Indigenous art, photography front and centre this fall at National Gallery

Maria Hupfield. Electric Prop and Hum Freestyle Variations, 2017–18. Installation view of a performance at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, 2017. Collaboration with Tusia Dabrowska. Courtesy the artist. @ Maria Hupfield. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp, courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Maria Hupfield is Ojibwe and a member of the Wasauksing First Nation.

The National Gallery’s lineup of fall/winter exhibitions will include new photography from Canada, mid-century photography from Japan, monsters and a global survey of Indigenous art that will be “unmatched in scope and scale.”

That “unmatched” boast is daunting, as the gallery will have to outdo Sakahan, its own earlier, unprecedented exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art from around the world. Sakahàn is an Algonquin word meaning “Start a fire.” The latest exhibition will be titled Àbadakone, or Continuous Fire.

Àbadakone opens Nov. 8, and will include “works by more than 70 artists identifying with approximately 40 Indigenous Nations, ethnicities, and tribal affiliations from 16 countries,” the gallery says in a release. “Galleries and public spaces will be animated with works in all media including performance art and commissioned installations, complemented by a robust program of film screenings and public talks.”

It sounds like a lot, unless you remember how, in 2013, Sakahàn sprawled out of the gallery onto the grounds —  and even into other unaffiliated art spaces.

By the time Sakahàn closed, it had satellite exhibitions at the Ottawa Art Gallery, SAW Gallery, Carleton University Art Gallery, the Museum of Civilization, the National Arts Centre and elsewhere. Perhaps most memorably, it shrouded the exterior of the National Gallery’s great hall with a fake iceberg by Greenland artist Inuk Silis Høegh (all while the hall’s windows were being replaced, so a timely bit of art installation that was).

Shibuya Ryukichi. Ginza Photomontage. Yokohama Museum of Art.

It was, the gallery said at the time, the largest exhibition of contemporary international Indigenous art ever held anywhere, and while there’s no ready empirical measure for such marketing bluster, the claim seemed credible.

That 2013 exhibition was effectively a very public cri de cœur that the pre-eminent keeper of Canada’s art past — which for many years had been accused of sidelining Indigenous art — was throwing off its own colonial inhibitions and putting that art front and centre.

“Having an exhibition like Sakahàn is a very strong statement of how far the National Gallery is going to recognize the vitality of indigenous art,” said the Audain curator of indigenous art, Greg Hill, at the time. “It’s really a world cultural event and a historical cultural event for us. . . It’s a big deal,” added Marc Mayer, then director of the gallery.

Greg Hill is also curating Àbadakone, with associate curator Christine Lalonde and acting associate curator Rachelle Dickenson. Artists will include Canadian stars Shuvinai Ashoona and Rebecca Belmore, with others from across Canada and around the world — Guatemala, New Zealand, Norway, Nigeria, Siberia and many more.

News about Àbadakone has emerged as the gallery has also highlighted Re-Creation, an on-going series of commissions with Canadian Indigenous artists to “create objects in dialogue with pieces from the past.” 

“We hope this commission program will help shift the relationship between museum institutions and Indigenous peoples,” said Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow, the associate curator of historical Indigenous art. “Instead of simply taking artworks out of Indigenous communities, as was often done in the past, we want to support the creation of new artworks and the revitalization of customary artistic practices within those communities.”

Dates for the commissions were not released.

Also at the gallery this fall are Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography, and PhotoLab6: New Generation Photography Award, both opening Oct. 11.

The New Generation Award celebrates photographic art by Canadians 30 or younger. The show will have works by 2019 winners Luther Konadu, Ethan Murphy and Zinnia Naqvi.

The Hanran exhibit will include images from the early 1930s to the 1990s, a period that saw “tumultuous social and political changes” in Japan, the gallery’s release says without exaggeration.

Finally, Beautiful Monsters in Early European Prints and Drawings (1450-1700) opens Nov. 29. It’ll include drawings as well as etchings and engravings by well-known names, such as Andrea Mantegna and Albrecht Dürer. Expect “monsters, creatures and beasts” to stand as allegory for “religious, moral and social anxieties” of the period. Plus ça change . . .

Meanwhile, over at the National Arts Centre, the Kipnes Lantern (that giant, active video screen over the Elgin Street entrance) will be showing the city’s Pride.

Several works created by Vancouver artist Joe Average will be displayed on the screen between 4 and 11 p.m. daily for three days, starting Friday, Aug. 23.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.