CANADA, MY HOW YOU’VE CHANGED: Shine A Light at the National Gallery of Canada illuminates landscapes dramatically transformed

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky, 1990 (© NGC)

“Shine A Light, Cast A Shadow”

Canada is known for its tradition of depicting resplendent and majestic landscapes but the inspirational legacy passed down by artists like those in the Group of Seven aren’t echoed by the contemporary artists featured in the National Gallery of Canada’s show of new acquisitions.

The vignette of Lawren Harris’ North Shore, Lake Superior, as seen from the Gallery’s water court and framed by rose granite walls, shares with us a vision of the Great White North as a pristine place. Now the more North you go the more you experience the impact of global warming. The Inuit populations located in Northern Canada are the canaries in the coal mine of climate change. The situation is dire and artists in Canada have responded.

I entered the Shine A Light exhibit at a different point each time and each time I was confronted by works that overwhelmed me with a sense of dread. Artists used to celebrate this land. Now artists like Edward Burtynsky, David McMillan and Isabelle Hayeur scatter themselves across the globe to photograph how human populations are manipulating, extracting and polluting their environments often beyond the point of no return.

Edward’s work is by far the most familiar. His command of composition is always breathtaking, even exhilarating because of the scale of the photographs. They suck you in. They are cinematic making you feel a part of the terrain. He places you at ground zero, he’s like the Weegee of the environmental crime scene and you can’t look away.


Isabelle Hayeur, Death in Absentia II, 2011 (© NGC)

David McMillan and Isabelle Hayeur are lesser known but have equally challenging content. David photographs Chernobyl and Isabelle the dead waters of America. The discombobulating viewpoint of Isabelle’s photographs drown you. David’s work brings back the ghosts of the cold war, the stuff of children’s nightmares and threats of nuclear winters. Glasnost saved us from a global moment of disaster but nuclear technology was still devastating for many Russians. His work provides a document of disaster that irradiates how our modern material culture is forever stuck in some plastic purgatory that’s going to be hard to get out of.


David Hartt, Awards Room at the Johnson Publishing Company Headquarters, Chicago, Illinois, 2011 (© NGC)

The content of David Hartt‘s photography in Stray Light, also about location documentation, is aesthetically more palatable, you could even say seductive. Instead of cold war ghosts you feel a guilty sense of nostalgia for that time before the OPEC crisis, a time when North Americans thought there was no real harm in living large. The video component of Stray Light takes us into the building of the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) former home of Ebony Magazine. As the video transitions smoothly from room to room, accompanied by the lush music of jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell, because of what I witnessed en route to David’s work I can’t shake off a sense of foreboding.

The African sculptures made of wood and stone seem confined in the plastic fantastic world of JPC. People move in and out of the scenes hedged in by office structures that conflict with the softer movements of their bodies proceeding through the space. Watching the final moments of the iconic Ebony in it’s place of conception is like entering a crypt in a necropolis that lures you with its beauty. It feels like the oxygen is going to be sucked out of the building and eventually the space will become a time capsule shrink wrapped for the archive and searching for its final resting place.

Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012, Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York (© NGC)

My initial response to Geoffrey Farmer‘s Leaves of Grass was “this is obscene.” After more time spent with the work my response was still “this is obscene.” His process (a team spending countless hours cutting and pasting), the content (17,000+ cut outs from 5 decades of Life Magazine) and the final presentation (100+ feet of archivally problematic paper, grass and glue) illustrate the absurdity by which we hold on to the past. We collect, categorize and create hierarchies of meaning that allow for justifications of all kinds. We trap ourselves in a constructed story from which we can no longer budge. Leaves of Grass is an absolutely breathtaking piece but as stunning as it is, the work is suffocating. There is too much to take in with no place for the eye to rest; a well executed entanglement of wicked questions. Do our strategies for classification make perfect sense? Are they nonsense? How do they really help?

