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May we suggest

Interviews / May 23, 2013

Curator Q&A: How Indigenous Art Took Centre Stage in Sakahàn

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa May 17 to September 2, 2013
Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun <em>An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act, Healey Estate Northumberland September 14th, 1997</em> 1997 Rifle, ribbon, used bullet shells and paper in display frame 55 cm x 1.26 m overall Courtesy National Gallery of Canada / photo &copy; NGC Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act, Healey Estate Northumberland September 14th, 1997 1997 Rifle, ribbon, used bullet shells and paper in display frame 55 cm x 1.26 m overall Courtesy National Gallery of Canada / photo © NGC

Over the past decade, there’s been an undeniable renewal in the presence and criticality of contemporary First Nations art in Canada. Artists such as Rebecca Belmore, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Brian Jungen, Kent Monkman and Annie Pootoogook come immediately to mind, as does the earlier, touchstone generation of artists like Robert Houle, Carl Beam and the collective often known as the Indian Group of Seven.

But there’s also been a rising tide of newer First Nations voices on the Canadian scene—artists Nadia Myre, Sonny Assu and Duane Linklater, to name just a few, as well as curator Candice Hopkins and the various members of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective—who are redefining the way we see and understand modern historical, social and cultural dynamics, both within and outside of First Nations realities.

Now, the National Gallery of Canada is set to push this national momentum onto an international stage with “Sakahàn,” a sprawling survey exhibition that brings together more than 150 works by over 80 artists from 16 different countries in a bid to open up a global dialogue on indigenous art practices. Planned as a recurring exhibition to take place every five years (this first edition was four years in the making), the show taps into the diverse communities and histories, yet often shared concerns, of indigenous artists from Australia to the Arctic, and all points in between. It’s an ambitious strategy, played out with a deft touch by exhibition curators Greg Hill, Christine Lalonde and Candice Hopkins. “Sakahàn” is an exhibition designed to push expectations and perspectives, and to reward a long, careful look.

Last Thursday in Ottawa, just before the show opened, I had the chance to sit down with Lalonde and Hopkins to talk about the impetus behind “Sakahàn” and unpack some of the historical weight, aesthetic concerns and curatorial considerations at work in what is bound to be a landmark show.

Bryne McLaughlin: “Sakahàn” is a juggernaut of an exhibition with a wide spread of works that cross continents, artistic practices and historical and cultural time frames. Maybe we can start by talking about some of the groundwork that was behind the exhibition?

Christine Lalonde: “Sakahàn” embodies a really key moment for us, but the momentum for it has been building for a while, maybe since the “Land, Spirit, Power” exhibition at the National Gallery in 1992, curated by Diana Nemiroff, Robert Houle and Charlotte Townsend-Gault. It transformed the gallery at that time and gave the impetus for a real commitment to indigenous art in Canada. We were conscious of that as we were planning; we were building on that exhibition. There are other important landmarks that have built up to this moment for us, too. For instance, there was a show called “Arts of the Arctic” that was really created in the hands of the artists, without a lot of institutional support, that linked contemporary art in the circumpolar countries. That was around the time of “Land, Spirit, Power” in the early 1990s.

Candice Hopkins: There have been initiatives like that, but also artist-run initiatives, like the relationships Maori artists were making with other artists in the Pacific region, both in Canada and the US in Hawaii. So this kind of global dialogue has been ongoing for a long time, and not just in art but also in politics. For example, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which has been in formation in some way, shape or form since the 1970s, was also some kind of eureka moment when a lot of those practitioners who were working in the area of politics realized the real mobility that could take place if people started to collaborate across nations.

I think, in some ways, “Sakahàn” builds on that and also really tries to expand understandings of what indigenous art is, but also tries to get across a real sense of diversity. There are, of course, threads that link all of the works, but for this first exhibition we really wanted to set the poles as wide apart as possible—to give an overview, and of course that overview can’t always be extremely in depth, but we thought it was important to really show a broad scope.

BM: Are there key works that sparked some of the ideas behind the show?

CL: Jimmie Durham’s Encore tranquillité was one of our first acquisitions that really gave foresight onto how large the show would be, the scale of the show. Acquiring Encore tranquillité and also Vernon Ah Kee’s piece cantchant was inspirational because they gave us focus. They set the bar.

