An exhibition of Indigenous art – reproductions rather than real art — is to open this June at the former U.S. embassy on Wellington Street across from Parliament Hill, ARTSFILE has learned.
The exhibition of historical and contemporary art reproductions is to continue for up to two years and will open even though renovations are incomplete in transforming the Beaux-Arts building into the Indigenous Peoples’ Space championed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Department of Crown-Indigenous Affairs is in charge of the project and, after five days of stalling, finally refused to answer any questions about the exhibition or state of the building. For example: The department avoided answering questions about the feasibility of having a public exhibition in a building that is in the midst of renovations.
“It is a construction site,” said one person who recently visited the building.
Some sources familiar with the project say the building also lacks the kind of climate controls necessary to protect and preserve fine art. That is one of the reasons reproductions are being used, they say.
Art-lovers wanting to see real art can always walk a few blocks to the National Gallery of Canada to see some excellent examples of historical and contemporary Indigenous art by the likes of Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig or Christi Belcourt.
Inevitably, there will be some noses out of joint at the use of art reproductions in such a high-profile space. An exhibition of reproductions is, in the eyes of some art aficionados, akin to an exhibition of Made-in-Taiwan knock-offs of treasures from King Tut’s tomb.
The Crown-Indigenous department refused a request by ARTSFILE to interview Michelle LaVallee, the curator in charge of the exhibition and the director of the Indigenous Art Centre in the department’s Hull headquarters. (Hundreds of government workers have been moved out of the building, amid complaints about air quality in some parts of the structure but the department says its huge art collection and public gallery are in a safe area and will remain there.)
LaVallee is being assisted in her work by two Ottawa-based, high-profile players in the Indigenous art world who both received this year a Governor General’s Visual Arts Award. They are Lee-Ann Martin, former curator of contemporary Indigenous art at what is now the Canadian Museum of History, and Jeff Thomas, a photo-artist and curator whose own work is in the National Gallery and other top art museums.
The exhibition is to be ready for June 21, the annual National Indigenous Peoples Day and, at some point, will be replaced by permanent galleries showing real art by First Nations, Metis and Inuit artists. A final line-up of artworks is not yet ready, one reason being artists must be located and then asked if they agree to exhibiting a reproduction of their work.
In 2001, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien announced the former embassy was to be the Portrait Gallery of Canada, About $11 million were spent on renovations. The government of Stephen Harper cancelled the project in 2007 before the building, still a work in progress, opened.
Then, two years ago on National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Trudeau announced the building would become the Indigenous Peoples Space. The exhibition opening in June seems designed to show that some progress is being made on the the PM’s promise. His role as a leader of Indigenous Reconciliation appeared to take a hit this winter following the treatment of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould in the SNC Lavalin affair.
The Department of Crown-Indigenous Affairs was asked last week about details of the exhibition. Questions were also raised this week about the state of the building. The department’s answers, if you can call them that, on both topics came Tuesday.
“Apologies for the delay,” began the response sent by Tim Kenny, from the department’s media relations office. “In regards to both your inquiries the department is delivering the following response:
“As announced by the Prime Minister on June 21, 2017, the Indigenous Peoples’ Space that will be established at 100 Wellington Street will reflect the vision of Indigenous Peoples and the spirit of reconciliation. To advance this project, a working group made up of representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, including the Algonquin Peoples, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council are working together on the next steps to ensure 100 Wellington Street becomes an inclusive space.
“As work is underway, no final decisions have been made on the space at 100 Wellington Street. The Government of Canada continues to work in full partnership with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation leaders to create a space that will be designed and developed by Indigenous peoples.
“I hope this is useful.”
Meanwhile, as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network has reported, the Indigenous Task Force of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada says the former embassy is not a culturally appropriate space for an Indigenous Centre.
“Indigenous people always get hand-me-downs, the buildings, and land that settlers no longer have a use for,” said the task force. “Canada’s Indigenous communities have, for too long, been forced into leftover spaces that fail to connect in any meaningful way to their cultures and unique connectivity to place.”
The task force, according to APTN, called the building’s classical revival architectural style the one most identified with colonization, saying there is a “significant discord between the building itself and the values of Canada’s Indigenous communities.”
Instead, the architects say they want to see an Indigenous design for a new centre. Canada’s most famous Indigenous architect, Douglas Cardinal, creator of the building housing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, says Victoria Island would be a far superior location for an Indigenous Centre because of its importance in Aboriginal history.