this towering beacon and the stories contained between its heavy uprights. Any public art commission is a choreography of many moving parts and All Our Relations is no exception. It is conceived by Cree/Métis fashion designer Angela DeMontigny, assembled from more than 8,000 glass spheres crafted by Paull Rodrigue, contained in a structure built by Lafontaine Iron Werks and came together through the coordination of Cobalt Connects and the City of Hamilton. 

All Our Relations, the five towering panels featuring intricate glass beads installed at Hamilton's West Harbour was conceived by Cree/Métis fashion designer Angela DeMontigny and assembled from more than 8,000 glass spheres crafted by Paull Rodrigue.
Photo: Peter Fonovic Jr.

The habits of public art have undoubtedly contributed to the heft and height of the steel frames that elevate the art far beyond human reach and render it untouchable, even aloof. It takes the luminous beauty of all that hand-blown glass and the intricate charms of DeMontigny’s designs to bring this monument back down to earth with the animals, trees, and healing plants. Together, DeMontigny and Rodrigue have evoked the Indigenous beadwork that would normally adorn items that get worn, cherished and passed down through the generations. In their interpretation, this intimate craft is amplified to a scale and spectacle that refuses to be ignored. 

Each of the five panels towering over this plaza in progress conveys its share of an expansive Indigenous worldview embodied in the living beings that make their home in this region: the medicine plants, the four-legged mammals, the beings of water and air that collectively comprise our delicate ecosystem. The panel closest to the water stands apart to elevate a rich tapestry of celestial beings and symbols essential to Indigenous thought and right relations: the Medicine Wheel, the Two Row Wampum and the Morning Star accompanied by Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon, all crowned by the Thunderbird, the sole figure in this assembly that breaks the frame of its panel to stretch its wings into the open sky.  

The beating heart of this work’s message is caught up in those interconnected chains of beads that spell out their characters like constellations. That these images claim the sky as their backdrop is no accident. Far more than the steel and concrete below, it is the ever-changing element of the open sky that completes the vision of All Our Relations. The climate impacts its character – the glass beads collect the gloom of a storm-filled sky and burst with sunlight on the brightest days. 

Like the beings it depicts, like every one of us, All Our Relations is part of an endless cycle of change still underway in its environment – one that urges us to navigate those changes in respectful relation with all who share this land.