Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101

Jane Ash Poitras2004

Royal Ontario Museum

Royal Ontario Museum
Toronto, Canada

Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101 (2003) Consecrated Medicine is the artist's investigation of traditional non-Western therapeutic practices in herbal medicine - the "secrets" of plants. Here, the artist recognizes not only the scientific importance of these plants but also their spiritual significance to her own and to other cultures. In those contexts, plants, flowers and herbs were classified as archeiropoietic, coming from heaven, that is, not made by human hands. The divine, or the sacred, is recognized within them and endows them with special purpose. This is knowledge that Native people once shared and which Poitras now hopes to reclaim.Poitras also addresses the fact that certain plants and herbs, which are beneficial in many circumstances, have had their true uses perverted through excess and ignorance. The artist has said "I am not able to heal every ailment of my audience, but I can heighten their awareness of Mother Earth's healing plants and to their maintenance of their own wellness." Poitras believes, as other First Nations people do, that plants talk to you and tell you how to use them. They can be a conduit to the Sacred. The philosophy of using similar shapes and colour of plants in relation to treating an organ is called the "doctrine of signatures" and is found in the traditional healing art of many cultures. This doctrine is a belief that a plant's physical appearance can reveal its therapeutic benefits. As well as listening to plants, First Nations people watched the animals around them. Often the animals would lead them to understand what the use of various plants was for. As the Europeans arrived and began the decimation of Native American culture - through destruction of people, animals, plants - knowledge was in jeopardy of being lost.This "lost knowledge" is almost something painfully ironic. These days, there is an incredible resurgence in interest in using "alternative" or nature remedies. The average drug store now carries almost as many herbal remedies as it does pharmaceuticals. Of course, most pharmaceuticals were based on or used distillation of natural materials. Yet, this knowledge that Native cultures possessed - that horseradish can be used to reduce the risk of breast cancer, that milk thistle is an antioxidant that protects the liver and that dandelion roots act as a blood purifier - was dismissed and almost obliterated by Western civilization which regarded it as the superstitions of ignorant savages.Poitras takes this prejudice head on - withering it with a profound and magnificent visual statement. Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101 is a mammoth triptych measuring 274.3cm high by 821.5cm wide. With an imposing blackboard painting on she immediately places us within a school environment. "Today's Lesson" has been set up. We are informed of the history of the red-topped mushroom and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and their medicinal uses. Some corrections have been made. There is an alphabet and translations of words between English and Ojibwe. Essentially, all of the tools necessary for understanding - letters, words language are present and available for use. Yet there is obviously a grave possibility of disparity in understanding between different cultures as well as individual experiences. As post-colonial analysis has proven, such disparity and misinterpretation causes devaluation on a racial scale. Such has happened with much of the traditional forms of knowledge pertaining to First Nations peoples.The work's poignancy rings true on two levels. The first is the personal experience of the artist herself. Her life in one sense is almost like a fairy tale itself in which love and talent triumph over adversity; something which is pervasively rich in symbolism rooted in truth. As a child of six her mother was taken away, suffering tuberculosis from which she eventually died; the little girl was left on her own. Fortunately an elderly German woman came upon this child, wandering hungry in the street, and took her home to raise her as her own. This woman, Marguerite Runck, was a devout Catholic who raised Jane in an atmosphere where she could learn about art, religion and metaphor. Yet part of her personal history, her Native background, was never given the chance to develop until she was in university and was reunited with her extended birth-family. This reunion and her exposure to her Cree heritage acted as the catalyst for Poitras's 25 years of devoted art-making. In Linked Histories: Recent Art by First Nations People Pamela McCallum describes the image of the blackboard itself, with its echoes of residential schools and forced learning imposed on Native children, as a disquieting symbol. It is also an imposing metaphor for non-Native children. It evokes the atmosphere of our early school years where children were inculcated with a sanitized history, one that was written by "the conquerors" and thus was suspect; except we didn't know that then. Specifically, Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101 refers to the "training" which Native children were given in residential skills. The "learned" how to peel potatoes as they weren't thought intelligent enough to learn anything else. The European settlers didn't understand so they didn't respect, the knowledge of the Native peoples. Juxtaposed with the academic environment that she has created, Poitras sets up the right side of the triptych with images of plants that have medicinal purposes. These plants were known to the Natives but not to the settlers. Between the two halves of the painting is a cabinet, succulently constructed in oak and cedar, and containing a selection of sacred herbs within its compartments. The meaning is clear. The inclusion of a photograph of a young Native man examingin an x-ray, indicates the synthesis of the two kinds of knowledge - and of successfully bringing the traditional into the realm of the modern. (Exhibit Text by Virginia Eichhorn)


  • Title: Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101
  • Creator: Jane Ash Poitras
  • Creator Lifespan: 1951
  • Creator Nationality: Cree
  • Creator Gender: Female
  • Creator Birth Place: Fort Chipeywan, Alberta, Canada
  • Date: 2004
  • Provenance: This acquisition was made possible with the generous support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust Fund.
  • Type: Mixed media installation (2 large panels, cabinet, desk)
  • Rights: Royal Ontario Museum
  • Medium: Canvas, wood, metal, oil and water base paints, graphite, charcoal, chalk, paper, black board slating ?, acrylic gel ?, plastic, glue, glass, gum balls, garlic, dried chillies, cedar branches, tobacco, Chiclets
  • Artist Biography: As one of Canada’s preeminent artists, Jane Ash Poitras is best known for her expressive mixed-media assemblages. Her works have explored the impact of colonialism, both past and present, as well as the political and spiritual strength of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas through juxtaposition of personal and historic imagery. Poitras is an erudite and scholarly woman having attained Bachelor Degrees in Science and Fine Arts, a Masters of Fine Arts, and two years of study in Pharmacology. These academic studies are rounded out through other equally important experiences. She meets regularly with Elders from many native communities to hear their stories and to learn from them. She travels often, allowing her to observe and partake in the rituals of various native cultures. By doing so, she brings a very humanist approach to her work. She isn’t just trying to give information – rather her work is about sharing knowledge. These paintings represent part of the artist’s ongoing investigation of traditional non-Western medicines and the ‘secrets’ of plants. These works incorporate knowledge that is taught and knowledge that is revealed, in combination with a powerful artistic vision.
  • Accession Number: 2008.114.4.1-4

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