CH: Yes, they set the bar, and there a number of other works in the exhibition that really became core works that we then built narratives around. And I think Jimmie Durham’s work is a really apt metaphor for the exhibition, because it’s about flipping hierarchies. You have this stone, which he describes in some of his writing as a simple stone, crushing the more technologically superior plane. We really wanted to upend this sense of power and upend assumptions.

BM: You’ve included artists from the better-known centres of indigenous art in Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada, but you’ve also included works by indigenous artists from places like Japan and India. Why was it so important to do this on an international scope, instead of being more tightly focused on recognized narratives or geographies?

CL: Well, it was important to do it because it hasn’t been done and it’s time. These connections exist; these indigenous artistic collaborations have been going on for a really long time. “Sakahàn” just takes it to a slightly higher level. If these collaborations have been taking place between certain points in the world, now we’ve overlapped all of those, we’ve connected them in a new and more intensive way. This is the way the world is working; we live in a globalized world.

BM: So how did you negotiate all of the logistics of this?

CH: With a very impressive team. I think it’s important to note that because of the scope and scale of the exhibition, it would have been really hard to do without the support of a place like the National Gallery of Canada. There are so many people here who have specialized knowledge in certain areas—whether it’s negotiating international loans, working on shipping, or working on conservation.

But also key to that process was a group of curatorial advisors in different parts of the world. They really helped us because we knew we wouldn’t have the same kind of knowledge that they had in their regions. We depended on them for feedback and advice, but also to help shape our project. There was a lot of back and forth with many of the advisors, not just to name artists in their regions but also providing feedback on our overall ideas of the exhibition.

CL: Working with the advisory committee was really wonderful, because it wasn’t our intent to set out and become instant experts. But also, it was important to us to acknowledge that the expertise and knowledge was already there, and to link up to that and make connections.

So it’s not just about us and our exhibition but through this exhibition there is now a stronger network of people working in different areas of the world. There are new links between the art worlds that exist regionally and the international contemporary art world, in effect blurring those boundaries, which really don’t exist for indigenous artists themselves. They move between those worlds fluidly.

CH: Many indigenous people don’t like to be defined by countries. The Sámi are a great example of that. There’s another kind of nationhood at stake and that’s something that comes through in this exhibition as well.

We’ve had questions like, How did you select the artists, or, How are you defining indigenous? For us, one of the first lines of the working definition of the UN working group on indigenous peoples is, in fact, self-definition. So the idea of self-definition also becomes a part of the exhibition, and the complexities of indigenous identities, because that’s so fraught in many countries, and it is defined not only by individuals, but also by nation-states and history.

CL: In fact, many of the artworks don’t define indigeneity, they explore it and question it. That’s the nature of identity: that it will always be evolving and changing—it’s fluid.

CH: And in fact trying to expand these conceptions.

CL: And it’s collaboratively that an understanding emerges—but it’s not a final understanding. Questions about identity are really…indigeneity is where it starts, not where it ends.

But to get back to your question about logistics…we realized that we really wanted to work with people on the ground level. Thinking of long-term, too, and that it was important for us to start to become familiar firsthand, not just to be armchair curators.

So we did travel quite extensively. That was very important to make those personal connections and to visit artists’ studios in different places. That was really amazing to see how the artists create their artworks under different circumstances, with different means, in different cities and environments—political environments as much as geographic environments. That’s key to our understanding now.

If we just thought geographically, we would be pretty limited. My own area starts with the Canadian Arctic. I’ve been working with artists in the Canadian Arctic for 20 years or so. So it made sense that I would also go circumpolar. I did know of some artists in Norway, and I travelled to Greenland, and I had been to Alaska. And certainly for the next one, we will go farther into Russia as well. I also went to India and Japan. This was because of certain collaborations in place. But it’s not as strange as it would sound. The environments are different, the geographies are north/south, but the circumstances of the artists are parallel and the challenges that they face and the successes they have—there’s also a dialogue there between the artists and the works that they create to address those challenges.

BM: You’ve said that there are connections that appeared between works in the show. But the exhibition is also a massive gathering of art in many different media. As a curatorial team, how do you rein in these wide-ranging practices and approaches to make a cohesive exhibition?

