Inuit Art Quarterly - - PROFILE -

Heather Camp­bell

was Cu­ra­to­rial As­sis­tant in the In­dige­nous Art Depart­ment at the Na­tional Gallery of Canada (NGC) at the time of this in­ter­view. Pre­vi­ously, she held a cu­ra­to­rial po­si­tion with the Inuit Art Cen­tre at Abo­rig­i­nal Af­fairs and North­ern De­vel­op­ment Canada (now the In­dige­nous Art Cen­tre at In­dige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs Canada [INAC]) and has been ac­tive on the boards of var­i­ous artist-run cen­tres in the Ot­tawa area. In ad­di­tion to her cu­ra­to­rial and arts ad­min­is­tra­tion work, Camp­bell is an ac­tively prac­tic­ing artist.

Heather Iglo­liorte,

Canada’s first Inuk to hold a doc­tor­ate in Art His­tory, is a Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­sity Re­search Chair in In­dige­nous Art His­tory and Com­mu­nity En­gage­ment and an in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor. Re­cent ma­jor projects in­clude the cre­ation of the first na­tion­ally tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary Nu­natsi­avut art, SakKi­jâjuk, and the re­in­stal­la­tion of the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of Inuit art at the Musée na­tional des beaux-arts du Québec.

Jo­ce­lyn Pi­irainen

is an emerg­ing cu­ra­tor with a grow­ing in­ter­est in con­tem­po­rary In­dige­nous art. Pi­irainen re­cently par­tic­i­pated in the 2016 Asin­abka Film & Me­dia Arts Fes­ti­val and SAW Gallery’s in­au­gu­ral In­dige­nous Cu­ra­to­rial In­cu­ba­tor pro­gram. Her re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion Neon NDN (2016) at SAW Gallery show­cased In­dige­nous pop art. Heather Iglo­liorte: So Heather, you are work­ing at the Na­tional Gallery. What is your job there?

Heather Camp­bell: I am the Cu­ra­to­rial As­sis­tant with In­dige­nous Art. I’m there on a con­tract po­si­tion un­til the first week in April.

HI: How is that go­ing?

HC: It’s busy! I was there four years ago dur­ing Sakahàn: In­ter­na­tional In­dige­nous Art,but this is dif­fer­ent be­cause we’re re­in­stalling the Cana­dian and In­dige­nous Gal­leries—or as Greg [Hill, the NGC’s Au­dain Cu­ra­tor of In­dige­nous Art] likes to call them, the In­dige­nous and Cana­dian Gal­leries—and it’s a lot of work. But it’s in­ter­est­ing to see how they’re truly try­ing to in­cor­po­rate In­dige­nous art into the gal­leries and have a con­ver­sa­tion with the rest of the col­lec­tion.

HI: So what part is it that you are work­ing on?

HC: Mostly loans, be­cause the gallery doesn’t have an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of older [ar­ti­facts and works], so it’s try­ing to bor­row from a lot of other in­sti­tu­tions [and col­lec­tors] across Canada, the United States and Bri­tain.

HI: So it’s a cu­ra­to­rial po­si­tion with heavy ad­min­is­tra­tive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

HC: Ex­actly. Spread­sheets—very ex­cit­ing [laugh­ter]. HI: And what about you, Jo­ce­lyn, what are you work­ing on now?

Jo­ce­lyn Pi­irainen: There are a cou­ple of pro­pos­als [for fu­ture exhibition­s] that I’ve just fin­ished up, but I’ve mostly been work­ing for the Wa­bano Cen­tre for Abo­rig­i­nal Health and try­ing to work with the Cana­dian Film In­sti­tute, here in Ot­tawa, and some of the smaller film places here. I also love film and I do want to con­tinue cu­rat­ing too, but just try­ing to find that bal­ance, and, you know, I’m still learn­ing a lot.

HI: Your de­gree is in film stud­ies? I think you told me be­fore that you were re­ally in­ter­ested in cu­rat­ing me­dia art, try­ing to blend those two things to­gether.

JP: Yes, my de­gree is in film stud­ies. And def­i­nitely, from work­ing on Neon NDN, tak­ing that on and see­ing what other con­tem­po­rary In­dige­nous art is out there and what all th­ese dif­fer­ent emerg­ing artists are com­ing out with; it’s re­ally ex­cit­ing. And very dif­fer­ent too!

HI: How was it that you came to work on Neon NDN?

