Whose ROM is it anyway?
ROM’s Anishinaabeg: Art & Power is a refreshing gesture toward reconciliation that reveals how long that road will be
New exhibit reconsiders role of museum in showcasing Indigenous artifacts,
At the Royal Ontario Museum’s brand new show, Anishinaabeg: Art & Power, the ceremonial dress of Sitting White Eagle, a prominent medicine man from the Saulteaux Anishinaabe, rests on mannequined limbs, preciously behind glass.
This, our western eyes would tell us, is nothing new. But there, right alongside it, is Sitting White Eagle himself, a ghostly image in black and white, rightsized at full height and wearing that very outfit somewhere out on the Saskatchewan plains before his death in 1930. It’s the first clue that Art & Power is, in fact, something new. Such intimate connections, historically, have been rarely made in such places as the ROM, which for most of its existence served the purpose of uncoupling such objects from the actual human beings who used them.
Such was the role of colonial institutions in our government’s broad project of erasure: Indigenous people — their practices, languages, art and culture — were to be seen as things of the past as we gradually wiped the slate clean of inconvenient notions of difference and belonging.
Well, enough of that, the ROM says, finally and at last, and Art & Power is its emblem and an outward signal that it understands its historic complicity in such things.
Josh Basseches, the ROM’s director, tacitly acknowledged as much, declaring at a private preview last week that the show “serves as a profound reminder for an institution such as ours” that the power to represent has sat alongside the power to exclude for far too long.
As partial remedy, Basseches announced that the museum had established a new position, the curator of Indigenous art and culture, that would be held by someone of native heritage “to ensure Indigenous perspectives are reflected in the galleries and throughout the museum.”
“We must seek out different voices to ensure stories are not told in isolation or from a single museum perspective,” he said, and the ROM was less interested in using its position to participate in the vital conversation about reconciliation now at the centre of our national agenda than “how to lead it.”
It was an extraordinary affirmation from a museum director: that the very infrastructure of the institution has been built for the wrong reasons and that it is committed to making it right. The museum’s opening gesture puts its money where its mouth is: Art & Power enlisted Indigenous artist Saul Williams, one of the founders of the Woodland School alongside Norval Morrisseau and Alan Corbiere, an Indigenous historian and curator, to guide it step by step.
They worked alongside ROM curator Arni Brownstone, but I think it’s fair to say the show very much belongs to Williams and Corbiere. Everything about it subtly digs at convention: the room is haunting and low-lit, with objects radiating in an arc around a central vitrine, mingling ancient and contemporary. Wall texts are not coolly detached informational blurbs, but stories, often personal, and rooted in experience, not academics.
The perimeter is lined with Woodland School paintings by the likes of Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy and Williams, with the occasional pop of contemporary art (Nadia Myre’s Meditations on Red #2).
Their arrangement, not along geographic or chronological lines — headings like “Hurt,” “Dance,” “Spirit” and “Transformation” inform the groupings, each paired with an ancient pictograph — is a declaration by Williams and Corbiere: that these are our stories, told our way.
In a room of largely very old things, it seems fresh and, critically, very much alive.
For too long, museum projects to cast Indigenous culture as an historical relic denied its very real struggle to survive.
Here, the curators weave that resistance narrative tightly into those objects. The extraordinary beauty of historical pieces of bead and quillwork address, not ignore, the core conflict of us and them.
Similarly, the image of Sitting White Eagle — a motif repeated with other people and pieces — loosens the museum’s hold on his habit as mere artifact and resituates it in a human context. It is the shift from object to subject, thing to being.
The show ties not to broad eth-
For too long, museum projects to cast Indigenous culture as an historical relic denied its very real struggle to survive
nographic analysis but to the minute detail of place and, wherever possible, the specific, personal stories these objects carry. One, a carved wooden spirit figure wrapped in snakeskin, would be exemplary of a broad carving tradition in any recent exhibition; here, it’s a window into a nearly two-century-old tale of resistance. But can the future truly be that much different from the past? “It’s still a colonial institution,” Corbiere shrugged, surveying Pitwegijig’s little idol.
The majority of the things here are from the ROM’s collection, amassed over a century in many cases by dubious means — a fact institutions all over the world now acknowledge, most of them (the ROM included) having a repatriation policy meant to return objects to their Indigenous owners, when asked.
It’s a nice idea, Corbiere says, but not a practical one.
“Of course we want to bring these things home, but the reality is, we can’t. We don’t have the space, we don’t have proper storage facilities,” he says. “We’re struggling just to keep the doors open. We would get piecemeal funding to do things year to year, but there was never core funding to keep going. So we’re set up to fail in certain ways.”
Here, the unintended dual meaning of Art & Power comes to bear. However well-meaning, it also lays bare the gross imbalance that underpins these engagements. But it’s a start. Anishinaabeg: Art & Power continues at the Royal Ontario Museum to Nov. 19. See rom.on.ca for more information.
Sitting White Eagle’s ceremonial dress is displayed in a case alongside a ghostly image of the prominent Anishinaabe medicine man wearing it himself before his death in 1930.
In the exhibition’s “Hurt” section, works by Norval Morrisseau, Blake Debassige and Carl Ray address tragedies, like suicide or substance abuse.