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Frontrunners: Past, Present and Future

Joseph Sanchez's performance at the "Frontrunners" opening night Courtesy Plug In ICA / photo Jaya Beange

A notable new wave of contemporary First Nations art activity has swept across Canada in the past two decades. From artists like Rebecca Belmore, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Brian Jungen, Kent Monkman and Shuvinai Ashoona to curators like Steven Loft, Ryan Rice, Candice Hopkins and Lee-Ann Martin, First Nations practices have been increasingly freed from the dusty confines of museum ethnography to emerge fully into the complex realm of post-colonial contemporary art.

Yet this recent surge has important 1960s and 1970s precedents, some of which are explored in “Frontrunners,” an exhibition at Urban Shaman and Plug In ICA focusing on Professional Native Indian Artists’ Inc., the Winnipeg-based collective—also known as “the Indian Group of Seven”—that formed in 1973 and included Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez, Eddy Cobiness and Alex Janvier.

Earlier this week, managing editor Bryne McLaughlin spoke by telephone with “Frontrunners” curator Cathy Mattes about the history of PNIA Inc. and its lasting influence on younger First Nations artists, four of whom—Jackie Traverse, Darryl Nepinak, Lita Fontaine and Louis Ogemah—have created new works for the exhibition.

Bryne McLaughlin: First off, I’d like to get a better sense of the history behind Professional Native Artists’ Inc. What drew the artists in PNIA Inc. together, and why in Winnipeg?

Cathy Mattes: PNIA Inc. was in operation for about three years, but the group had been gathering informally at Daphne’s gallery in Winnipeg—where she showed her own work but also sold other artists’ work—before they decided in 1973 to incorporate officially as a collective. They were familiar with each other. Alex Janvier, Carl Ray and Norval Morrisseau all worked on Expo 67 so they had that experience together. Jackson Beardy had met Daphne Odjig beforehand, so they were aware of each other too. Expo 67 seemed to be a real formative event and I think after that you see some real movement and dialogues starting to happen. That’s when Daphne’s gallery really became this central place.

They were facing a lot of challenges; they didn’t just want to develop a market, they wanted to be seen as contemporary artists and for their work to be seen in a contemporary art context. Otherwise they were being relegated to museums where their work was seen more as ethnology than contemporary art. They really just wanted to come together to have a louder voice and to reach out to emerging Aboriginal artists and potential future artists. Even though PNIA Inc. didn’t have a designated gallery space, its members always showed together and strived to break down some of the barriers with different galleries. Daphne’s gallery was the gathering place and it seemed to be the centre where artists from all over the country would go to get support. But there was definitely a movement in First Nations contemporary art before her gallery was created.

[These artists] were coming to Winnipeg from Ontario and the US and also Alberta. A couple of the artists, Alex Janvier and Joseph Sanchez, have said that Winnipeg was really the place for that group to form. There was a lot of artistic activity in the city and a high population of urban Aboriginal people in Winnipeg…it was really the perfect location. It wasn’t just a matter of Daphne’s gallery being there, it was the energy in the city that was very important to them.

BM: So Winnipeg represented a kind of epicentre of a new Aboriginal awareness?

CM: I guess so. The way that Alex and Joseph have spoken about it is that there was this great force. There was this large population of Aboriginal people moving into the city. There were also non-Aboriginal people who were very supportive and local non-Aboriginal artists who were helping them with printmaking and getting the word out about what they were doing. So I think they felt that Winnipeg had the right artistic climate for the group to happen.

BM: Were the artists in PNIA Inc. politically motivated?

CM: I definitely believe that they were politically motivated and that was one of their main pushes to create the work that they did and to make all those actions that they did and to become this incorporated group. When you think of that time in the late 1960s, there was the White Paper policy [that proposed to eliminate Indian Status], the debate around Canada’s Centennial celebration; it was only a few years after Aboriginal people had the right to vote [in 1960] and you had Aboriginal rights groups forming…. There was just a lot going on. I think these artists were contributing to, but also responding to, all of those actions and issues.

BM: Was there a similar aesthetic approach to the work they were making at the time? Or was the group complementary by their differences?

CM: I think complementary is a really good term to describe their works. When I met with Daphne Odjig she described them as all being very diverse contemporary artists. That’s how they see themselves, but the works complement one another, that’s for sure.

BM: In your view, what is the legacy of PNIA Inc.? How did that inform your curatorial approach to the show?

CM: They made room for all of us who are Aboriginal and working in contemporary art. They broke that ground for us to be able to do what we do now. And I think they definitely laid the foundation for organizations like Urban Shaman and other Aboriginal-run arts organizations. The idea for the artist as a shaman or being a shaman artist comes from Norval Morrisseau and apparently where Urban Shaman is now located used to be Jackson Beardy’s studio. I really thought it was time for Urban Shaman to recognize the impact of that group. With the exhibition, I wanted to honour the group for their actions but also have the local arts community—both Aboriginal and the community at large—contemplate those actions and what they mean to us now. So there’s the two-part survey and a smaller show that features four local artists. We spent a year gathering every so often to sit and talk about what PNIA Inc. was and the impact it had on them as artists and on Winnipeg and the current scene now. They responded by creating new work.

BM: Would you still consider Winnipeg a geographic hot point for First Nations artists?

CM: For those seven artists as a group, Winnipeg was key. They were important nationally at the time, but for the collective, the local environment was really important. There are great things happening all across the country now and Winnipeg continues to be full of activism with artists like Louis Ogemah, Lita Fontaine, Jackie Traverse and Darryl Nepinak [all of whom are in the show].

I feel that we’re at this really pivotal point right now. There are multiple actions happening all at once and it feels like this is an important time for Aboriginal artists. I wanted to contribute to this time with “Frontrunners.” There should be more research and exhibitions happening around this group to recognize what their actions were and to reaffirm the benefits of those actions. I guess this claiming of space is one of the legacies of the group. In the time that has passed there have been more opportunities for change as the Aboriginal art community becomes more professionalized as art historians, teachers and curators, as well as artists, particularly with new groups like the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, which for myself as an aboriginal curator has been an amazing support and resource. That makes space for curatorial contemplation and to develop interesting projects.

It also allows for a deeper appreciation of artists and movements like PNIA Inc. It helps us to understand where we are coming from, but also where were going. Especially with PNIA Inc., I mean, they were so much about the future and contemplating where they would and could go. That’s why I’m happy “Frontrunners” was organized as a satellite project with “Close Encounters.” It’s an exhibition that is very much about looking forward. With the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and everything else that is happening right now, the energy is very much about what’s ahead.

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