Junk culture. That is what we are left with and this is the legacy that many of the contemporary artists in this show are trying to illuminate.

David Armstrong Six, The Radiologist, 2012 (Courtesy of the artist and Parisian Laundry. Photo: Matthew Koudys)

The shadowside of Readymades

“Combining found objects with a variety of materials – plaster, plywood, steel, rebar – his sculptural explorations merge the raw and the readymade into aesthetically intriguing and ambiguous compositions.” (sited from Shine A Light catalogue)

David Armstrong Six continues in the tradition of the readymade but Duchamp and the Dadaists weren’t working at a time when people had to be concerned about an impending environmental crisis. Bricolage takes on a different meaning when we are at risk of burying ourselves alive in a rubble pile of our own making. Maybe ‘l’art pour l’art’ is no longer enough to redeem the materials.

An Te Liu, Aphros, 2013 (© An Te Liu. Photo: Dustin Yu)

This is the question that An Te Liu seems to be trying to tease out as he works with casting the materials that accumulate from our post-modern predicament with packaging. Arranged like collection of Brâncușis, the five pieces are beautiful to behold but lack the life force that Brâncuși’s pieces, made of wood and stone, exhale. Rendered in ceramic and metals they give the impression of impotence like the materials they reference, materials that will persist in the environment without the capacity to be generative.

From the room with the David Armstrong Six’s readymades and An Te Liu’s towers you can look out across the Donald R. Sobey Family Gallery and view Luke Parnell’s Phantom Limbs from above. Here yet another graveyard is encountered. The 48 wood carvings laid on the ground are made to represent the homecoming of the ancestors when the Haida Repatriation project succeeded in having ceremonial objects and human remains returned to Haida Gwaii from private and public collections. Luke gave each carving a different expression. Contained under cases of plexi some look understandably pissed.

The Shine A Light catalogue, arranged alphabetically with each artist’s name, ends with the work of Lawerence Paul Yuxweluptun and a 2 page spread of his painting Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky (see above). This work hasn’t been publicly viewed for nearly 2 decades. Now seems like the requisite moment to bring it out again to remind us that in those 20 years we haven’t transitioned forward with many solutions. Instead we see a global trend to become more entrenched with ‘pie in the sky’ ways of living. Suffering with the collective trauma of watching our world come to the brink of disaster do we brush off our artists as Chicken Littles? Because the sky is indeed falling, our ozone layer is literally breaking apart into pieces.

large abstract drawing of large round shapes in a dark background

On the back wall of the 2nd floor is The Arsenal, a work by Jutai Toonoo. It is a large scale oil stick drawing of T cells. He created the work at a moment when he was trying to understand the pathology of the cancer his mother was stricken with. The helpful T cells fight against viruses, bacteria and diseases.

Our material culture is replicating faster than stage 4 cancer. It metastasizes in places as topographically different as Chernyobyl, Nunavut and India. The micro T cells, as the subject of Jutai’s work, are metamorphosed into a macro landscape that covers a large expanse across the Gallery’s wall. The allied cells shine like a phosphorescence glow in an inky black sea. After the challenging content of Shine A Light his work highlights hope. We are in need of an arsenal of solutions to push back the chaos. Encoded in the DNA of the planet are the cellular memories that can transform a landscape in crisis.

Above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag unless otherwise noted.

MIXED BAG MAG DOES NEW YORK: Art Smart in NYC

looking up at tall skyscrapers with sign on one that reads MOMA

From Haida artist Robert Davidson to American artist Kara Walker Mixed Bag Mag covered a lot of artistic ground.  

My art muscle is damn strong! In 4 days I was able to cover (almost) everything. It was a major marathon (Bed-Stuy to Manhattan – up to Harlem – back to Brooklyn) but I arrived at the finish line inspired by all that New York has to offer right now.

It was the small-but-mighty shows that grabbed my attention the most and made me regret that I wouldn’t be staying longer.

