“CANADIAN AND INDIGENOUS ART: 1968 TO PRESENT”
NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA, OTTAWA
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