National Gallery of Canada: New galleries offer a new perspective on art made in Canada

Detail from Janet Kigusiuq Uqayuittuq's Night-time in Camp, 1990. Graphite and coloured pencil on wove paper, 56.3 x 76 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Photo: NGC

For contemplation, consider the water court at the National Gallery of Canada, where the soft motion and flickering light of the pool mediates the art of two very different cultures.

On one side are historic figures sculpted by Alfred Laliberté, an artist of European descent, and across the pool is what looks like a waterfall, wrought from thick, broad bands of copper by the Anishinaabe artist Michael Belmore. Over the peaceful water the two cultures consider one another, a dialogue that can be joined by anyone who walks into what is the most serene of many rooms in the newly transformed and renamed Canadian and Indigenous galleries.

Daphne Odjig’s Conflict of Good and Evil, 1966. Acrylic paint on ivory wove paper, 46.2 x 63.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Gift of Jennifer and Gary Scherbain, Winnipeg, 2011. Photo: NGC

There is much that is contemplative among the almost 800 pieces of art spread throughout the reimagined galleries, a project that is the largest in the National Gallery’s history, and which opens to the public June 15. Specifically, said Christine Lalonde, the associate curator of Indigenous art, “This is the strongest presence of Indigenous art ever in the National Gallery of Canada, and it’s permanent.

“It brings a whole new perspective to our idea of art as a window to history,” Lalonde said, during a media preview of the new galleries on Wednesday. “It brings new histories that have been denied and erased in the official versions. It brings . . . a respect for history as a living thing, in that these things that happened centuries ago, millennia ago, still have the power to reach us through these objects and have an impact on us today.”

Prudence Heward Rollande, 1929 oil on canvas, 139.9 x 101.7 cm. Purchased 1930 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

It is, said director Marc Mayer — who, like his curators, seemed almost giddy to be unveiling a project after so much work — “a stronger and deeper narrative” about “two separate stories that . . . converge without assimilating, and that’s an important point to make.”

For so long the European powers that settled Canada dismissed Indigenous art as mere craft, as the work of a culture not worth saving. When seen at all it was allowed space only on the margins of public view. Slowly, a more enlightened view emerged in galleries across Canada, and this new presentation,  titled Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967, is not the first time the National Gallery has featured Indigenous art, nor displayed it alongside art of European descent.

Unknown (Naskapi Artist) Hunting Coat, c. 1840 caribou hide, paint, thread, wool and glass beads, overall measurements on mannequin: 95 x 80 x 50 cm. Purchased 2014 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Yet perhaps the change represented by the new spaces is something more fundamental in the nature of the gallery itself, in its full recognition and presentation of the role that indigenous culture has played in the history of Canada.

“I think that’s hopeful and optimistic,” said Greg Hill, the Audain senior curator of Indigenous art. The “welcoming of and interest in engagement, first with contemporary Indigenous art and now much more deeply with historical Indigenous art, is part of a continuum,” Hill said, and the new presentation makes “very evident” what’s been happening at the gallery. “There is a tangible difference.”

So while the combining of Indigenous and settler art is not new, the scale of it is, and — perhaps most importantly — the effect of it.

If one word describes the paralleling of these cultures in these spaces, it is juxtaposition. Primarily, the juxtaposition is between Indigenous and settler, but it is revealed in various ways — ancient and contemporary, abstract and realist, fragile and solid, large and small, and other contrasts to be found by viewers who peruse this huge exhibition. And visitors should understand, before visiting, that the exhibition is, like the nation itself, too vast and diverse to be grasped in one visit, for this history is written by many authors in multiple languages, and the story it tells is grand and sweeping.

Almost immediately upon entering the galleries are seen a ceremonial cloak and headpiece, displayed between the religion and material wealth of European culture — a statue of the Virgin Mary, and  large, ornate pieces of silver ware.

Joyce Wieland’s Cooling Room II, 1964 metal toy airplane, cloth, metal wire, plastic boat, paper collage, ceramic cups with lipstick, and spoon, mounted in painted wooden case, 114.4 x 94 x 18.3 cm. Purchased 1971 National Gallery of Canada. Photo: NGC

In room after room, the cultures come together, with undisputed masterpieces by Lawren Harris and Norval Morrisseau, by Emily Carr and Rita Letendre. In one room, Jean Paul Riopelle’s massive canvas Pavane hangs only feet from a tiny caribou head carved from stone by Olive Mamak Innakatsik. Another room is shared by abstract expressionist paintings and a group of Indigenous sculptures, the sharp angles of colourfield style contrasting with the smooth curves of stone. The pairing may seem random, but the art is contemporaneous, created in the 1950s and 1960s and collected by the same collectors.

There is so much to see in the new Canadian and Indigenous galleries, so much to consider, that it is almost exhausting. Can anyone walk through it all and not see our nation’s complex history — at times triumphant, at times shameful — differently?

For contemplation, consider Michael Snow’s metal installation Blind, built of four approximately eight-foot high screens, each lined with progressively smaller mesh. It is, as associate curator Adam Welch said, an exercise in adjusting your vision, in attempting to refocus.

How fitting its inclusion is, for what this recasting of the Canadian and Indigenous galleries invokes in those who see it is an adjustment of vision, a new focus.

Admission to the gallery is free on June 15 and July 1.

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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.