Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present
National Gallery of Canada
JUNE 15, 2017 – ONGOING OTTAWA, CANADA
I’m always a little nervous when visiting institutions like the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) to view survey exhibitions that include Indigenous art. I often find myself unsatisfied, and sometimes even enraged, by the way Indigenous works are presented in Canada’s major institutions. Contextualized with basic didactics that often avoid delving into complex subject matter, it would seem Indigenous artists are widely curated for non-Indigenous audiences. I was therefore pleasantly surprised with the thoughtful curation of Inuit work throughout the NGC’s rehang of their contemporary Canadian and Indigenous Art galleries. Still, I found myself, as I often do when looking at galleried collections of Inuit art, craving a new perspective that highlights the radically progressive vision of Inuit art that I know to be experimental, diverse and flourishing, a reimagined and non-reified Inuit art cannon complete with gender and sexual diversity. I found myself wondering, Why do we keep leaving Inuit art in the past, and what are the colonial implications of doing so? Many parts of the rehang provided challenging work and curation. Manasie Akpaliapik’s whalebone carving Untitled (1991), for instance, welcomes you in the first room of the show and draws a strong emotional response with its evocative portrayal of alcoholism. Akpaliapik’s sculpture illustrates the head of an Inuk disrupted by a bottle protruding from their skull with a hand raised to their exasperated face. The work is both confrontational, forcing viewers to consider complex and embodied colonial affect, and simultaneously considerate and empathetic to Inuit kin. In a similar vein, William Noah’s drawing Evil Shaman Giving Tuberculosis to Innocent Victim (c. 1970) depicts the onset of a foreign disease, brought to the North by colonizers, as an evil shaman. Indeed! I was excited to find the integration of the film Qaggiq (Gathering Place) (1989) by Zacharias Kunuk, OC, into a section comprised of media art. It was refreshing to see Kunuk’s work integrated in the rehang in such a way. Filmed inside an igloo, Kunuk’s video presents moments of intimacy, sharing and community care—even a rambunctious and light-hearted Iglulingmiut ritual of insult-hurling—that shines a light into the homes and hearts of Inuit, humanizing Inuit communities to an often otherwise voyeuristic, commodifying and at times fetishistic settler audience. Inuit women are also well represented in the rehang, exhibiting work from the Canadian women’s art movement— Elisapee Ishulutaq, CM, Pitseolak Ashoona, OC, RCA (c. 1904–1983), Helen Kalvak, CM (1901–1984), Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002), Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985) and Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, ON, RCA (1927–2013), to name a few— a refreshing approach, considering that the pervasive narrative of Canadian feminist art has long been predominated by white women. The curators have boldly recontextualized embodied feminist art, popularized in the 1970s and onwards, as
The curators have boldly recontextualized embodied feminist art, popularized in the 1970s and onwards. A lineage of Inuit womanism emerges, derived from the body and visualizing the beautiful present of Inuit women’s communities.
a space not solely for white women artists. A lineage of Inuit womanism emerges, derived from the body and visualizing the beautiful presence of Inuit women’s communities. Oviloo Tunnillie’s (1949–2014) serpentinite Skier (1993), with its sexy Lycra-clad thighs and buttocks, stood out for me—femme power, if you will. Inuit art has long been pushed to the margins of contemporary art—often presumed inherently non-contemporary because of the continued use of traditional artistic methods and materials or awkwardly integrated into larger Indigenous art canons. So, it was a welcome shift to see Inuit art curated with such thoughtfulness, prominence and reverence. While the rehang does have gaps—I would have liked to have seen more works in varying contemporary media— the show indicates a commitment to considering Inuit art as limitless, dynamic and very much a pronouncement of Inuit futures. It will be exciting to see the NGC’s presentation of Inuit art grow with this new vision.
Pitseolak Ashoona (c. 1904–1989 Kinngait) — OPPOSITE PAGE The Eyes of a Happy Woman c. 1974 Coloured felt-tip pen 66.2 × 51 cm PHOTOS NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA ARTWORK REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION DORSET FINE ARTS Oviloo Tunnillie (1949–2014 Kinngait) — RIGHT Skier 1993 Serpentinite 30 × 31 × 44 cm