Indigenous art sparks interest at the National Gallery


5-Belmore-Fringe 2009

Rebecca Belmore, Fringe, 2009

The Algonquin word Sakahàn means “to ignite a fire.” It appropriately represents the impact that Aboriginal artists have had on the global arts community over the last decade. Like a fire spreading outwards, Indigenous artists are leaving a lasting impression on more and more curators around the world. Many are taking note of the unique viewpoints they share, both as Aboriginal peoples and as contemporary artists.

That’s why a widely anticipated Indigenous arts exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada this spring could not be more appropriately timed. The collection, SAKAHÀN: International Indigenous Art opens May 17 at the NGC in Ottawa.

The SAKAHÀN curatorial team consists of Greg Hill, Christine Lalonde and Candice Hopkins, who worked on this labour of love for three years. Alongside an international advisory committee they carefully selected artwork that would best represent the broad spectrum of Indigenous artists working today.

They crossed Canada and visited Japan, Kenya, Guatemala, Samoa, India, Finland, Colombia, Australia, Brazil, Taiwan, the United States and Greenland to compile over 150 works by 75 different artists. The exhibition showcases both award-winning artists as well as those who are not yet recognized in North America to a presentation as diverse as its contributors.

Challenging though it may seem to find unity within such diversity of work, themes and media, co-curator Christine Lalonde explains that there is nonetheless a common thread through the show.  One such theme, she says, is that of self-representation: “what it means to be indigenous in contemporary society in a world of romanticized stereotypes.”

Posing questions about identity, one’s place in world, the value of history and the impact of societal trauma, the artworks address questions that all can relate to, Indigenous or not. The curators hope the presentation will help “expand how people view Indigenous culture, politics and maybe even themselves.”

With such a wide range of media and subject matter, there is something for everyone at this exhibit. Some standout pieces: Jimmie Durham’s large scale outdoor sculpture “Encore tranquillité”; Jamasee Padluq Pitseolak’s
“Handcuffs” in
stone and caribou antler; Marie Watt’s interactive “Blanket Stories”; and Rebecca Belmore’s “Fringe”, a
Cibachrome transparency in fluorescent light box.

The last of these, Belmore’s Fringe, is both “poetic and powerful in its exploration of repulsion and seduction of at risk groups such as Indigenous women,” Lalonde said, adding that the work displays “empowerment through portrayals of authority and grace.”

Another excellent piece is Watt’s “Blanket Stories”, which depends on public participation for its success. Watt is asking people to incorporate themselves in her work by donating blankets and their stories for use in a series of sculptures. The intention is to create seven freestanding towers of blankets to represent the Indigenous teachings of seven generations.

In exchange for the blankets, Watt will send contributors an original silk-screen print of her own work. For more information on how you can participate in this project see the Blanket Stories section on the NGC website:

Impressive, beautiful, unique and not to be missed, the SAKAHÀN exhibit runs from May 17 to Sept. 2 at the National Gallery of Canada.