Six months ago, seven Native artists six different Nations across Quebec were asked to create chess sets with a native theme. The end result is seven magnificent creations designed to bridge the gap between tradition, and modern day life.

The works were commissioned for a new and exciting exhibit in the visual arts category of the 13th Montreal First People’s Festival, running June 10-22.

“It’s the first time that we have an exhibition like this where we ask artists to respond to a specific project,” said Michel Cote, the Festival’s visual arts director.

Everyone, no matter what nationality or age, can appreciate a project like this. Although the festival is put on by Native people, 85 per cent of visitors are non-Aboriginal. This bodes well for the growth of the festival into more aspects which entice everyone, yet keep a uniquely native theme.

According to festival director Andre Dudemaine, “what we try to do is bring forward artists from the First Nations to express themselves in a modern form which can establish contact with the mainstream society and mainstream culture.”

The amount of preparation for a festival of this size is enormous. Certain venues must be booked at least a year in advance. Most of the content for this year’s festival has been figured out in January.

Some of the artists, like Steve McComber, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, finished their pieces just days before the exhibit opened. He’s not necessarily looking to win. “I don’t really care about the competition, I just wanted to concentrate on making the work, and what I wanted it to represent.”

McComber’s interpretation of chess pits the main characters in the Six Nations Iroquois confederacy against those of natives from the west coast.

Grandmother moon is the queen, with the great tree of peace being the rook. The Mohawk warrior stands as the brave knight.

McComber is a self-taught artist who has been carving for over 35 years. He also does traditional dancing at different pow wows around the country.

“You learn by trial and error,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of cuts and scars on my hands from teaching myself. You just have to persevere. You want to do stuff you’re pleased about, and forget about pleasing other people. If you make something that you really feel you want to do and it shows in the work, then those are the pieces people want to purchase because it has a feeling.”

Christine Sioui, an Abenaki from Odanak and a festival volunteer, also has her own chess set in the competition. Sioui says the festival is “an opportunity for native artists to make themselves known and explore new avenues like the chess games. And for the singers and the young to have somewhere that belongs to them so they can go further with their art, whether it be singing, dancing, or whatever they choose.”

Other artists include Allan Grégoire (Naskapi), Tom Bulowski (Algonquin), Jacques Newashish (Atikamekw), Aaron York (Abenaki), and Jean Pierre Fontaine (Innu).

Award-winning filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has an exhibition of her prints in this year’s festival. She says she’s in awe of the chess exhibit.

“I think it’s wonderful, it’s fascinating in terms of how they express the game, it really comes from the culture of the person who did it and it tells a story. I’m very impressed. Each one is different and they’ve taken different angles in terms of what it’s about, and the teaching of it.”

Judging for this exhibition will take place on June 26th. The first place winner will take home $1000, second place, $600, and third place, $400.

The rest of the festival takes place at different venues in and around Montreal.