CH: We didn’t want to come to this exhibition with preconceptions, or a have theme from the outset and then slot artists in, so we really tried to be as expansive as we could. In fact, this show is a very small subset of all of the research and tangents or threads that we could have taken with what we wanted to do. There were many, many conversations and looking at work as much as we could. We were acquiring work at the same time as we were looking at images in dialogue with our advisors.

Through that, all of these threads started emerging. Other things started falling away, while some started emerging. So there are certain intersections. One is the use of the handmade. We wanted to be very clear that this tradition is not the same as the craft tradition in Western art. The idea of the handmade is something that is highly regarded within indigenous communities and worldviews. We wanted to show that this is something that is continuously evolving and is very much present in the work of contemporary artists now, in different ways, but also that it is a long-standing aesthetic tradition.

There’s also this idea of the ways in which indigenous artists are questioning the subjective nature of history. Many of the works cite older photographs or older artifacts or moments in a way, I think, to reframe that narrative and to really mine those stories to produce new knowledge and new perspectives.

Take Fiona Pardington’s large photographs of life casts of Maori chiefs, for example. Through the process of making the work, she became a researcher with a large team of scholars, and they were able to find out much more information about these people than had previously been published. Before they were simply these life casts that were sitting in the basement of a museum. But there are many other intersections.

CL: The cross-currents emerging from the works themselves led us. In fact, I think we had a plan, but an important part of that plan was to learn. We just set out with that in mind, that this was going to be a learning experience.

That led into looking at the artworks and understanding what the artists were communicating and then finding that artists who had never met before were focusing on a certain aspect of indigeneity or contemporaneity that had a great resonance with work from a completely different part of the world.

The best metaphor that I can think of is that they have a conversation, they start a conversation. All of the works are so layered and deal with so many different aspects of creating art, indigenous culture, history, all of the values that are personal and community based and are relevant for all of us. Because they are so layered, when seen together in one room they start to have a dialogue.

CH: It’s very simple: for all of these works there’s something deeper at stake. This isn’t just self-referential art, or something like that. There’s so many layers that I really hope people will spend time in each of the rooms, because we’ve spent time thinking about what those conversations are between these different elements.

Another conversation that is happening in the lower contemporary galleries is how people use the land, in everyday life, as a resource, and as a kind of practice that has been ongoing for a very long time. But also apparent are the cosmologies that emerge from the land, especially in Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden’s Earth and Sky. The original drawing is present, and it’s also been reproduced as a banner. This is the first time that banner has been reproduced in its entirety. So every other iteration has only been part of the drawing.

BM: One thing that seems to be up front in a lot of the work is a response to histories. But how do these histories, which are often filled with trauma, avoid becoming an anchor or a dead weight? How do the artists in the exhibition balance the weight of history and move the conversation forward? And, as curators, how do you bridge that problematic?

CL: I think some of the artists admittedly do leave that weight behind, while others do focus on the history. But really, as much as there’s agency, there’s also aesthetics. I think that what makes these artists great and leading contemporary artists is that they have found that balance between agency and aesthetics. They have a message. They have a powerful response to something that is happening in their world and they communicate that in an aesthetic way that speaks to us all.

So, I’m thinking of Michael Parekowhai’s My Sister, My Self, which is about art history—in fact, it’s his homage to Marcel Duchamp, but also to his sister. It’s also about Maori artistic legacy as well in the fact that he’s hand-carved these objects and, as Candice has said, there’s so much in that ability and that knowledge of the process. I think the emphasis on the handmade is because it’s recognized that that process is knowledge, and that knowing how to do these things is a way to transmit knowledge and keep it alive.

BM: Still, it’s hard to escape these oppositions of loss and recovery in the works…

CH: Yuma Taru, who is an artist from Taiwan, is an excellent example of what Christine just spoke about. Her village was destroyed by an earthquake, and so over the course of five years she collaborated with about 20 different women in her village to create a work called On the Wings of Dream. The plants she used had to be planted and could only be harvested after five years. Yet through this kind of collective act of art-making there was a sense of renewal and hope. The work that’s been produced is in fact a kind of regeneration of tradition.

Yuma has worked for more than 20 years to relearn all of the traditional weavings, not just in her community, but elsewhere. So it’s been a very long project. She’s been collaborating with museums so that she would access different objects in the collections, and after she learned the techniques for those objects, she would pass them on so that this very deep knowledge could be put forward into the future. I think it’s an amazing example of how you start from something that could have had a very traumatic ending, but she’s turned it into something that is a beginning.

