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Aboriginal Art Report: The Group of Who?

Steven Loft is a curator, writer and media artist of Mohawk and Jewish heritage who is calling for an overhaul of Canadian art history. Last year, he titled his paper for a University of Alberta conference on race and anti-colonial studies “The Group of Who?” More recently, he gave a public talk, “Rethinking Abstraction from an Aboriginal Perspective,” at the Art Gallery of Alberta. The lecture, also on the program of the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization spring meeting, which was held at the gallery, coincided with two AGA exhibitions that fit the context of Loft’s presentation: “Haida Art: Mapping an Ancient Language,” curated by Haida artist Robert Davidson, on view through June 5, and “Brian Jungen,” a stunning display of three major sculpture installations by the internationally acclaimed British Columbia artist, which closed May 8.

“The problem with looking at aboriginal art is that it’s seen through the canon of European discourse,” Loft told his audience. “We have to change the way we look at aboriginal art. I am happy to see historical Haida art along with Robert Davidson and Brian Jungen. They have to be seen as historical art and contemporary art. It’s a continuum; it’s a different art history.”

For Loft, rethinking abstraction from an aboriginal perspective is part of the process of constructing this history. “Abstract art has existed for aboriginal people from time immemorial,” he said, echoing the premise of “Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge,” a 2005 travelling exhibition organized by Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology that revealed how Haida concepts of form and representation preceded European notions of abstraction and why these concepts are fundamental to contemporary critical discourse. “We cannot have a Canadian art history without aboriginal art,” Loft said.

“The aboriginal arts community is challenged to write this art history and establish a vocabulary. The way we teach art and art history in this country has to change.”

The process is already well underway on several fronts. Scholars and curators like Loft and Mary Longman, an artist and art historian, are writing aboriginal art histories. Major public art galleries like the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario have re-hung their Canadian collections to represent the parallel histories of aboriginal and non-aboriginal art. Museums are moving further away from the old anthropological model for exhibitions of indigenous art with models that broaden previously limited contexts. They’re treating objects once considered artifacts as art, breaking out of the compartments that kept “traditional” art separated from art produced by contemporary artists, bringing the work of artists from different aboriginal cultures into group exhibitions, and showing the work of aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists together, simply designating them as artists on a levelled playing field.

Right now at the AGO, through August 7, seven new works by Brian Jungen can be seen alongside sculpture by British artist Henry Moore in “Brian Jungen: Tomorrow, Repeated,” while “Inuit Modern: The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection,” on view through October 16, looks at present-day Inuit art in the context of historical Inuit art and the social, political and cultural changes that have reshaped our view of the Canadian Arctic. A significant catalogue accompanies “Inuit Modern,” which was curated by the AGO’s Gerald McMaster, who is Plains Cree and Blackfoot, and Ingo Hessel, curator of Toronto’s Museum of Inuit Art. There is also an online symposium to listen to at

Loft, who believes that aboriginal art has been “oppressed by theory,” enjoins us to lay aside the lens of modernism, and postmodernism, when we look at aboriginal art. This is easier said than done, as Loft himself admitted at his talk. It is especially difficult when considering the work of contemporary artists. The ones he chose to represent aboriginal abstractionists—Alex Janvier, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Bob Boyer, Robert Houle, Robert Davidson and Rita Letendre—all went to art school and/or university and know their way around modernism. Like many contemporary aboriginal artists, they play with and against its history and tenets, making meaning out of the collision of cultures and divergent world views. Letendre, whose father was aboriginal, is the only artist on Loft’s list who is fully absorbed into mainstream Canadian art history, and she is seldom seen in relation to aboriginal art.

Loft’s argument would have been stronger if he had addressed what he means by “abstraction” in this context. Does a non-aboriginal, western meaning of this term work the same way in aboriginal art? Does Loft fall into the modernist trap of considering abstraction to be a universal language? He might also have considered the culturally complex work of younger aboriginal artists, like Nadia Myre (whose name came up during the lengthy post-lecture Q&A) and, most obviously, Brian Jungen.

Jungen’s work was not only close at hand; it is a prime illuminator of the ways in which modernist art and architecture, and the capitalist system that produced it, can collide with aboriginal art and culture to produce critical hybrid forms whose materials become potent signifiers. Jungen’s work at AGO was inspired in part by seeing the gallery’s Henry Moore Sculpture Centre when he picked up his Gershon Iskowitz Prize last spring. The new sculptures bring the vernacular vocabulary of Doig River First Nation in northern BC, where Jungen hunts with his Dane-zaa relatives, into a temple of high modernism. Made of deer hides stretched over cut-up car parts that are mounted on white freezers, they echo Moore’s mythic figurative sculptures on their pedestals and plinths but from the perspective of a different reality in which evocation of the spirits, human and animal, is grounded in the everyday.

At the AGA, Jungen’s 2000 work Shapeshifter and 2002 work Cetology (the “whale” skeletons made of white plastic garden chairs) and Carapace, the third iteration of a somewhat menacing grenade-shaped work made of green and blue recycling bins, first produced in 2009 and reconfigured for this show, took over the AGA’s huge third-floor gallery. Although the juxtaposition was not direct, the resonance between Jungen’s installations and “Haida Art: Mapping an Ancient Language” was unmistakable. Organized by the McCord Museum, the Haida show contains more than 80 works from the 18th and 19th centuries, including carved feast bowls, fish hooks, bentwood boxes, masks, rattles and argillite sculptures, as well as six paintings on canvas by Davidson made between 1998 and 2010. The point of this juxtaposition was to demonstrate how the ancient language of Haida art—the system of U-forms, lines and ovoids that cover the surfaces of objects—continues to influence the explorations of contemporary artists.

This influence is exemplified by Davidson’s paintings, which use this ancient vocabulary in tandem with the Haida palette of red, black, blue and green. Links to Jungen’s work are apparent generally in the interplay of positive and negative space, the visual punning, the play of formal and material invention, the transformation of one thing into another, and more specifically in objects like a red cedar codfish hook; its float is carved into a seal’s head which has a fish hanging from its mouth. The fish hook and float date to the first half of the 19th century.

Under the hand of deputy director/chief curator Catherine Crowston, the AGA excels in programming clusters of exhibitions which strike up conversations with one another, making the total experience greater than the sum of the parts. This juxtaposition of old and new aboriginal art illuminated both, demonstrating Loft’s point about the need for establishing a continuity between past and present in writing aboriginal art history. Among the issues that Loft did not address, perhaps because of the limitations of an hour-long lecture, were the differences in world view between historical and contemporary artists, the fact that aboriginal art is the art of many First Nations and the consideration that contemporary aboriginal artists work from a double point of view, both aboriginal and European, which gives their art much of its criticality and power.

One final note on the transformations of Jungen’s Carapace: its fourth and final iteration will take the form of a book cover made from bits of those cut-up recycling bins. “Our idea is that it is essentially another transformation of the work that builds on its other transformations and will be the one that lasts,” Crowston said.

Designed by Barr Gilmore, the signed, limited-edition book on Carapace will contain essays on the work by Vancouver writer Michael Turner and Candice Hopkins, curatorial resident of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada. Expect to see it in the fall.

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