(in order of my schedule)

The MoMA – There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33” (on until June 22)

The National Museum of the American Indian Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse (on until September 14)

The MET – Now You See It: Photography and Concealment (on until September 1)

Acquavella GalleryJean Michel Basquiat Drawing (closing today!)

The Studio Museum HarlemCarrie Mae Weems: The Museum Series (on until June 29)

The Brooklyn MuseumWitness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (on until July 13)

& of course Surveillapocalypse with the 007 Collective and artCodex at Five Myles Gallery Brooklyn. The work of Brooklyn based artist David Wallace was beautiful to witness.

group of people sitting and sanding in front of brick building

words on a wall that say Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

I have been around the world –  East Berlin during the Reunification of Germany, L.A. during the Rodney King riots, even Johannesburg leading up to the elections where Mandela’s win changed the course of history…

…but never New York! 

Sometimes living close by a place makes you take it for granted. This trip was about righting that wrong and finally showing some love to New York. And the timing couldn’t have been better for gathering MIXED BAG MAG style content! Also on the agenda was Kara Walker’s A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn as well as seeing Ai Wei Wei’s According to What for a second time at the Brooklyn Museum. It was interesting comparing this iteration of the show to last year’s at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Another chance at comparison will be when the AGO hosts Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, currently on at the National Museum of the American Indian.

words on a wall that say Draped Down and a reproduction of a mixed media of a young black woman

When you deep dive into a city’s art scene to explore different neighbourhoods with their private galleries,  artist-run centres and national institutions you witness how much art enriches the lives of the inhabitants as well as the visitors. Life wouldn’t be as wonderful without artists!

I got a little lazy pulling out my clunky pro camera so I decided instead to capture New York thru the lightness of a cell cam. Here is just a small sampling of what I experienced. There will be more trips south of the border in an effort to uncover how artists transform urban spaces and cultural places but for this moment I was just a 21st Century flâneur with a phone.

sculpture made out of rough wood posts and bent shiny metal, people walking by
White painted canvas wrapped with knotted fabric that projects out from the canvas
City scape of large skyscrapers and smaller residential buildings
Large stone sculpture of woman and man with larger classic style building and skyscraper behind it
Two entrances to two art exhibits
Panel of actors on stage, mixed men and women
two women stand with back to the camera looking at a gallery with an installation in progress, ladders, tables
Woman standing in front of a brick facade gallery with the address and sign that says Five MylesMaria Hupfield stands in front of “Splash” a sculpture by Haitian-American artist Engles.
The inside of a gallery with classic architecture, a greek style female sculpture and framed abstract drawing to its right
Up close photograph of a abstract drawing
two front stair cases leading up to fancy doors, plants lining the stairs
Black man busking in front of street side display of paintings
Skyscape of modern buildings with older style architecture, the profile of the Guggenheim
inside the Guggenheim Museum with people sitting in the centre area and the words Italian Futurism on the wall
Looking up to the large skylight in the atrium of the Guggenheim
The modern architecture of the Guggenheim Museum against the sky with clouds
Poster advertising for the Metropolitan Museum, old painting of a young black man with ornate headdress facing an antique photograph of a middle age white woman
Black and white photograph series of a naked white man walking with classic Greek painting of nude black male figures running
Posters for the Metropolitan Museum with photograph of classic bust of white man mouth open screaming on left and classic Japanese style painting of a Geisha
Advertising for the Met with painting of white woman and photograph of a pharaoh on right. Words One Met Many Worlds on the posters.
The staircase leading up to the Metropolitan Museum with people milling about, day on left, night on right
two classic greek or roman marble sculptures in an elaborate hallway, man on left, woman on right
Crystal decanter on left, marble statue of a nude woman, her back to camera, on right
The outside of a theatre with the marquee and sign saying Apollo
American flag waving from a building in black and red stripes, green background with black stars against a blue sky
Painting on a metal pull down door with mural of Malcolm X, Obama, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Reads Share the Dream, Welcome to Heavenly Harlem
Photograph of a tv screen with video of 3 black men singing and performing. The ages of the 3 men vary from middle age to old
Large scale painted canvas, black background with white lettering from top to bottom
Young black woman laughing and talking to young white man with beard, standing in a subway station
Street scene in an industrial area, people waiting at the corner, poster that reads Kara Walker
Little girl picking up another little girl to look in basket of a sculpture of a child. Black woman looking at the sculpture of a black child labourer
Large white sculpture of a black woman with a handkerchief wrap on head, people standing looking at the sculpture
Brick work and ornate decorative patterns carved in stone and white text painted that reads Watch Your Head
Street art project with words Before I Die I Will painted with chalkboard paint and peoples answers scribbled in chalk
Street art project with words Before I Die I Will painted with chalkboard paint and peoples answers scribbled in chalk
Old white brick building boarded up against blue sky full of clouds
One story high brick industrial buildings painted in yellow and other bright colours against a blue sky
Large neo-classical building with clouds in the background, The Brooklyn Museum
Photograph of a museum show reading Connecting Cultures
Photograph of a museum show reading Connecting Cultures
Young black boy with notepad and pencil looking up at classic European painting of a white woman
close up shot of wood paneled structure with holes that show other structures behind it. The shape repeats a crescent moon
A poster on the ground that says This Is Indian Land. Cardboard stencil with words Surveillapocalypse cut out of it and lying on poster
Spray painted outline of a motif that is an Ojibwa Thunderbird
Cut out of birds attached to a mobile that moves around a screen with a photograph of a man projected on it
A bridge at night, lined with lights that are out of focus.
Drag show in nightclub, white queen descending the stairs with black queen in back with microphone
stone and pavement on a street with the words Protect Your Magic painted on it

