• Beyond the Gallery

Curatorial Notes on the National Gallery of Canada

Nov 06, 2019
by Greg A. Hill and Rachelle Dickenson

Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel is the second in an ongoing series of exhibitions organized by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa, ON, focusing on contemporary Indigenous art from around the world, following Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art in 2013. For Àbadakone, we, the curatorial team composed of Rachelle Dickenson, Greg A. Hill and Christine Lalonde, looked to ideas of Relatedness—the relationships between human beings, animals, plants and the land; Continuities—examining links between ancestral work, contemporary and the future; and Activation—how artists are active, how audiences are engaged and how artworks themselves have agency.

From these central tenets, we began the process of selecting works with the idea that the scope of the exhibition would be global. We also knew we wanted to have many more projects that are performance based.

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Jamie Griffiths Silaup Putunga Iluani (Inside the Hole in the Universe) (2018) COURTESY OF LAAKKULUK WILLIAMSON BATHORY AND JAMIE GRIFFITHS

As far as we’re aware, there isn’t another exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art of this scope anywhere in the world. It’s a strong statement. The exhibition features works by more than 70 artists installed in all the public spaces of the Gallery. From the entrance to the exit of the exhibition, there is an incredible amount of work to experience, including some very ambitious, never-before-seen commissioned works.

With Àbadakone, we’re pushing away from the didactic objective that marked Sakahàn, which sought to introduce Indigenous art and what it can mean, and are moving towards thinking about the art as an opportunity for gathering. This shift provides a unique opportunity to think through some critical contemporary questions. Discussions about the expectations for Indigenous art will happen, but there’s also the possibility for the NGC to become an important hub where critical dialogue happens amongst audience members, artists, collaborators and partners. We invited every one of the exhibiting artists to the opening, allowing us to extend the curatorial intentions beyond our offices and our own heads by having artists in the space. In this way, we can extend a vision of artmaking that is about being together and visiting, trading ideas, connecting and working together. We perceive this show as an ongoing conversation here at this federal institution, and believe that we and Canada are uniquely positioned to bring people from countries that may not support these kinds of open discussions to join the conversation.

We also thought about performance and activation—how art is activated and the role of the artist and viewer in that activation. We have installations that lay dormant for part of the exhibition until the artist comes and activates them, transforming them in another way. To cap our dedication to process and our excitement to witness the conversations that will arise, we will release the catalogue towards the end of the exhibition. Doing this will help us pull back the curtain on the curatorial process, and be more responsive and better able to document the installations, the public commissions and interactions that occur. It matters that the process as well as the documentation is flexible, so that it can respond to different moments.

In terms of specific works, Joar Nango’s installation, Sámi Architectural Library (2019), is representative of our focus on the process. It is the first work in the exhibition, and it is visible before you even enter the Gallery. There is an interesting tension that arises in the preparation and creation of a commissioned work like this since the final result is amorphous to us curators, which is rare in an institution that usually has highly structured plans.

When we think about big goals, like the practicalities of decolonizing an institution, it means being able to accommodate different approaches to art, and Indigenous-specific ones. In Nango’s case, he brought traditional materials like hides and fish skin—materials that have not typically been associated with fine art—into the gallery. He built a library, populated it with his personal collection of books and re-covered the books in the installation with tanned hides and other materials. The books themselves are about Indigenous architecture and activism. Covering that body of printed Indigenous knowledge with a material layer of knowledge and process combines two very different ways of carrying knowledge forward.

Brian Adams Marie Rexford (2017) COURTESY THE ARTIST

Other pieces created specifically for the exhibition are a shaman’s drum by Sámi artist Fredrik Prost and a collection of sculptural works by Nenets artist Evgeniy Salinder. The performance work of Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Jamie Griffiths, Cris Derksen and Christine Tootoo is also included and is a new commission, partially funded by the Inuit Art Foundation.

We also have three works by Maureen Gruben, several by Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA, one by Pierre Aupilardjuk, and a collaboration between Aupilardjuk and Shary Boyle. The Aupilardjuk and Boyle collaboration in particular reminds us that Indigenous and settler people have been in relation to each other since colonialism began. These relationships are commonly understood to be violent and destructive, and many of the works in the exhibition discuss colonial violence and forms of Indigenous activism and resistance in that context. The collaborative works however, are another opportunity to think through generative relationships that emerge, and how allyship and activism work across identity politics in Canada and globally.

Inger Blix Kvammen, reflects on her experiences on the land and her travels with the Nenets people of the Siberian Arctic, showing how people move and relate to one another across borders and identities within a circumpolar context. She’s also relating to climate issues, particularly what is affecting the Nenets people, from her perspective as a Sámi/Norwegian artist. There is a very interesting cascade of collaboration, intention, resistance and activism that is being articulated in her work.

When we’re talking about artworks, we’re really thinking non-disciplinarily, so whether it’s a film screening or individual performance, we’re considering it integral work in the exhibition and it will be included in the catalogue as an artwork in the exhibition. We did that with the understanding that there could be some interesting critical dialogue about the curatorial decision to include these different art forms in a gallery context. We are looking forward to the conversations that occur when audiences consider the exhibition overall. We anticipate conversations about what we call it, why we call it that, what they would call it—and perhaps most crucially, what does it do for the way we all talk about Indigenous artmaking in Canada and in international contexts?

This feature will appear in the Winter 2019 Issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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