Since the end of August life has been a blur of important events, all of which focus on CHANGE.
Change the way we protect the environment. In August, at the People’s Social Forum Ottawa, I was introduced to people who have become activists out of the necessity to ensure that the land we share is safe.
Change the way we fund community initiatives. In September I was one of 40+ professionals invited by the Governor General David Johnston to be part of a think tank at Rideau Hall that was centred around creating a new Foundation for Canada.
Change the way we construct historical archives. In October I participated in the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective Colloquium in Montreal where one of the main focuses was best practice design for the structure of digital archives that challenge entrenched national narratives.
Change the way we think about diversity. In November I presented at the Michaëlle Jean Foundation’s The Power of the Arts Forum. I encountered many cultural provocateurs who are adding to the discussion around what diversity looks like.
My own presentation assessed the role the institutional curator can play in facilitating deep cultural transformation in Canada.
Since 2010 when I began to write about contemporary culture in Canada I have been fortunate to to attend hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds!) of events. What this gives me is a bird’s eye view of the changing cultural landscape. I have the luxury of being able to stand back as well as step in allowing me both critical distance and intimate knowledge of the environment.
It was a great opportunity to speak at The Power of the Arts and my fellow presenters offered me even more inspiration, ideas and provocative food for thought around broadening the definition of what we mean when we say ‘diversity’.
Below is the transcript of my presentation as well as the Powerpoint images with the accompanying text. If you want to read the presentation along with the images you can click on the top left image and the rest will follow!
2013 was a year that Canada experienced a lot of growing pains. We are a young nation and sometimes we act with youthful grace and other times with the messy inappropriateness of bodies not yet used to the skin they are quickly expanding into.
Idle No More was a movement that probably wasn’t on most people’s radar when it first formed but it rapidly spread thanks to the brilliant ease that technology allows messages to travel.
What it also did was start to shake the foundational narratives and pushed Canada into a bit of an identity crisis.
And an identity crisis can be good a thing. Even healthy! If it is recognized as a moment to reflect back on who you were before the rug was pulled out from underneath you.
And like any identity crisis the signs were already pointing to a breakdown long before it happened. If you step away from the history of colonization and the impact it has had on Indigenous populations there are other histories Canada has had trouble acknowledging – slavery in Canada, the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and the unfortunate history of the community of Africville, Nova Scotia to name a few.
Canada has not always been a safe place for new immigrants and there are still areas where many Canadians feel they are outsiders in their own nation. LGBTQ rights have been a work in progress and away from urban centres it can still be unsafe to be open about your sexuality.
But I have hope. BIG HOPE! I know Canada is going to make it through this incredibly painful time where collectively as a Nation we are having to acknowledge hard truths about our history.
WHY am I so hopeful? Because I have the wonderful fortune of working in the Arts (and with people like this)
This is where I see amazing work being done. And I see a lot of that work happening in institutional settings.
Outside of producing Mixed Bag Mag I am also a web designer. Many of my clients are artists, and more specifically Indigenous artists whose work is about dialoguing with national narratives regarding historical and contemporary realities of First Peoples in Canada.
One of my clients is Jeff Thomas, a self-described Urban Iroquois, and who I have dubbed “The Godfather of Indigenous Urban Photography.” I will come back to him later but where I want to start my story is on a cold, winter night in Toronto that included a snow storm, a Tribe Called Red and a gifted ticket from a stranger on Facebook. I found myself, last minute, at the Art Gallery of Ontario for First Thursdays.
If you don’t know about first Thursdays, it’s a great event that happens the first Thursday of every month at the AGO. The night includes entry to the exhibits, live music, performance art, interactive demos and food. This particular Thursday A Tribe Called Red was performing.
Despite the cold it was a hot night! Sold OUT! I left my decision to go so late I couldn’t even get a media pass so I put a call out on Facebook and a friend -of-a-friend gave me his ticket.
I stood above the crowd packed into Walker Court in order to get a good photograph. What I witnessed made me stop and put my camera down to take it all in. I have these times as a photographer where I know I need to stop and spend time with the moment – to just feel the energetics of the space. I was having one of those moments.
Duncan Campbell Scott, the man who was head of Indian Affairs in the early 1900s was quoted as saying “The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object and policy of our government.” Here were 3 men – 3 men that if Duncan Campbell Scott had his way would not exist – being unapologetically Indigenous. And the crowd could not get enough of their beats that include mixing dance hall, reggae, hip hop and powwow.
One of the members of Tribe is Jeff Thomas’ son – Bear Witness.