JP: It was hon­estly just luck [laugh­ter]. I was work­ing with the two guys that run the Asin­abka Film & Me­dia Arts Fes­ti­val, Chris Wong and Howard Adler. I had worked with them in the pre­vi­ous year for Asin­abka. They did a whole cu­ra­to­rial in­cu­ba­tor pro­gram, and they asked me to be their cu­ra­tor for the next year—

HI: To be in­cu­bated! JP: Pretty much!

HI: They insert you into this in­cu­ba­tor and you come out a fully formed cu­ra­tor on the other side [laugh­ter]. Was that funded by ei­ther the On­tario Arts Coun­cil or the Canada Coun­cil for the Arts?

JP: It was the On­tario Arts Coun­cil. And it was full-on. They had that idea of do­ing kind of pop art. They had been cul­ti­vat­ing that idea for a while, they just didn’t find the right mo­ment, and, again, it just kind of all fell into place, and I’m pretty happy about it.

HI: And what was your ex­pe­ri­ence like dur­ing the show?

SAW Gallery is not a mu­seum, they’re a dig­i­tal art space, so it sounds like a good first fit.

JP: Def­i­nitely. I re­ally loved their space. It was a small enough fit for our pur­poses, and it was a lot of fun to map out where the pieces would go. I think I had at least ten dif­fer­ent ideas as to where to put our work. But they were re­ally great and ac­com­mo­dat­ing in that space as well.

HI: Did you find that you had a lot of sup­port, or were you kind of fig­ur­ing it out as you went along?

JP: They were def­i­nitely sup­port­ive. They have al­ways been sup­port­ive be­fore as well, as an al­ter­na­tive space.

HI: I didn’t get to see it in per­son, but I read a cou­ple of re­views and the pic­tures looked amaz­ing. Heather, did you see it?

HC: No, I have no life now that I have a kid [laugh­ter]. Se­ri­ously though, even at the gallery I’m al­ways sit­ting at the com­puter. Half the time I don’t see what’s ac­tu­ally in the gal­leries! I’ve been down in the vaults twice, I think, since July.

HI: So what are you en­joy­ing work­ing on now at the NGC then?

HC: I think the ac­qui­si­tions part is the most fun. I’m hop­ing that I’ll be able to stay on a bit longer, so I can ac­tu­ally en­gage in those con­ver­sa­tions about what’s new and com­ing up and what they’re think­ing they might bring into the gallery to com­pli­ment what’s al­ready in the col­lec­tion. It’s kind of fun to see what’s com­ing up in the near fu­ture.

HI: I won­der if you’re the first Inuit em­ployee at the Na­tional Gallery.

HC: I don’t know! I was won­der­ing that my­self.

HI: You might be. I can’t think of any [oth­ers]. Cer­tainly you’ve got to be one of the only Inuit, if not the only.

HC: Geron­imo [Inu­tiq] was do­ing some­thing there last year; what was he do­ing?

HI: Oh yeah! Geron­imo was cat­a­logu­ing and ar­chiv­ing work for the Igloo­lik Isuma Video Ar­chive that [the gallery] ac­quired, do­ing the time cod­ing and so on. They have this mas­sive [col­lec­tion], in­clud­ing many of their VHS tapes and record­ings. It was a big job, and I think it was funded through Mo­bi­liz­ing Inuit Cul­tural Her­itage.1 And I think, Jo­ce­lyn, that you are only the sec­ond Inuk to ever have a cu­ra­to­rial res­i­dency, be­cause, I think, I was the first with De­col­o­nize Me at the Ot­tawa Art Gallery in 2011. JP: It’s re­ally sur­pris­ing. I don’t know why that is.

HI: I think there are dif­fer­ent fac­tors. I mean Heather was a cu­ra­tor [with the Inuit Art Cen­tre]. July Pa­p­at­sie was prob­a­bly the first, and then Barry [Pot­tle] was also a cu­ra­tor there briefly.

HC: Ac­tu­ally, at the cen­tre, just the struc­ture of it—they had one cu­ra­tor for the First Na­tions side of the In­dian and Inuit

Art Cen­tres, but they didn’t have an of­fi­cial cu­ra­tor for the Inuit side. So I was tech­ni­cally a cu­ra­to­rial as­sis­tant, even though I of­ten did the work of a cu­ra­tor. That’s how I ended up go­ing to that Abo­rig­i­nal Cu­ra­to­rial Col­lec­tive meet­ing.2

HI: What year was that? When were you there?

HC: I was there from 1999 to 2005.

