Canadian Art - - Reviews - —WAHSONTIIO CROSS

The Na­tional Gallery of Canada’s re­cently re­in­stalled con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries open with Anishi­naabe artist Carl Beam’s The North Amer­i­can Ice­berg (1985). It’s a fit­ting nar­ra­tive start to a cu­ra­to­rial project (which in­cludes the par­al­lel ex­hi­bi­tion “Cana­dian and Indige­nous Art: From Time Im­memo­rial to 1967”) that aims to amend the his­tor­i­cal record on Cana­dian and Indige­nous art. Beam’s soar­ing mul­ti­me­dia work was, af­ter all, the first piece by a First Na­tions artist pur­chased by the NGC (in 1986) for their con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tion. The iconic work of­fers a pointed com­men­tary on the his­tory of colo­nial­ism in North Amer­ica—sys­tem­atic racism and dis­pos­ses­sion of Indige­nous lands—and it is how those events con­tinue to echo into the present that gives the work, and its place at the open­ing of this ex­hi­bi­tion, such a res­o­nant crit­i­cal charge.

Or­ga­nized the­mat­i­cally by medium and chronol­ogy, the re­in­stal­la­tion is filled with cor­re­la­tions and coun­ter­points. Betty Good­win’s heav­ily lay­ered Tar­pau­lin No. 3 (1975) hangs in one gallery op­po­site a colour­ful felt-ap­pliqué tex­tile from 1976 by Inuit artist Mar­ion Tuu’luq. Tuu’luq’s hu­man, an­i­mal and spirit fig­ures stand in stark con­trast to Good­win’s chalky-grey min­i­mal­ism—

rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent artis­tic tra­di­tions that cel­e­brate women’s roles in main­tain­ing the so­cial and cul­tural fab­ric through labour, teach­ing and creativ­ity. In a sun­lit atrium, Beam’s Voy­age (1988), a 1:5-scale model of Christo­pher Colum­bus’s ship the Santa María, lies im­mo­bile, its frame rem­i­nis­cent of sun-bleached whale bones. This uneasy feel­ing is echoed in the sec­ond-floor gal­leries, where Brian Jun­gen’s Vi­enna (2003) and Shapeshifter (2000), two whale skele­tons trans­formed from white plas­tic lawn chairs, are sus­pended life­lessly over­head. The scale and place­ment of th­ese pieces com­mand con­tem­pla­tion on en­dur­ing themes of ex­plo­ration and move­ment, ex­pan­sion and ex­tinc­tion.

One of the great­est mo­ments in the ex­hi­bi­tion is its in­cor­po­ra­tion of Inuit art into a con­tem­po­rary con­text. Too of­ten in gal­leries, Inuit draw­ing and sculp­ture has been la­belled as ar­ti­fact rather than fine art, wrong­fully por­trayed as part of a static, un­touched cul­ture. For­merly housed on the NGC’S ground floor, con­tem­po­rary Inuit art now takes its right­ful place with the rest of the na­tional col­lec­tion. Michael Massie’s uni-tea (2000), a sil­ver-and-ebony teapot sculp­ture, com­bines im­agery of an ulu knife and a nar­whal tusk, in­cor­po­rat­ing Inuit and West­ern artis­tic in­flu­ences. A re­mark­able sculp­tural draw­ing from 2009 by Shuvinai Ashoona de­picts peo­ple hold­ing hands around its tri­an­gu­lar sur­face, cel­e­brat­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of the Kin­ngait Stu­dios. Dis­played along­side Ed Pien’s per­sonal draw­ings cre­ated daily from 1999 to 2010, and lay­ered ar­chi­tec­tural draw­ings by Ali­son Norlen, th­ese works show an in­ter­play of the in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of time across places and cul­tures, bring­ing about a sense of diver­sity as well as unity.

With­out prior knowl­edge of Indige­nous his­tory in Canada, some of the mes­sages in the ex­hi­bi­tion can get lost. Euro­pean ex­plo­ration and ex­pan­sion hap­pened at the ex­pense of Indige­nous peo­ples, and the ef­fects of colo­nial­ism con­tinue and need to be rec­ti­fied. The ex­hi­bi­tion is sub­ver­sively crit­i­cal, but the cri­tique needs to be more overt and unapolo­getic. Many of us in the Indige­nous arts com­mu­nity feel this re­think­ing of our na­tional col­lec­tion is long over­due. Only time will tell if this re-vi­sion­ing is not just part of a cel­e­bra­tory mo­ment, but rather a mile­stone on the long jour­ney to de­col­o­niza­tion.


Shuvinai Ashoona Un­ti­tled (50 Years Co-op) 2009 Coloured pen­cil and black felt pen on wove pa­per 1.58 m x 76.5 cm OP­PO­SITE: Carl Beam The North Amer­i­can Ice­berg 1985 Acrylic, photo-se­ri­o­graph and graphite on Plex­i­glas 2.13 x 3.74 m

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