I know he is damn proud of Bear’s work because as he says “he is reaching people I never could.” So why is Bear, a DJ who re-mixes club music, playing for a young, fashionable crowd so important? Because traditionally spaces of Western Culture are not welcoming spaces if you are someone who lies outside the dominant culture. If you are Indigenous, African, South American, basically any culture conquered by the European Countries and colonized you have undoubtedly found your culture being reduced to relics in the structures that dictate what is culturally relevant – even what is culturally ALIVE.
And now a quick history lesson on Museums and Galleries.
The history of what Philippe de Montebello, former director of The Metropolitan Museum Art, calls the “Universal Museum” is around 200 years old. The concept, which we are all familiar with, is to take a look at the world, in chronological order, a linear space where we move through time – a documentation of “PROGRESS.” This type of space allowed for aesthetic connections to be made between culture objects from varying places from the same points in time – a visual record of history – but whose history?
The Louvre was the first public museum. The princes wanted to show what they had “acquired.”
As de Montebello says “Western museums started because they felt legitimately entitled to take the art of the places they were conquering and bring them back to study them.”
With this start as the backdrop it is easy to understand how objects became festishized for their aesthetic and stripped of the human stories that accompany
…their use within their own culture context,
…and then the often tragic events that lead to their acquisition in the collections.
But in the context of the pluralistic realities that we live in now this way of organizing what is our experience of culture is highly problematic. We know there is more than one entry point to history and multiple views are not only valid they are necessary to reconstruct a strong foundation upon which to move forward.
While on a recent trip to New York City I visited the Brooklyn Museum. They had this tremendously beautiful gallery space that was about just that – the act of reconstruction.
As you entered into the space you were met with the words “CONNECTING CULTURES…Museums bring the world’s treasures to the public. Like many other museums The Brooklyn Museum collects works of art in order to inspire, uplift and inform.”
The room was a glorious hodge podge of exquisite and ancient craftsmanship and work by contemporary artists. It was clear that in this space notions of hierarchy were dissolved. A linear progression was abandoned. Instead there was a conversation between equals. And that is an important note of difference.
This image says it all because this young boy who was there studying and taking notes would have been denied access to this museum in a recent past.
Everywhere you turned in the museum you were met by thoughtful curation and diadatic panels that added more voices to the mix. And their emphasis on presenting contemporary African-American artists like Kehinde Whiley makes sense in a community where there is a huge Black population.
Ok, so enough about America, let’s get back to Canada and that night at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The AGO, at the height of Idle No More movement, just weeks after Chief Spence ended her hunger strike, had Tribe programmed to perform. Inside an institutional space that traditionally was about implied exclusivity the performance of 3 men related the message:
NOT ONLY AM I ALIVE, BUT I AM YOUR CONTEMPORARY.
NOT ONLY HAVE MY PEOPLE SURVIVED BUT WE THRIVE.
That’s powerful stuff, especially in light of the historical documents currently being uncovered that speak to the strategies to annihilate Indigenous populations here in Canada.
A few months after that Tribe performance at the AGO the National Gallery of Canada had an exciting opening – Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art Exhibit – that included 150 works of recent Indigenous art by over 80 artists.
This exhibit was the groundbreaking because of the fact it was the first of its kind – an exhibit that took an international scope of Indigenous artists alive, THRIVING, today. This wasn’t a show about surveying artifacts. This was an exhibit about the relevance of Indigenous artists using their practice as social commentary. Sakahàn was long in the making before Idle No More but the timing was certainly interesting as it situated the work of Indigenous artists working in Canada in the present tense. Canadians could frame the work with current events of Idle No More, Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the call for an inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Sakahàn means to strike a light, a fire, in the Algonquin language. Algonquin people, part of the greater cultural group of Anishinaabeg peoples, are the traditional custodians of this land where Ottawa is now located so it was an appropriate and important gesture to use this as the show’s title.
The three curators who organized this immense project were Greg Hill (Audain Curator of Indigenous Art) and Christine Lalonde (Associate Curator of Indigenous Art) of the National Gallery as well as independent curator Candice Hopkins (Elizabeth Simonfay Guest Curator).
I am grateful to Greg, Kayen’kahaka (Mohawk) of the Six Nations of the Grand River, for giving me an thorough tour of the show. What blew me away was the fact that the artists in this show were working way beyond being concerned with just an aesthetic. They were working from deeply personal spaces. They understood their role as artists and their responsibility as cultural producers to make visible what has been buried.