CL: How many of the artists in the show feel the weight of history? I don’t get the impression that it is a weight. It is something that they intentionally mine and explore even as they’re searching for knowledge about themselves, their family and things that have happened.

History is deeply important, maybe because it has been so inaccessible in terms of a mainstream educational system where your history isn’t told; you go seeking it. Indigenous artists, in particular, have made histories and narratives known through visual art, and we see that in a lot of the works in the show.

There’s probably an equal amount of histories recorded in the oral tradition, if not more, than there is in literature and in music, but visual artists have really played an important role in communicating that for themselves, their families, the community and the world at large.

But I wanted to do a bit of a circular conversation. I just wanted to comment on one thing that Candice, Greg and I have been really interested by considering the composition of the artists in the show: for a number of the artists, they weren’t really considered contemporary artists until they moved away from doing traditional subject matter. It’s almost as if they had to turn away from that and do subject matter that was contemporaneous in order to find entry into a contemporary art world.

Annie Pootoogook, for instance, is the groundbreaker for contemporary Inuit artists because she did modern scenes of life in the north. For the first time, her art reached an audience broader than Inuit art collectors and gallerists. So, for Inuit artists, it’s almost as if to bridge that gap you have to leave behind the Inuit art history that you come from.

And there are other examples of that from other parts of the world.

Yet in the work of many leading contemporary artists who are indigenous, we were struck by the number of them that are dealing with historical narratives, ones that relate to their personal families, their communities, or the encounters between indigenous people and non-indigeneous people throughout time in a very archival way. This was really key to us; this questioning of what is contemporary.

Even Yuma Taru is another great example of how complicated or how rich artists in the exhibition make our understanding of what is contemporary. These artists really don’t worry too much about categories. Yuma Taru’s work is really very much about a current event that happened, and incorporated into it is this aspect of maintaining older, embedded forms of knowledge and practice.

So there’s no division, it’s all flowing backwards and forwards in sense of time.

CH: Exactly. I was just going to say that there isn’t this sort of sense of a linear progression. I think what Christine was pointing to as well is the deep respect many of the artists have for ancestors and for the past. So history doesn’t necessarily just mean the past; those two things are, I think, very different. I’m even thinking about this Maori ideology—that you head into the future looking to the past. So there’s always this reference going on in this cycle.

CL: One of my favourite Marshall McLuhanisms, as they’re called, is that we drive into the future looking through the rearview mirror. Of course, with McLuhan you don’t really know if he meant that as a good thing or a bad thing, but I thought it was very apt in this case. You move forward, but always remembering and knowing what’s come before you.

CH: So at the very least, a goal is for viewers to have a sense of these different ideologies and ways of looking at the world through experiencing the exhibition.

CL: In terms of telling histories, I should say that sometimes the histories are not negative ones. It’s also telling positive histories and showing strong aspects of a community’s experience, of a personal experience. But yes, there are many pieces that start off by bringing attention to trauma and episodes in history that have had a very dire effect on communities and indigenous societies. And yes, the artists are courageous and brilliant in how they both can communicate the depth of that tragedy and yet take us beyond it to a point of hope.

Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe and Ingunn Utsi’s Alàs are two pieces in the exhibition which are really striking in their resonance, although they’re in completely different media, in offering what we’ve come to realize as beauty as a form of poetical resilience. And Rebecca Belmore’s statement is so wonderful about that: the woman with the scar and the beads, the wound that is not self-inflicted, but she can bear it, and she will get up and move on.

BM: In a lot of this work, I feel like there’s a bid to take control of those traditions, histories and the various aesthetic media that belong to them. The National Gallery would seem to be an appropriate, even poetical site for that to happen, but in another sense it’s a very foreign environment for this kind of dialogue. Is this exhibition another step towards a sense of control for these artists and these histories? Or maybe “control” is not even the right word?

CH: No, “control” is not the right word.