HI: I think that’s how we first met, right? I was a grad stu­dent at Car­leton and I came to do re­search, and you helped me find some stuff in the ar­chive. Does that sound fa­mil­iar?

HC: Prob­a­bly! Oh, yeah [laugh­ter]. HI: How was it, cu­rat­ing at INAC?

HC: I think I was re­ally lucky that they gave me a lot of lee­way. My own in­ter­est then, and now as well, is art ther­apy. I have al­ways been re­ally in­ter­ested in that idea. Some artists would tell me it was al­most a spir­i­tual thing, that there was a med­i­ta­tive as­pect to Inuit art. And that was some­thing I have al­ways grav­i­tated to­wards, try­ing to see what those ties are. We all know that there are a lot of is­sues back home and up North, but there’s this idea that art is some­thing more than just “mak­ing”, that there’s more im­por­tance there than we re­al­ize.

HI: That was 12 years ago. So now there’s at least three of us! Why do you think there are so few of us when, if you look over the last 20 years, there has been such an in­crease in the num­ber of First Na­tions and Métis cu­ra­tors, art his­to­ri­ans [and] mu­seum staff, [and] even though we have as many, if not more, artists per capita?

HC: Well you have to be com­fort­able in an ur­ban cen­tre—to re­ally be able to ad­just to and work in this en­vi­ron­ment. Even for me, it wasn’t some­thing that I thought I was go­ing to do. I just ended up be­ing at the cen­tre and help­ing out with writ­ing and it sort of mor­phed. But I would con­sider my­self an artist first and ev­ery­thing else sec­ond. And then it’s nerve-wrack­ing when you have to talk about some­one else’s work and you’re read­ing things into it. It’s al­ways a tricky thing to talk about some­one else’s work.

HI: I think that’s true. One ma­jor bar­rier is a lack of ac­cess to places that you could even go and work or train or study.

JP: I’m find­ing that [hav­ing an] art his­tory back­ground def­i­nitely is one of the fac­tors that can be an is­sue for young cu­ra­tors. Even though I don’t re­ally have an art his­tory back­ground ei­ther, a lit­tle art his­tory back­ground re­ally does help. Even [for me], try­ing to learn all th­ese dif­fer­ent medi­ums and who came from where, it def­i­nitely helps.

HI: It’s a big part of it, right? And if you don’t live some­where where you can go to art school—

JP: If you don’t have that lan­guage—that knowl­edge of lan­guage—when writ­ing a cu­ra­to­rial state­ment, it can be a lit­tle dif­fi­cult.

HI: It’s like grant writ­ing! Grant writ­ing is its own par­tic­u­lar style of writ­ing, its own spe­cial kind of lit­er­acy. If you don’t know how to write for an art au­di­ence or for cat­a­logues that’s a huge bar­rier. I think you can get re­ally in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tives when peo­ple are not writ­ing out of an art his­tor­i­cal train­ing, but it is a chal­lenge.

JP: I feel like that is what a lot of mu­se­ums and in­sti­tu­tions are look­ing for—that back­ground.

HI: Ex­actly, they want to see let­ters af­ter your name or lines on a CV. It’s hard to break into this when there’s nowhere in the North to get your foot in the door—there are so few col­leges or cul­tural cen­tres where Inuit could even get an en­try level po­si­tion. I think the other part of it is that the art mu­seum/ aca­demic world doesn’t un­der­stand what life is like in the

North, or what life is like for Inuit who live in the South and how Inuit cul­ture is dif­fer­ent, how Inuit think a lit­tle dif­fer­ently than south­ern Cana­di­ans.

But that could ac­tu­ally be a ben­e­fit; it doesn’t have to be a bar­rier. We could see a whole new ap­proach to cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice emerge that we haven’t seen yet, be­cause there’s this whole world of Inuit who don’t think like other artists or cu­ra­tors. I think it would be great to have more Inuit cu­ra­tors be­cause, to date, most exhibition­s have been pro­duced by qal­lu­naat [non-Inuit], and it would be re­ally good to have more bal­ance in our field. Some­times, I feel like my job is just fill­ing in gaps, writ­ing sur­vey texts or pro­vid­ing over­views, and I’m bored of that kind of work. I want to do new, crit­i­cal work—work that emerges from Inuit knowl­edge and per­spec­tives. I don’t get to talk to peo­ple like you very of­ten and talk about things that are re­ally Inuit-spe­cific. Most of my col­leagues are First Na­tions or Métis or qal­lu­naat, so I can’t re­ally dig in and say, “What is an Inuit way to be a cu­ra­tor?” I can sort of write about it my­self, and read and talk to el­ders and de­velop a phi­los­o­phy, but I re­ally wish I had more Inuit col­leagues to bounce ideas off.