It was overwhelming, emotional, beautiful, and I went back 5 more times. One of the most powerful things that Sakahàn did was it reached out to the larger arts community in Ottawa. Auxiliary shows and events happened all over the city. This is where I felt Sakahàn had it’s most transformative impact. In Ottawa last summer, you encountered contemporary Indigenous art everywhere.
But Sakahàn wasn’t the only show that year that managed to squeeze itself into the institutional space to force open a crack to allow change in.
Between 2013 to 2014 I have lost count of how many shows I have attended that are about using an institutional space to create meaning around contested histories, controversies, and current events. This doesn’t even include the shows that came prior to 2013. Many people have invested blood, sweat and tears and had doors shut on them. It’s the legacy of their labour that allows for the incredible explosion of culturally transformative work we are witnessing now.
I have seen these types of shows in New York and here at home in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa as well as smaller cities like Kitchener, Oakville, Oshawa, and Markham. Something has definitely shifted!
The door is now open and there is no going back into the shadows.
In recent news The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has been open about their epic fail when they launched “Into the Heart of Africa” in 1989 – a re-framing of the Africa collection through colonial eyes. Although meant to be a critique, once it opened what was demonstrated was that the curators were still not willing to consider that perhaps their framing perpetuated hurtful narratives. There were protests that had little immediate impact but what we see now, as we approach the 25th anniversary, is a demonstration in best practice around the complexities of reconsidering history from alternate perspectives.
The ROM has brought in Julie Crooks and Dominique Fontaine to curate “Of Africa” a “multiplatform and multiyear project aimed at rethinking historical and contemporary representations of Africa.”
On October 24 the ROM Hosted a symposium in preparation for “Of Africa” that included panel discussion on “Learning from Into the Heart of Africa.”
“The elephant in the room” as Silvia Forni the ROM’s curator for African programming calls it has now become a moment upon which something transformative AND truthful can be built.
We are in a beautiful moment in time. We can be intentional about how we move forward to create change. There is opportunity for everyone’s voice to be represented at the table. Best practice around how to navigate this new space we are in is:
First acknowledge the hard truths
Second, like the ROM, acknowledge how communities were wronged
Be ok with being uncomfortable
Be open to learn something new
Inquire about Protocol
Outreach to communities
Get to know the leaders
I am going to book end this talk by finishing where we started at the AGO’s Walker’s Court. On July 30 this year, on a little warmer of a night, with no snow storms in the forecast, Beyond the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes opened. At the very top of the court were a series of drums by Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle, who was also in attendance. The drums hang in the place where the German artist Lother Baumgarten was commissioned, in 1984, to do a site-specific work that he titled Monument for the Native People of Ontario. In this piece it was clear that neither Baumgarten nor the AGO did their research. The recent AGO renovation did away with the install and now Robert’s work intervenes in the neo-classical space with his series that references the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabeg peoples.
Zaagi’idiwin / Love
Nibwaakaawin / Wisdom
Dabaadendiziwin / Humility
Minaadendamowin / Respect
Debwewin / Truth
Aakode’ewin / Courage
Gwayakwaadiziwin / Honesty
The opening began with prayer and song by Elder Garry Sault who spoke in both Anishinaabemowin and English followed by a welcoming by Chief Bryan LaForme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.
Also on the agenda that night was an awards ceremony. Metis artist Christi Belcourt, the woman behind the initiative Walking With Our Sisters, received the Ontario Arts Council’s Aboriginal Arts Award. When Christi got up to accept her award she used it as a platform to educate the audience about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Her act was an important intervention into the space.
In the palatial court part of the Beaux Art structure built in 1920s and revamped by architect Frank Gehry in 2008 what could have been just-another-art-party became a somber and important moment of remembering.
When Andrew Hunter, Curator of Canadian Art at the AGO, came up to the podium to speak he made one thing clear – this was not a show of contemporary art paired with “artifacts” but of contemporary artists juxtaposed with past masters. Indigenous art has often been presented as relics of a dead culture far removed from contemporary realities and without relevance to current events.
This small statement powerfully defines how today’s institutional curator can be an instrument for change.
Andrew stood in solidarity with a community who has had the institutional door closed on them many times.
At some point in the evening I took a moment to go back up to the area where I watched A Tribe Called Red perform over a year before. Again, like that night, Walker Court was packed full of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. I took a few photos. Then I put my camera down.
I listened to the moment.
I heard change.
Check out Mixed Bag Mag’s poster submissions for The Power of the Arts. Top poster features talented dancer / choreographer Emily Law, middle poster visual artist Ekow Nimako with his amazing work, and dancer / choreographer Esie Mensah, another beautiful talent!