The National Gallery of Canada had a rusty start when it came to Indigenous people and their art. It had been around for 47 years before it finally showed any works by Indigenous people in 1927 as part of a West Coast exhibit that is most remembered for introducing much of Canada to Emily Carr, a non-Indigenous woman whose paintings often portrayed Indigenous art.
All that’s long gone. A complete rethink of its Indigenous galleries just over two years ago won praise from even some skeptical Indigenous art historians.
On Thursday night, I attended an event that dramatically underscored the prominence of Indigenous artists within the National Gallery. A crowd of about 2,500 squeezed into its main hall while several hundred other people were turned away for the opening of a major, international exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art called Àbadakone, the Algonquin word for continuous fire. (It’s pronounced AH-bada-kwanay.)
While Indigenous artists from Canada and the United States are prominently featured among 70 artists in the exhibit, so are a wide range of cultures, including the Sápmi of Norway, Māori from New Zealand and the Yorùbá people of Nigeria.
For people who don’t follow Indigenous art closely, many of the 100 works in the exhibition may not fit their preconceived notions.
Ursula Johnson, a performance and installation artist of Mi’kmaw ancestry from Nova Scotia, told me that Indigenous art has always evolved in both its forms and materials. Beading, variations of which appear in several works of the show, only developed after Europeans arrived.
“There are customary practices of working with materials, but as time changes, as materials change, then we’re constantly adapting,” she said over the roar of the opening night crowd. “Look around the room: There’s plastic, there’s vinyl, there’s Kevlar, there are all kinds of materials that are being worked with because these are the materials of our society today. It’s not just wood, bones, stone.”
While many of the artists showed up for the opening ceremony in a global array of traditional dress, Ms. Johnson wore a piece of contemporary Indigenous art. It was a Chicago Blackhawks jersey on which Carrie Allison, a young Métis artist, had replaced the embroidered team logo, which is widely seen as offensive among members of Indigenous communities, with one created in beads.
Several of the works in the exhibition were entirely created or finished at the gallery — a process that involved, among other things, tanning animal hides over open fires in its forecourt.
Four Māori women who prefer to be only known as the Mata Aho Collective, took traditional hand-weaving to a monumental scale with a 14-meter, or 45-foot, high cylinder of green, nylon marine rope that now dominates one of the gallery’s spaces. The group, which often mixes traditional techniques with industrial materials, started the work at a university laboratory in New Zealand normally used for volcanic ash studies. But its ceiling topped out at 10 meters, forcing them to finish the job, which was commissioned by the gallery, in Ottawa.
It was worth the globe-spanning effort. Their sculpture is spectacular.
The exhibition, which runs until April, is the second show in what the gallery promises will be a continuing series.
“It has to be a series because of the number of amazing artists, truly great contemporary artists who are Indigenous, around the world,” Christine Lalonde, one of the exhibition’s three curators, told me. “So next week we’ll start working on the next one.”
Not surprisingly, regardless of where the artists live, many of them used their works to examine the effects of European colonization on their cultures. Ruth Cuthand, who is of Plains Cree, Scottish and Irish ancestry and lives in Saskatoon, used elaborate beadwork to recreate microscopic images of diseases brought from Europe that brought devastation to many Indigenous groups.
Ms. Johnson’s pieces in the show are eight acrylic vitrines with hand-etched and sandblasted images of traditional Mi’kmaw baskets made by her great-grandmother, Caroline Gould.
As the crowd formed a long and patient queue to enter the exhibition, I asked Ms. Johnson what she hoped non-Indigenous Canadians who attended would take from the artists’ work.
“It’s work for us to constantly try to break down stereotypes,” she said. “But if non-Indigenous people come in and say: ‘Wow, I had no idea that this existed. Can you excuse my naïveté or my ignorance of not knowing the history of this tribal culture and explain some of this to me?’— that’s totally O.K., because then we’ll actually begin to make change together.”
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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.