BEFORE I DIE I WILL: Go to New York City


Woman's feet in sandals standing on concrete slab that reads Brooklyn Concrete Made In CanadaAbove images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

ALL IN THE FAMILY: The National Gallery of Canada Features the Legacy of Charles Edenshaw

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles Edenshaw

A family’s remarkable resiliency in spite of the odds.

This weekend at the National Gallery of Canada the exquisite exhibit of Da•axiigang, the Haida name for the the artist Charles Edenshaw, is closing.

Charles, or “Chinni Charlie” as he is known to his family, was born in 1839 but despite the 175 years we are removed from his physical presence on earth his spirit continues to speak through the hands of his great grandchildren.

Silver bracelet with Haida carvings Charles Edenshaw. Sea Bear Bracelet, late 19th century silver. McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Photo: Trevor Mills. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

The exhibit is housed in the galleries that are usually reserved for the Inuit Collection. This intimate space is well suited for the story of Charles and the family ties that are presented in the exhibit. As you read through the information provided you understand how important family was to him and how important he is today to his descendants that refer to him by the Haida word (Chinni) for grandfather.

When you turn left to enter into the first room of the exhibit you are met with a piece that spiritually roots the work. It is unlike the rest of the collection of platters, hats, walking sticks, and silver spoons that look as pristine as if they have come fresh from the artist’s hands. It is a cradleboard that Charles youngest daughter, Nora, identified as being hers and may have also been used for his other three daughters – Emily, Agnus, and Florence – who came before. It is worn down with the wear of practicality from safely securing babies to backs. Simply carved and embedded with abalone shells, it starts off an exhibit that includes work by the men who are descended through two of these women – James Hart and Robert Davidson.

Just beyond the cradleboard is a fantastic Transformation Mask by James who is also the hereditary Haida Chief. On the other wall Nangkilslas: He Whose Voice is Obeyed is the other Transformation Mask by Robert that bookends a bentwood chest attributed to their great-great-grandfather. A photograph on the wall beside Robert’s mask shows the one by their Chinni which inspired both of them as master carvers. Now too fragile to travel with the exhibition the strength of his descendants skill fills the void left by its absence.