CL: I think that as an institution, the gallery…well, just to start with what Candice had said earlier, it was really important that a national institution created a show like this, because even in many of the countries where we travelled, the artists are excluded from the national institutions. So I think not only is the scope of this show unprecedented, the international component of it is more extensive than was perhaps possible before. It’s really important that we are a national institution recognizing these artists and their place in our shared world. It’s part of our commitment to indigenous art here in Canada. At the same time, the gallery has been transformed by this experience.

BM: But how do you bridge that gap between indigenous and common culture, so that being an indigenous artist doesn’t equate to being exotic—or worse, isolated from the broader contemporary dialogue?

CH: That’s something that we talked a lot about and still continue to consider. As Christine said, this transformation is already taking place at the level of the gallery itself. But I also think that what we are really trying to think about is how, even in a very globalized world, there are still conversations, perspectives and histories that remain lesser known.

Something that Christine said a while back which was really brilliant: if the past is always present in the works of indigenous art, how do we define contemporary? I think what it does is it shifts out the understanding of contemporary to not just mean “this moment,” to have a very surface sense of living in the immediacy. Instead, it looks at how this moment can always be informed by our actions before it. It’s not about an idea of historical progress, but an idea that is always a cycle.

CL: I think in terms of isolating—or “segregating” is another word that often comes up—one thing that counters that is the sheer diversity in the exhibition. This isn’t just one segment of the world or a society; this is many segments.

Maybe the one thing they have in common is self-identifying as being indigenous. But what that means is that it encompasses multiple viewpoints, many experiences, and diverse art forms. So it’s not in any way isolating one narrowly defined group of artist.

The question of context and multiple contexts is also important. We’re very conscious now that even history is not a singular thing. It’s subjective, but the only way to really understand history is to explore multiple viewpoints and parallel narratives to understand the full dynamics of what has happened in the past, and the same for the present.

To understand what contemporary means is to really explore it from different angles, so the idea of having a show of all indigenous artists is one context. But all of these artists show in different contexts as well. They show in other kinds of group shows, in thematic shows with different sets of artists.

A goal of a lot of contemporary art curators right now seems to be to have that depth of vision by including artists from a wide range of geographic locations and media, but sometimes it’s not always done in a way that’s equal. This idea of inclusivity can sometimes be a little bit problematic because you invite an artist’s work into the show, but it’s really just to add that element of diversity. We were very conscious that the artists in “Sakahàn” were included in a way that was very respectful, with their full participation, and to make sure that they were shown side by side.

CH: I think sometimes, as Christine pointed out, with these major exhibitions there is the sense, this trend toward inclusivity, but you don’t often get enough of a sense of the context for artists’ work. Really all it does is expand the framework again. I know it was really important when Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn were included in Documenta 11. That was a huge moment. But it’s very hard for an international audience to understand where their work is coming from, and that filmmaking in the Arctic has an extended tradition, and that there is also this very deep tradition of art-making that existed well before the 1950s. But you don’t get that sense. You just get the sense of, “Oh this is another exotic artist.”

CL: Yes, that’s another element. And one that doesn’t recognize the influence these artists can have on the larger art scene. It’s often, “Well, we’ll include these artists because they never have been before,” and not recognizing that they have an impact on what it means to be contemporary, and they should have that impact. It’s just, “We’ll do it for this show and not follow their progress.”

CH: A very influential exhibition for me early on when we were researching was David Elliot’s Biennale of Sydney in 2010, because there was an unprecedented number of indigenous artists, not only from Australia and New Zealand, but also from Canada and the US. For example, there was a brilliant room with some of Beau Dick’s transformation masks shown alongside a work by Louise Bourgeois. That was phenomenal. This idea of transformation and how works have this inner power was very, very clear.

BM: Have you started working on the next edition yet?

CL: In a sense, we have—in that process that Candice was describing, where certain works emerged because we noticed they had a relationship that really intrigued us, so they came out and were part of the selection. The exhibition you see essentially emerged from those sessions. But that didn’t mean that the works that didn’t find that counterpoint didn’t merit inclusion. So, yes, we will go back and start where we left off with a number of artists.

CH: Part of that is this idea for having these exhibitions once every five years so that they would be building. They would constantly build on one another, and build upon what this exhibition was able to accomplish and not accomplish. The next curators will likely take that in quite a different direction.

CL: But I think I’m going to take Monday off!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article was corrected on May 23, 2013. The original version misspelled Yuma Taru’s last name as Taro.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.