HC: I know what you mean, be­cause you’re al­ways bridg­ing a gap as the only Inuk in the room. I have a BFA, and some­times at the NGC I won­der, “What am I do­ing here?” I also did the [Inuit Art Foun­da­tion]’s CITP [Cul­tural In­dus­tries Train­ing Pro­gram]. We went to Car­leton, where Mau­reen Flynn-Burhoe taught us Inuit art his­tory. That was the first time I had re­ally had ex­po­sure be­yond Inuit Art Quar­terly. So now I feel like

I’m at this cross­roads where I’m ask­ing, do I pur­sue cu­rat­ing? And what else do I need to do to re­ally be at that level?

HI: I still find that there are panels and dis­cus­sions on Inuit art that you see ad­ver­tised and there’s no Inuit. You could never do that with First Na­tions or Métis artists—have a con­ver­sa­tion about First Na­tions artists and not have First Na­tions peo­ple speak­ing about the art. But be­cause of the ex­pense of trav­el­ling peo­ple, or what­ever the rea­son is, they do it with Inuit art.

Which is mind-bog­gling to me. But there’s not enough peo­ple to cri­tique it.

HC: I also think with First Na­tions and Métis artists, they’re [per­ceived of as en­gag­ing with more] con­cep­tual art and so much of Inuit art is still [seen as] very “tra­di­tional”. In the past, in­sti­tu­tions have leaned to­wards very cul­tur­ally fo­cused [pre­sen­ta­tions], in­stead of maybe high­light­ing the more con­cep­tual as­pects of it.

HI: I some­times won­der if the rea­son [for that] is be­cause the cu­ra­tors don’t ex­pect it or en­cour­age it, or be­cause the mar­ket is so dom­i­nant that it doesn’t cre­ate the kind of con­di­tions that would en­cour­age the de­vel­op­ment of more con­cep­tual art. I think that it’s at least partly be­cause Inuit artists are not par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pub­lic fund­ing sys­tem in the same way that First Na­tions, Métis and other Cana­dian artists are. I think you’re right, it leads to th­ese two dif­fer­ent kinds of pro­duc­tion.

So Jo­ce­lyn, what’s next for you? Did you say you just put some ap­pli­ca­tions in?

JP: I ap­plied for a con­tract cu­ra­to­rial po­si­tion. It was kind of a last-minute thing, but I de­cided to do it any­ways. A learn­ing curve that I’m still try­ing to get the hang of is pro­posal writ­ing. Just kind of com­ing up with those ideas and do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent and new.

HI: Like, what is a dif­fer­ent way of cu­rat­ing new Inuit art? What is new Inuit art?

JP: Ex­actly, that whole idea.

HI: Well, I am so grate­ful to you both for meet­ing with me to dis­cuss our ex­pe­ri­ences as cu­ra­tors, and I am so glad to see our num­bers grow­ing! As my friend Alethea [Ar­naquq-Baril] re­cently said in a Face­book post, we are at a point now where we need Inuit lead­er­ship, not just in pol­i­tics but in ev­ery area where Inuit are in­volved, and the arts are such a huge part of our com­mu­ni­ties and cul­ture, it is so great to see us be­gin­ning to grow and thrive.

This con­ver­sa­tion took place on Thurs­day, Fe­bru­ary 9, 2017, in Ot­tawa, ON. It has been edited and con­densed.


1 Mo­bi­liz­ing Inuit Cul­tural Her­itage: a multi-me­dia/multi-plat­form re-en­gage­ment

of voice in vis­ual art and per­for­mance is a York Uni­ver­sity-based So­cial Sciences and Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Coun­cil of Canada Part­ner­ship Grant led by Prin­ci­pal In­ves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Anna Hud­son.

2 In April 2005, the Abo­rig­i­nal cu­ra­to­rial com­mu­nity came to­gether to es­tab­lish them­selves as the Abo­rig­i­nal Cu­ra­to­rial Col­lec­tive / Col­lec­tif des com­mis­saires au­tochtones (ACC/CCA) to de­velop long-term strate­gic sup­port for the In­dige­nous cu­ra­to­rial com­mu­nity, hold­ing a roundtable dis­cus­sion in June 2005. ACC/CCA, About, ac­cessed April 5, 2017,­press/about/.

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