Transformation Mask, circa 1882-1890: wood, bird feathers, animal fur, pigment, leather copper. / VANCOUVER ART GALLERY

In the accompanying book for the show Chief James Hart writes:

“Chinni Charlie “wished he could leave his hands to us” meaning he wanted to leave his talent to his family. In the end he did. The ones who carry on in the family like to say that “we get it from Chinni Charlie and Nonni Isabella – it runs in the family.” 

Nonni Isabella was Charles wife, known also by her Haida name Qwii.aang. A talented artist in her own right, the exhibit showcases the work that she did with Charles, her partner in life and art.

Her skill as a basket and hat weaver using spruce root can been viewed up close and personal. The exhibit includes many examples of her work woven with tedious precision. Charles would paint her pieces infusing them with more layers of meaning to teach the “Haida Way”. These beautiful objects also speak to the relationship between spouses who were creatively inspired by each other’s talent.

A wide brimmed hat woven out of spruce root and painted in Haida designsCharles and Isabella Edenshaw (attr.). Eagle Hat, c. 1890 spruce root, paint. Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia. Photo: Trevor Mills. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

In this generation the spirit of Nonni Isabella is embodied in her great-great-granddaughter Lisa Hageman Yahgulanaas. Lisa is a talented textile artist who “weaves in the geometric style of weaving known as Yelth Koo or Raven’s Tail” embracing the complexities of the art form as her Nonni did.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles Edenshaw

Charles Edenshaw (attr.) Model Pole, c. 1890–1905. Argillite. Image provided by the National Gallery.

A cultural strand was not severed.

The night of the opening you could witness the thread of Charles’ legacy stitching the past to the present as family members from the temperate West Coast arrived to the chilly winter of Ottawa to be present and pay their respects.

When I ask artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas to tell me what is important about his Chinni’s work when viewed in a contemporary context he replies:

“my great grandfather worked in one the most important traditional styles, the tradition of innovation.”

Long before Picasso happened upon the African masks that inspired him to produce a radical new style of painting, Charles was soaking up what arrived in his world that was ‘exotic’ and foreign to him. Reading the newspapers and books that landed in his lap from faraway lands, he would cut out what interested him to hang like an inspiration board on the walls where he worked. Animals not indigenous to the terrain of Haida Gwaii, like elephants and lions, started to make appearances in his work but with an incorporation that seemed natural when viewed amongst the Haida symbols.

Not only did Charles break new ground with regards to hybridized content but he experimented with materials, like gold and silver, introduced during the Colonial expansion. He incorporated the new with the traditional materials and was able to confidently shift from wood, to metals and then on to argillite as evidenced by the wonderful platters contained in the exhibit. These platters, made of the black slate that was locally quarried yet still labourious to obtain, are transmissions of the oral traditions that still survive in these (post) post modern times.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawCharles Edenshaw (attr.). Platter, pre-1894. Argillite The Field Museum, Chicago, 17952 Photo: © The Field Museum. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

This contemporary legacy goes beyond family to include so many carvers working today. Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin recalls how his first instructor (Louis Minard) was taught by A.P Johnson, an artist who had some point learned at the hands of Charles. You see the substantiation of Charles in Nicholas’ work. One of his recent creations is a beautifully carved piece titled Indian Children’s Bracelet, a deceptive title for what it really is – child sized handcuffs used to restrain Aboriginal children who were being separated from their families and taken off to schools. (Read more here.)

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawIndian Children’s Bracelet. Hand Engraved, Iron. Nicholas Galanin. 2014. Image courtesy Nicholas Galanin. 

The Indigenous traditions of the Pacific West Coast, like carving and weaving, have continued to influence the international art scene and the work of Nicholas as well as Charles’ familial successors – Robert, James, Michael and Lisa – are part of collections around the world. But this is nothing new. Even in his time, Charles was recognized widely. In 1902 the ethnographer C.F. Newcombe declared Charles to be “the best carver in wood and stone now living.”

