Two na­tional in­sti­tu­tions are trans­form­ing the way au­di­ences view art made by Indige­nous Cana­di­ans

Ottawa Magazine - - NEWS - BY PETER ROBB

Two na­tional in­sti­tu­tions are trans­form­ing the way au­di­ences view art made by Indige­nous Cana­di­ans

For Sarah Gar­ton Stan­ley, the no­tion of an Indige­nous theatre de­part­ment at the Na­tional Arts Cen­tre be­came clear at a gath­er­ing on Man­i­toulin Is­land in the early spring of 2015. The as­so­ciate artis­tic di­rec­tor of English Theatre at the NAC had al­ready spent a year col­lab­o­rat­ing with Indige­nous per­form­ers and in­dus­try lead­ers from across the coun­try, all with an aim to ques­tion the sta­tus quo, to change the way Indige­nous theatre is pre­sented. The cul­mi­na­tion, which took place at the De­ba­jehmu­jig Creation Cen­tre on Man­i­toulin Is­land and in­cluded 10 days of in­ten­sive work­shops, fin­ished with per­for­mances by over 100 artists. That’s when Stan­ley started to see the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Indige­nous theatre and the NAC in a new light.

As Indige­nous per­form­ers told sto­ries around a fire, Stan­ley be­gan to re­al­ize that more Indige­nous work on NAC stages called for some­thing big­ger than her de­part­ment could do.

“It’s not that English Theatre should be pro­gram­ming more Indige­nous theatre,” Stan­ley says. Rather, she ex­plains, Indige­nous artists need to feel au­ton­o­mous to cre­ate in a way that was all theirs.

“It took me a lit­tle while to crys­tal­lize the idea [of an Indige­nous theatre de­part­ment]. But as soon as it was out there, Peter Her­rn­dorf [CEO of the NAC] said, ‘This is late, this is what we should be do­ing, let’s do it.’ ”

That idea has blos­somed, and the coun­try’s na­tional per­form­ing arts space has be­gun a job search to pick the first artis­tic di­rec­tor of the new de­part­ment — which will have a bud­get of $3 mil­lion, on par with the English and French theatre de­part­ments — by this June.

The Na­tional Gallery of Canada is chang­ing the way it presents Indige­nous art too. In June, it will un­veil ren­o­vated gal­leries fea­tur­ing more than 1,000 works — the largest ever dis­play Cana­dian art. The

new spaces will be ded­i­cated to art made in this coun­try for hun­dreds of years up to and in­clud­ing 1967. There will also be a spe­cial dou­ble gallery greet­ing vis­i­tors to the new Cana­dian and Indige­nous Gal­leries, which will fea­ture Indige­nous art, both his­toric and con­tem­po­rary.

“It is time for us to com­mit to telling th­ese two sto­ries in a co­gent way at the same time. [They] don’t make sense in iso­la­tion,” says gallery di­rec­tor Marc Mayer.

Why now? Many point to the re­port of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, which came out in 2015, and its rec­om­men­da­tions, which call for a re­dress­ing of the na­tion’s re­la­tion­ship with Indige­nous peo­ples. The sesqui­cen­ten­nial adds some mo­men­tum as well.

“I think most Cana­di­ans are re­ally grap­pling with the his­tory of cul­tural geno­cide as it’s be­ing re­told and re­dis­cov­ered,” says Stan­ley, who has be­come the NAC’s point per­son on Indige­nous mat­ters. She says the sto­ries that have ex­isted in Indige­nous cul­ture — whether about res­i­den­tial schools or some­thing more pos­i­tive — are part of our his­tory as Cana­di­ans, but they have al­ways been pre­sented as sep­a­rate. “We all have to come to­gether to share this his­tory,” Stan­ley says.

For the past few years, Stan­ley has worked closely with Corey Payette, a Van­cou­ver-based theatre artist of OjiCree her­itage. The two first met through North­ern Scene in 2013; since then, Payette has been in­volved with the many work­shops, re­ports, per­for­mances, and ex­per­i­ments that went into the de­ci­sion to cre­ate a de­part­ment of Indige­nous theatre at the NAC. His mu­si­cal Chil­dren of God, about res­i­den­tial schools, plays June 7 to 18 at the NAC.

“It is im­por­tant to have Indige­nous theatre at the NAC, be­cause it con­nects the Cana­dian iden­tity to Indige­nous cul­ture,” says Payette. “Who we are, as Cana­di­ans, is based on the land of Indige­nous peo­ples, and we must ac­knowl­edge their his­to­ries and cul­tures.” For Payette, the creation of an Indige­nous theatre de­part­ment is a sign that Canada is mov­ing in a di­rec­tion that is more in­clu­sive to Indige­nous cul­tures. “[It] al­lows us to feel rep­re­sented at the foun­da­tion of this coun­try.”

