Arranging Pretty: Piecing together frameworks for past and present pandemics

Commissioned for A Very Different World, curated by Ngahiraka Mason opening at Te Tuhi on 27 February.

These collages help me articulate my experience as a bioethicist who was invited to participate in a process of developing a critical care triage protocol for the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the perception among some that bioethicists are cold and detached, bioethics is an intimate phenomenon. Through hearing stories of this pandemic, I walked in my mind’s eye through a series of hallways, linking homes, hospitals and long-term care facilities. I continually contemplated the day-to-day lives of those impacted most by the clinical decisions that are shaped by bioethicists. The contemplation was relentless. I would not return to the comfort of my own home for days.    

Working on these collages brought me back to the here and now. I felt a surge of bodily memories of past pandemics experienced by my ancestors. I recollected stories my father told me. I had to be intellectually present as I pieced together my own protocol to make sense of the world around me. Most of the collages were inspired by images in the press. I continued to develop them by cutting and pasting in colonial history, patterns of epidemiology, and public health reports. I made meaning by disconnecting and reconnecting, arranging pretty, and fusing animal stories, in an attempt to make this pandemic livable, survivable.

Words by my great grandfather as quoted in As long as this land shall last.
Ventilator For Our Mother
Ventilator For Our Mother

Dr Nicole Redvers from Deninu K’ue First Nation shared that the lungs are a site of grieving. COVID-19 is an illness that incapacitates our lungs. Earth is literally grieving through our lungs. I try to comfort our mother by collaging a ventilator made of a tree trunk then I surround it with grass and flowers. 

His Last Day Here

During this pandemic, isolation protocols have often meant families do not get to say goodbye. ICU staff would step in and take on the role of family member. The dying patient is left to hold the hand of someone whose face they have never seen in its entirety. To cope with this tragedy of isolation, I re-imaged an intimate death shared between family members.

The Warning 

In my culture, we learn that wolves communicate very carefully. At times they howl to warn one another of danger. As a bioethicist assisting in developing COVID-19 protocols, I realized that there would be very little change in policy that would protect Indigenous populations, nor would their access to healthcare be improved. All I could do was howl a warning to isolate.

The background of this image is a Kokum scarf that I collaged. A Kokum scarf is a brightly colouredfloral handkerchief that is worn by grandmothers. It is an acknowledgment of matriarchal wisdom and intergenerational teachings.

The centres of the pink flowers are layered hearts. They represent layers and layers of ancestral love. I wear a Kokum scarf most days to remind myself that I am loved by past, present and future matriarchs. 

The sight/site of grieving

Lungs are a site of grieving. I honor the spirit of Bear with flowered lungs. I acknowledge the clinical journey of healthcare providers during this pandemic in this collage by representing them as Bear who teaches us about being alone. Even though Bear is not physically in isolation, his spirit is in isolation as he navigates this difficult time. Moral injury is so great that it can be necessary to detach and emotionally isolate to endure the rigors of clinical medicine during this pandemic. 

Lungs are a site of grieving

As I pieced these flowers together I offered a pray for healthcare providers. I asked Creator to encourage them to take good breaths to restore themselves as they watched those around them struggle to breathe.

Bear and Wolf 

The world was shocked by press images of mobile morgues during the first surge of the pandemic. Images of the refrigerated trucks, used for mass body storage,dehumanize the people who died of COVID-19. In this collage, I wanted to bring the focus back to the individual and honor the feelings of the family who had lost their loved one. People wince at the idea of a cute bear cub with a morgue tag on his toe. In contrast, the rows of bodies in refrigerator trucks dehumanize the victims of COVID-19 and the families who mourn them.

Discovering gratitude as the world falls around you…

In this collage we see hospital staff transporting a child to the morgue. I pieced this image together to remind myself to be grateful that, to date, this pandemic has (mostly) spared children.

Funeral for one

Deer is a generous animal, giving us everything for our survival. This image was inspired by my sweet friend who lost her brother during this pandemic. The forest with dry birch trees represents the wintery slumber and cold isolation of COVID-19.  The suppression of the ceremony of funeral amplifies the suffering of loss because family members are prevented from physically connecting in their collective grief and saying goodbye to their loved ones.

I spent a long time finding the right deer for this collage. I want to honour my friend’s stoicism. She is so strong, quiet and powerful. An elegant woman who always says the right thing in a soft voice.

The flowers for this collage came easily to me. Comforting the dead is intuitional.
The Isolation

Bear teaches us about the pleasure of being alone. However, this type of being alone is not voluntary. COVID-19 isolation centresin Northern Canada have left many of our Indigenous Elders traumatized, bringing back memories of childhood harms experienced in residential school.

The Distortions We Create 

This collage is a strange honor song to community members and the small group of allies struggling to evoke change in healthcare. While working as an Indigenous representative in this bioethics work, I questioned whether some things are always incompatible. Even with the best of intentions, when both parties come together with generosity and goodwill, what is born is deformed and not viable.

The fruits of our labour…
Photo by Sam Hartnett 

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