The National Gallery in Ottawa is set to do something which has never been done before. At least not in the world of art as we know it in this country.
A new, permanent exhibit entitled Art of this land opened June 19. One hundred Aboriginal artworks and artifacts, some dating back thousands of years, will be displayed side-by-side with non-Aboriginal work in this long-term exhibition space.
This marks a significant change in policy towards native art. Historically, native artists were relegated to a different wing of the gallery, which sometimes meant less exposure than other exhibits. The few times they were presented with non-native artists, the exhibitions were only temporary.
“Aboriginal art has been viewed as an ethnographic object, not necessarily as art, and subsequently relegated to an ethnographic museum as opposed to an art gallery. There have been exhibitions of historical Aboriginal art at the National Gallery as early as 1927. But the way those were displayed was in quite a different way than how we’re doing it now,” said Greg Hill, assistant curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery.
With the input of a team of outside experts, including Aboriginal artists and scholars, 17 Canadian galleries were completely overhauled to make ‘Art of this Land’ happen.
The size of the exhibition is roughly “three football fields,” according to Hill.
This particular project took three years to put together.
Artifacts, and artwork from all over Canada are on display at the Gallery. Some are on loan from individuals, some from other museums, and some, like the Iroquois confederacy belt (Hiawatha’s belt), came directly from the band.
The Iroquois confederacy belt represents the forming of the Five Nations Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca) hundreds of years ago.
The United States constitution was based on how these nations ran their government.
The belt had never been loaned out since it was repatriated back from the Smithsonian institute.
An exhibition like this means a great deal to the artists whose work will finally be recognized alongside mainstream artists.
“Those we’ve talked to, Robert Houle, and Alex Janvier, have been quite supportive of finally having their work considered alongside other artists in Canada. To be taken (seriously) and treated in an equal manner,” said Hill.
Public support and a change in attitude helped this exhibit become a reality. Native artists had been lobbying for years for the right to be viewed in the same space as Canada’s best artists.
Hill said that without the support of the National Gallery, this exhibit would not have happened. The gallery supplied much needed human and financial resources, not to mention the large exhibition space.
One of the more prominent pieces on display is a petroglyph from the Nanaimo area which is believed to be 5,000 to 8,000 years old. It was borrowed from the museum in Nanaimo, and was actually found by someone digging a well, 14 feet deep. It is believed to be of Salish origin.
One of the more interesting artists on display is Zachary Vincent. He is believed to be the earliest known Aboriginal to do portrait paintings, dating back to the 1840’s.
The exhibit is free for the public. Anyone interested in visiting this exciting new exhibition should visit www.gallery.ca. or call 613-990-1985 for more information.