Lee-Ann Martin honoured for being a warrior for Indigenous Art

'namaxsala, Mary Anne Barkhouse, 2013. Lee-Ann Martin was the curator behind bring this work to the Canadian Museum of History,

Lee-Ann Martin was living in Maine in 1986 with her now ex-husband and two children and working in a museum when she heard about The Spirit Sings.

The exhibition, which would open in controversy at the Glenbow Museum in 1988, was sponsored by Shell Oil and was created as part of the celebration of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. It included some 650 pieces of Indigenous art and artifacts, many pieces from foreign collections that had been taken from Canada without permission.

At the time the Lubicon Cree were battling for recognition of the issues confronting them and they started a boycott of the exhibition. The show was put together without input from Indigenous curators and communities. That too caused outrage and condemnation.

Sitting in Maine, Lee-Ann Martin was getting mad.

“I was incensed. I was young and angry and very political. I was enormously insulted because there were no Indigenous people working as curators on that exhibition.

“That just drove me berserk. I decided at that point what museums needed was more Indigenous representation.”

Lee-Ann Martin. Photo: Rosalie Favell

So she started applying to universities to study for a Master’s.

“I was accepted into the University of Toronto’s museum studies program.”

It was the beginning of a career as a warrior for Indigenous art-making in Canada that has now been recognized with a Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts.

From her home in Carp, Martin is very happy with the acknowledgement.

“I’m very, very excited about it,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s the perfect culmination of my long career.”

These days Martin is an independent curator. She gets to pick and choose her projects. The most recent was Resilience which placed the art of Indigenous women, such as Christi Belcourt, Rosalie Favell, Shuvinai Ashoona, Meryl McMaster and Rebecca Belmore  on some 175 billboards across Canada for two months in 2018.

“That was an exciting, wonderful project to work on. As a result of that I am working on a book on the history Indigenous Women’s Art in Canada for the next year or so.” The book is co-sponsored by Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art who also sponsored the billboard project.

Resilience is about given Indigenous women artists the recognition they deserve, she said.

“Women’s art has been recognized until very recently as artifact or craft in anthropology museums or not at all. It was anonymous is museum collections.

“Even today, the representation of Indigenous women’s art in public art museums is much smaller than men’s work. It was important for the Resilience project to show the diversity, the maturity, the approaches to art, the mediums that women use.”

Maybe, she says, just maybe we are at the tipping point of change, but she’s skeptical of moves by institutions and is waiting to see if they do more.

Her education took her to Ottawa where The Spirit Sings was on view to a symposium held at the same time called Preserving Our Heritage organized by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association organized.

“I went to that. I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right qualifications. I was studying all this at school, writing papers and doing a lot of heavy thinking.”

This helped crystallized her thinking and at about the same time the then-Museum of Civilization through Gerald McMaster who was curator of Indigenous Art at the time offered residency.

“I applied and was accepted.”

She said she didn’t find curating “it found me. I had joined this groundswell of activism. I didn’t have my mind set on curating when I went into museum studies. It just happened. I wanted to work with artists.”

If you think about it, it was probably natural that Lee-Ann would ended up working on behalf of Indigenous art.

She was born in Toronto but her roots are deep in the  Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville.

“When I was growing up, although we didn’t live in Tyendinaga, we would go to visit. There were artists there — basket makers, painters and sculptors and I would hang around with them.

“In Toronto I would go into the native friendship centre and take bead work classes and have conversations. It was always something I was interested in.”

Before she moved to the U.S. she had started taking university courses in art history at McMaster and York universities.

The her ex got the job at the University of Maine.

“My second child was born there and I finished my undergrad degree there.”

She was studying art history.

“Way back then there was no such thing as an Indigenous art course. You had to take European Art and anthropology and somehow meld them together on your own to come up with Indigenous art.”

So that’s what she did with the help of some faculty “who were very supportive and understanding and knowledgable and helped me see my way through that.”

It became her passion. She wanted to know “why can’t I see this everywhere? Where is it? If I don’t go to these small little places or visit this family I won’t see it any place else.”

Morning Star, Alex Janvier, 1993, installation view. Canadian Museum of History, Lee-Ann Martin, curator.

The residency at the Museum of Civilization required a proposal for a project. Her idea was an exhibition looking at 1992 and examining the 500 years since Columbus landed in the New World. It would become a major exhibition at the museum called INDIGENA: Perspectives of Indigenous People on 500 Years. It would later tour for three years.

It launched her career at the museum where she was the curator of Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art and beyond: she was  the former head curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery and the Paul D. Fleck Fellow at the Banff Centre, where she co-ordinated the first Indigenous residency and an international symposium. She also served as the co-ordinator for the Task Force on Museums and First Peoples and she was the First Peoples equity co-ordinator at the Canada Council for the Arts. The survey of public art museums funded by Canada Council looked at the inclusion and exclusion of Indigenous art.

Her writing has been published by the National Gallery of Canada, Oxford University Press, University of Washington Press, Banff Centre Press, the National Museum of the American Indian, and Douglas & McIntyre. She gets her award Thursday at Rideau Hall and her work will be on view in the National Gallery of Canada in an exhibition.

At the Museum of Civilization (now History) she commissioned Alex Janvier’s spectacular Morning Star (1993) and Mary Anne Barkhouse’s ‘namaxsala (2013)

Working in the museum was good, she said, but it was not without challenges.

“Many of my colleagues would call the Indigenous art works, artifacts.” She spent time educating her colleagues that in fact it was art.

“When INDIGENA opened there were mixed reactions. Some people were upset because the work wasn’t pretty. They wanted to know why it didn’t look like the totem poles and masks in other parts of the museum. Having contemporary art in context of that museum was quite a challenge, but it had to be done.

It would take time, but she was hopeful that gradually people would come around and see that you can have art in that museum and in the National Gallery.

It’s not hard to see it today.

The range of creation by Indigenous artists today is staggering. Just look at the lineup for the annual Sobey Art Award. Indigenous artists are making waves.

“I am thrilled because it is a phenomenon of our times and people are finally getting it. I have always said, even way back when I started, that the art is so mature people couldn’t ignore it. I think it is even more so today.

“Today we have more indigenous curators who are really framing exhibitions in different ways, providing different levels of entry into the thought processes and concepts of Indigenous artists.

“The other part of me keeps hoping it’s not a blip on the landscape because I have seen that happen before.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.