Almost two centuries of international influence! This would be remarkable for any family but the fact we are even able to experience the work is nothing short of miraculous. Charles lived through not one but two small pox epidemics that claimed almost the entire Haida population. The odds were that he should not have survived let alone gone on to thrive as a celebrated artist with an extensive family still practicing in the traditions he learned from his own elders 200 years ago.

Along with the almost complete loss of a people, the traditional ways of being were forced to go underground. The Anglican missionaries condemned the practice of tattooing the Haida clan symbols on skin so bracelets instead of bodies became the place where one could claim their identity. In 1884 the Potlatch was banned and a thriving culture almost came to a halt but was not fully annihilated. Somehow that thinning cultural strand, weakened by ‘progress’ and British expansion, was not entirely severed.The combined four hands of this couple stitched, built, and carved a new path to Sovereignty. They did this all while raising their children – 11 in all.

Today we prosper from the richness they left behind and the talent passed forward.

The Charles Edenshaw exhibit is a love letter to a grandfather, a creative collaborator and a spiritual mentor. This exhibit is a family tale that can inspire us all.

The exhibition ends Sunday May 24 at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. For exhibit hours click here.

More information on the Charles Edenshaw exhibit can be found here.

black stroke

All descended from Charles Edenshaw, artists Michael Nicoll YahgulanaasCorey Bulpitt and Chief James Hart demonstrate that the Haida culture is alive and well in the 21st Century.

Abstracted drawing “Papered Over” (2011.4.25 36″ H X 24″ W) by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Image courtesy Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas.

Created with graphites, crayon, watercolour, ink pen and brush, rice paper and canvas support “Papered Over” is a work Michael writes was “inspired by the winter light on clear days in Calgary Alberta will in residence at Mont Royal University.”

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawWork by Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt (great-great-grandson of Charles Edenshaw) at Sakahàn, The National Gallery of Canada. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

Along with Larissa, Corey explains his process for the above work commissioned as part of last year’s Sakahàn, the National Gallery’s International Indigenous Art Exhibit.

“James Hart, great-great-grandson of Charles Edenshaw, and exhibition curator Robin Wright, discuss what makes the Charles Edenshaw exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada, so special.” View on Youtube here.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawThe Three Watchmen by Chief James Hart on Sussex Drive in front of The National Gallery of Canada. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE: Digging Down into the Layers of Institutional Information

A view with the fall colours just outside Ottawa in Chelsea.

Back from the Nation’s Capital!

The one thing I love about living above the 49th parallel is the experience of seasons. Although the fall represents the dying away of the fruits of summer and points towards the contemplative mood of winter, with winter comes the promise of spring’s rebirth and new opportunities for growth. The symbolism is simple but profoundly significant.

A trek north with the chance to leave the concrete jungle of urban Toronto was rewarded by arriving in the Ottawa area at the peak of autumn’s technicolour display augmented by the light of shifting stormy skies. Sometimes you need to get out of the city to see a new view – literally and metaphorically.

French artist Louise Bourgeois' sculpture of a spider titled "Maman" outside the National Gallery in Ottawa, Canada.French artist, Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman” sculpture outside the National Gallery.

French-Canadian artist Joe Fafard's sculpture "Running Horses" outside the National Gallery, Ottawa, CanadaFrench-Canadian artist Joe Fafard’s “Running Horses” sculpture outside the National Gallery.

The purpose of the trip was also to start research into a series of articles that will be featured on MIXED BAG MAG regarding “Curating Identity” so some trips to the National Gallery as well as the Museum of Civilization were on the agenda.

During this time I was also trying (unsuccessfully) to work through French cultural theorist Michel Foucault’s “The Archaeology of Knowledge” because as Foucault proposed the way that we organize, categorize and structure information explains a lot about our worldviews when we dig down into the layers.