Ac­cord­ing to the job post­ing, the first artis­tic di­rec­tor will be of Indige­nous her­itage — First Na­tions, Inuit, or Métis — and from Canada. But the di­rec­tor doesn’t have to be strictly a theatre per­son, Payette says. “The artis­tic di­rec­tor should be of Indige­nous her­itage, but their prac­tice can be in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary — any­thing from mu­sic, theatre, dance, and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. It is very ex­cit­ing to imag­ine.”

Indige­nous theatre in Canada, which has been evolv­ing steadily since the 1980s, of­ten does not re­sem­ble Shake­speare or Shaw. When the cur­tain rises for the first per­for­mance of the NAC’s new de­part­ment in the fall of 2019, au­di­ences might be sur­prised.

“It’s not a for-sure that Indige­nous theatre will look like French or English theatre. Where it may per­form, how it will be per­formed, could be tied to rit­ual and cer­e­mony — those are ex­cit­ing things to con­sider. But it’s all up to the first artis­tic di­rec­tor to de­cide,” Stan­ley says.

Peo­ple will no doubt be watch­ing the new de­part­ment closely — and judg­ing it. Stan­ley urges au­di­ences to give it time and sup­port.

The Na­tional Gallery is also look­ing at the big pic­ture. The in­te­gra­tion of cul­tures is re­ally only the be­gin­ning; Mayer ex­pects the work will con­tinue for years.

Next steps, Mayer says, in­clude build­ing a more sub­stan­tial col­lec­tion of his­toric works and ap­point­ing a cu­ra­tor for the grow­ing col­lec­tion. (Right now, if the gallery dis­plays some­thing, it’s likely bor­rowed.)

When Indige­nous art takes its place in the ren­o­vated space, it will sig­nal a new frame of mind at the gallery.

The tra­di­tional view of vis­ual art as paint­ing and sculp­ture does not con­sider bead­work, say, or blan­kets made by Indige­nous peo­ple. The new galler-

ies will in­clude ex­cep­tional ex­am­ples of Indige­nous art that have tra­di­tion­ally been de­scribed as hand­i­crafts. And if th­ese be­long in an art gallery, so does em­broi­dery, quilts, wood­works, and ce­ram­ics made by other peo­ple.

“The Na­tional Gallery has to get be­yond the old 19th-cen­tury tax­o­nomic cat­e­go­riza­tion of art,” Mayer says. “We are look­ing again at the his­tor­i­cal artis­tic crafts of set­tler women to see what should be con­sid­ered for dis­play in the Na­tional Gallery. For ex­am­ple, we will be­gin the story of Euro­pean art in Canada with a spec­tac­u­lar em­broi­dery made here by a nun in the sec­ond half of the 1600s.”

Car­leton Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Ruth Phillips is a lead­ing ex­pert on Indige­nous art; an art his­to­rian, she has spent 30 years in the field.

“I have never seen a mo­ment like we are in right now. My con­cern is: are we go­ing to stick with it this time? I haven’t got a crys­tal ball, but I think the signs are bet­ter.”

Those signs in­clude build­ing their Indige­nous art col­lec­tion, as well as es­tab­lish­ing an Indige­nous art cu­ra­tor­ship and hir­ing Greg Hill, who is of Mo­hawk her­itage, as the first such cu­ra­tor in 2007. Phillips also notes the broad con­sul­ta­tion with ex­perts in the field — in­clud­ing many Indige­nous peo­ple. Ul­ti­mately, she says, “Th­ese ini­tia­tives have built a mo­men­tum and an Indige­nous pres­ence in the gallery that will not eas­ily be re­versed.” Mayer is de­ter­mined to move for­ward. “I want Indige­nous Cana­di­ans to come here and be ex­tremely proud and to not have a sour note any­where.”

“We are not show­ing any­thing that the de­scen­dants of the mak­ers don’t want us to show,” Mayer says. “We have Indige­nous peo­ple who work at the gallery who are mak­ing sure we don’t do any­thing stupid.” In ad­di­tion to Hill, who re­mains the cu­ra­tor of Indige­nous art, the gallery con­sulted with Indige­nous ex­perts from out­side the re­gion.

At the NAC, the ex­cite­ment sur­round­ing the new de­part­ment is pal­pa­ble. Stan­ley has been steeped in the de­vel­op­ment of Indige­nous theatre for over three years now, and her en­ergy for the move­ment is in­fec­tious.

“In th­ese shift­ing times, the sto­ries and skills and in­no­va­tions of Indige­nous peo­ples are a bea­con,” says Stan­ley.

Mov­ing mu­si­cal The above im­age pro­motes Corey Payette’s play Chil­dren of God. Payette has been heav­ily in­volved with the de­vel­op­ment of an Indige­nous theatre de­part­ment at the NAC

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