Bangishimo Johnston is sitting in front of two photographs they took.



Bangishimo Johnston, local photographer and activist, opened their exhibit, The Medicines We Carry, at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG) on Feb. 9, 2024. The exhibit is a series of seven portraits of local Black, Indigenous and racialized community members across all ages.

The exhibit also showcased the props used in the portraits. In this exhibit, Johnston explored a connection to seven medicines: birchbark, cedar, sage, strawberries, sweetgrass, sunflowers and tobacco. They challenged colonial legacies in photography and focus on futures for Black, Indigenous and racialized people with an emphasis on the relationships between people and land.

“Literally three generations ago, we were living in a wigwam on land. So, when we talk about Indigenous history, and it’s not that long ago… So, I grew up hearing a lot of these stories about my mom living off the land…” Johnston said.

In the portrait of their mother, Lila Bruyere, called “She Returns to her Rightful Place,” Johnston has her decked royally in a crown and carrying a bouquet of sage out on the land. This image was inspired by another image of her as a girl in a field.

“When I saw this picture, I was thought of this little girl that was taken off the land…I wanted to get her back where she belongs,” they said.

The colour scheme for Bruyere’s portrait was purple and all the portraits had their own colour scheme, as well as a different facial expression. All portraits were arranged around a circle of stones placed in the centre of the room. The stones were taken from the sacred fire space which was vandalized at the Land Back Camp.

Five of the portraits were hung on black walls, but the farthest wall was red to symbolize Indigenous presence in colonial spaces such as art galleries.

“[We wanted] to let the viewer know that I am placing these Indigenous peoples in this colonial space,” Johnston said.

“Where the white gaze—they want to see us traumatic, they want to see us crying, you know, our hurts our pain, but…placing us as these powerful individuals, beautiful people in these portraits—we’re retaining that space,” they said.

Benny Skinner is a Two-Spirit University of Waterloo alumnus and former varsity rugby player and coach. They were the first openly transgender athlete playing on the varsity level at the University of Waterloo. Skinner was photographed with strawberries, which are traditionally women’s medicine.

“I often present very masculine, but the strawberry is woman’s medicine and Bangishimo intentionally asked me to model that medicine as a kind of Two Spirit resistance and also to spirit [and] joy,” Skinner said.

“Being able to sit in your feminine energy as a masculine trans person is really, really difficult when you are exposed constantly to the colonial gender binary. And so Bangishimo…gifted me with this opportunity to really embrace my feminine energy,” they said.


The Medicines We Carry will be on display at KWAG until May 12, 2024. The exhibit includes portraits of Benny Skinner, Skye Smoke, Brittney Baldwin, Lila Bruyere, Dani Atkins-Byard and Maddie Resmer. It was curated by Fitsum Areguy and Shalaka Jadhav and supported by Erik O’Neill, Connie Roy, Conan Stark, AnnMarie Beals, Phi Doan, 44 Gaukel, Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Gallery, Region of Waterloo Arts Fund and Waterloo Region Community Foundation.