“The Description of Statements”

After my first visit to the National Gallery I realized that somehow I missed coming across the Inuit Collection. Upon my second visit I almost missed it again. I circled back around the Contemporary Canadian Collection on the First Floor to try to find what I was looking for as I passed by numerous Groups of Sevens and Michael Snows. Finally I gave in and just asked.

“Where is the Contemporary Inuit Collection?”

The guard didn’t seem to get what I was saying about “contemporary”.

“You mean the Inuit Collection?”

“Yes, but is there a separate contemporary section like here in this section, you know, current work”

“Dunno, but the Inuit Collection is down in the dungeon”

and he pointed to sets of descending stairs.

As much as I adore Moshe Safdie’s architecture somehow in the design the Inuit Collection got relegated to what a National Gallery employee referred to as the “dungeon” in the final structure.

Unfortunately this is telling. The symbolism of the statement, most likely not deliberate or intentionally demeaning, represents a sticky problem with regards to Canadian identity. There is a thorny mess that we can get into when cultural biases that are long due to die away have yet to go through their winter of contemplation.

During the trip I met up with Zimbabwean artist and educator Chiko Chazunguza to discuss, among other things, the hot topic – identity in the visual arts. He shared with me this story. Once, in a class he was teaching back in Zimbabwe, he asked a group of black students to draw portraits. The faces these young African artists depicted were all white. Again – unfortunately telling. How do we begin to structure knowledge so that we build a world where all of us are able to see our own faces reflected back positively?

Haida-Canadian artist Bill Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture inspired by Haida mythology inside the Museum of Civilization. Haida artist Bill Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture inside the Museum of Civilization.

“The Museum is the Medium”

After a workshop at OCAD U on Marshall McLuhan I had a quick discussion with a visiting professor’s presentation on how a museum can be the medium. As an example he described the Museum to the Holocaust in the Jewish Museum, Berlin and its encompassing of a void space of silence with little light. The physical structure of a museum, its internal layout, its contents (or lack of contents) as well as the taxonomy of its collections becomes in itself the medium that delivers the message of that institution’s normatives.

“The criteria of epistemes can be defined through what or whom they exclude or disqualify” ~ Michel Foucault

The Museum of Civilization has a beautiful and substantial collection of Aboriginal artifacts but with a contemporary art section making only a brief appearance at the tail end the feeling I was left with was that perhaps there is still a national episteme that First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures are buried back in the past with weak relevance to the contemporary Canadian context although their current retrospective exhibit of Métis artist Bob Boyer’s work (curated by Lee Ann Martin) is a step in a progressive direction. This engaging exhibit confirms that there are curators (and even institutions) out there that are eager to redress this issue.

Trains-N-Boats-N-Plains: The Nina, the Santa Maria and a Pinto by Metis-Canadian artist Bob Boyer. View more of Bob Boyer’s work on the Virtual Museum of Canada

Shows like AGO’s Inuit Modern (curated by Gerald McMaster) last year and this year’s Fashionality: Dress + Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art (curated by Julie Pine) at the McMichael illustrate that we have a wealth of contemporary First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists. It is exhibits like these that demonstrate that a dismantling of the old knowledge base stuck in the mire of the one-sided story of colonialism has begun.

It is the vision of curators, like those mentioned above, that will assist us in moving forward to define a new national narrative appropriate to the 21st Century and the spring of our history(s).

“There is no “history” but a multiple, overlapping and interactive series of legitimate vs. excluded histories.” ~ Michel Foucault

Trains-N-Boats-N-Plains: The Nina, the Santa Maria and a Pinto by Metis-Canadian artist Bob Boyer. American artist Roxy Paine’s “One Hundred Foot Line” sculpture outside the National Gallery with statue of Champlain, the Father of New France, in the background.

Photography by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.