How Indigenous and Catholic art came together in a BC artist’s unique robes for Pope Francis

When Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday, he will unveil unique liturgical vestments in a design that combines Catholic and Indigenous artistic traditions.

Julia Kozak, a visual artist and traditional powwow dancer from the Nisga’a nation of northwestern British Columbia, has been working on the drapery design for several weeks.

Kozak and her husband, members of the organizing team for the Pope’s visit, spoke to the media Thursday in the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton.

They didn’t reveal the final design for the robes the Pope will wear – they’re still under wraps – but Kozak showed off another of their creations, a bright red powwow shawl.

“Archbishop [Richard] Smith…had a few ideas that he suggested, and he said that was something he’d like to see, those kinds of elements in it, and [asked] if these can be incorporated,” said Kozak.

“Some of the elements that I was trying to incorporate and what I hope people will see from this design, [are] go back in time and how we treated people and how people were treated.”

Visual storytelling and beads

The storytelling component of the design is important, she said. The storytelling tradition of the Nisga’a nation stretches back thousands of years, with most of it transmitted orally or visually.

Kozak drew from these traditions, selecting specific shapes, lines and curves and combining them with Catholic symbolism.

One of the design elements is an image of the cross from which water flows. Specifically requested by Archbishop Smith, it symbolizes renewal and transformation through baptism.

Kozak said her biggest challenge in designing the robes was finding ways to incorporate the many ideas that came to her and learning how to cut the material into specific shapes to ensure the design had an artistic feel flow has. She worked with the help of a seamstress.

Her design also features pearls, including some inherited from her mother, grandmother and mother-in-law.

“As I work on the beadwork and sew things on, I take great care to keep thoughts in my mind for prayers of blessings for people and prayers for hope and prayers for healing,” she said.

Kozak shows the back of a powwow scarf she designed. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC)

Kozak’s design made a lasting impression on her husband.

“When I first saw my wife’s design for these papal robes, I clearly saw worlds come together – things based on the iconography and symbolism of indigenous cultures, particularly the Nisga’a nation and the West Coast people of these countries, and traditional Catholic symbology,” said Adam Kozak.

He believes the robes and their visual storytelling will also appeal to non-Indigenous people and help them see past injustices.

Thousands of other Indigenous artists in Canada produce works in the same tradition, he noted. “As a healing country, there are so many voices in this conversation.”

Julia Kozak said she would like to do more artistic projects of this kind.

“I felt very, very inspired,” she said. “And there are new avenues, new things to try and new things to work on. I’m looking forward to taking my time and taking my time to sit down and work on things and really intentionally work on more projects.”

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