Matt Cardinal and AJA Louden build community through art, language and plants
By Michelle Schultz | June 17, 2023
Matt Cardinal remembers the moment at iHuman at age 13, when AJA Louden walked in with a yellow milk crate full of spray paint and said to him “Yo, whattup man?” Louden, a well-known and respected Edmonton muralist and artist, regularly did demos at iHuman, an organization that supports marginalized youth.
The two have known each other for 14 years, now.
Cardinal is an emerging Indigenous artist from John D’Or Prairie who has learned primarily from the communities around him. He was an artist at iHuman from age 13 to 24, where Carla Rae Taylor, the art coordinator in the studio at the time, handed him his first paint brush. Louden continues as an artist committed to challenging the negative perceptions of street-based art, and making art accessible and relatable.
Over the past seven years, they have worked on a number of projects together, including four large-scale works for Paint the Rails, a partnership between the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights and Edmonton Transit Service, with Louden as the mentor and Cardinal as a mentee.
Louden and Cardinal take a different view of mentorship. They stress the importance of mutual value — not simply a dynamic for teaching and learning, but an opportunity to connect, collaborate and build community.
When I visit Cardinal and Louden, they are in full production mode for their latest project. Working out of Louden’s studio in the interdisciplinary co-work space, Timbre, they’re deburring and painting the base coats of the 10 metal panels. When finished, they will be installed on the side of a privately owned building on the East edge of Beaver Hills House Park, a modest, hilly green space on the corner of Jasper Avenue and 105th Street.
The park is a site used by a diverse population: business people walking to work, downtown residents waiting for the bus, visitors staying in nearby hotels and perhaps what the park has become most strongly associated with, an unhoused community who spend a great deal of time there.
To create a welcoming place, Louden and Cardinal’s project will use Cree syllabics, the language of graffiti and plants from various cultures.
This is not the first time that the Cree language has been featured in the park. Destiny Swiderski’s public art commission, “AmiskwacÎw Wâskâyhkan Ihtâwin,” uses Bohemian Waxwings to connect Michael Phair Park and Beaver Hills House Park, prioritizing Cree syllabics and language. In the summer of 2021, artists Carol Powder and Cikwes filled the park with the sound of Cree language through their song, “Kisemanito,” as part of a project curated by Cheyenne Rain LeGrande. The importance of this was stressed in Cheyenne’s curatorial statement: “Visibility is powerful and to have the living languages which come from this land be seen in the midst of an urban environment speaks to the resilience and the survival of our people and languages.”
For Cardinal, using syllabics is a way to keep Indigenous languages alive, and to make them visible, particularly for urban Indigenous populations who may be disconnected from traditional languages. For this project, he wanted a Cree word that reflected a mixing of people; through research and consultation he was given the word mâmawinitowin by elder and knowledge keeper Dorothy Thunder, a Cree instructor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. The word translates as “a gathering of people,” identifying the park as a space for everyone.
When Enoch Attey, the former music director at iHuman, offered to commission a work of art from Cardinal, he realized that this was something that could be financially viable, as well as a passion. For Louden, meeting EnMasse Founder Jason Botkin helped him see a career path as an artist.
In mâmawinitowin, Cardinal and Louden wanted to reference their shared roots in graffiti style through a bold use of colour. The hyper-saturated pigments reference the graffiti tradition of creating a “burner” — something that is so visually intense that it appears to burn off the wall. In the cold and dark months of our city’s winter, when the existing trees shed their leaves and the grass is covered with a blanket of snow, the work will breathe life and colour into the park through the 14 plants represented within the syllabics.
The plants reference medicine and healing, with the goal of creating a work where those who gather in the park can see themselves reflected. As Louden explains, “We wanted to include plants that were connected to both of our heritages. We chose some Cree medicine, so sweetgrass, rat root and sage are in there. Then part of my heritage is from Jamaica, so we put aloe vera in there. My dad gave me an aloe vera plant when I was a kid that was always in my room. With that plant, if you ever get a cut or a nick, you can break off one of the leaves and the gel in there will heal it.”
The work also depicts Ukraine’s national flower, the sunflower, a symbol of peace and resistance that was used after the Chernobyl disaster to extract toxins from the soils, and the goji berry, a traditional Chinese medicine that grows wild and in gardens throughout Edmonton. There are also moon orchid, lotus, coffee and birds of paradise.
Using plants to symbolize the many people who gather — and have gathered — in this place connects back to visibility and resilience. Through personal connection and collaboration, Cardinal and Louden ask us to think about the history of place and of the people whose lands on which we gather. They ask us to consider how we build community collectively and to consider what it means to rest somewhere and call it home.
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Edify