In 2008, the National Gallery of Canada created a Department of Indigenous Art. Curators were appointed and they got to curating.
There was the usual work of building a collection and preparing inventories. And then there was the issue of presenting the art. Go big or stay at home?
Greg Hill, who is the gallery’s Audain Senior Curator and is the head of the Department of Indigenous Art, said the answer was to go big, to go global.
That ambitious decision has led to a unique plan for unique major exhibitions of contemporary art created by artists of Indigenous heritage from around the world. The first was called Sakahàn meaning to light a fire in the language of the Algonquin peoples. The massive show contained some 150 works by more than 80 contemporary artists working in many different disciplines from 16 countries. It took place in 2013 and spread outside the National Gallery into other venues.
Now Hill and his colleagues are at it again with Àbadakone — Continuous Fire which will feature the work of some 70 Indigenous artists from 40 Indigenous nations in 16 countries including Australia, Canada, Guatemala, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. It to will have satellite shows in other locations including the Ottawa Art Gallery.
Building an exhibition of the scope of Àbadakone takes a lot of work, especially since the curators did not want to present the same lineup of artists as appeared in Sakahàn.
So Hill and curators Christine Lalonde and Rachelle Dickenson, along with consulted curators Candice Hopkins, Ariel Smith and Carla Taunton, as well as a team of advisors from around the globe, set out to build Àbadakone in a concentrated way about three years ago.
They put out a call, “asked artists to identify themselves, and through that process we knew where they are coming from and who they identify as.”
One of the key things that emerged in Sakahàn were the connections that were made between artists. That’s a key reason why the gallery has invited the artists to attend the Nov. 7 opening of Àbadakone.
“We are trying to encourage what we saw from Sakahàn, how it brought artists t0gether. The artists who travelled here from different places, met each other and became aware of each other’s practices. In some cases that was the start of a relationship between the artists.
“We want to encourage that with Continuous Fire.”
So far some 50 artists are coming from as far away as Siberia, South Africa, New Zealand, Europe and from across North America. The Mata Aho Collective, for example, is travelling from New Zealand.
The hardest part of putting a show like Àbadakone together is who is left out. There were artists “who we respect and wanted in there,” Hill said.
“Every time you look into an area of the world that you didn’t know all that well you find out that it is rich with amazing artists. The problem of selecting is compounded by the breadth of the exhibition,” he added.
The importance is magnified “because there aren’t any other (contemporary) exhibitions that have this kind of global scope.
“I think artists are aware of how unique this effort is; the curators are aware. Now we are trying to make general public aware,” he said.
These exhibitions showcase the reality that Indigenous art is being created by Indigenous peoples in every corner of the globe. In a way the Indigenous world opens up through the work.
The definition of Indigenous in a global context is massive, Hill said.
“There is so many definitions that Indigenous almost becomes meaningless except as a way to organize things. While the word is an accepted term to refer to a group of people in a global context, (on the ground) every one of those people have their own word to describe themselves.”
Still, “there is some kind of understanding of what Indigenous can mean and the exhibition starts there and expands that,” Hill said.
“A realization for me has been all the different ways in which artists are working. I am starting to realize that the boxes we draw around disciplines like music, the performing arts are starting to be erased,” he added.
“There are artists who are musically trained who are working in the visual arts. We have sound art. What do we mean by that?”
One of the artists represented in the exhibition, Hill said, is a young Yoruba artist named Qudus Onikeku. He represented Nigeria at the Venice Biennale and created trilogy of videos that represent him as a dancer and choreographer. The videos deconstruct his choreography and show how he brings it to the stage.
It also works with the idea of community in a documentary way, he added.
It is definitely breaking down boundaries between disciplines but why did it make the exhibition?
“It makes it into the exhibition because it’s amazing work that really captured me and made me think,” Hill said.
Another work that makes the exhibition exemplifies the themes of activation, continuity and relatedness that the curators have focussed on. This is a work by the Odawa artist Barry Ace.
The piece is called Nigik Makisinan (Otter Moccasins) features shoes designed by John Fluevog, an otter pelt, some velvet fabric, electronic components, synthetic porcupine bristles, deerhide, synthetic felt, copper beads and brass bells. It was made in 2014 and purchased by the gallery in 2017.
Hill said this piece is a good example of an ancestral tradition brought into a contemporary context with the Fluevog shoes and the electronic components. The moccassins are trail duster footware. They were made so that they would erase the path as you walk.
“He is thinking about it in a cyber context of erasing your path in the electronic world.”
Beads in Anishnaabe tradition carry energy, curator Rachelle Dickenson said. Paired with the Fluevog dancing shoes provided to Ace by the Ojibwe artist Michael Belmore makes for a profound extension to human activity, she added.
“It’s a really dense work,” Hill said.
The exhibition has been affirming, Dickenson said.
“As a curator it’s affirming: The diversity of the show, working with the diversity of art works is almost overwhelming.”
The work is in every imaginable discipline from beadwork to painting, sculpture, performance art, installations video. You name it these artists are exploring it.
Dickenson said there are patterns in the work that are repeated across the globe. These artists are confronting issues from climate change to ideas about identity and history.
No surprise that the curators are already thinking about the next exhibition.
“I’m not calling it a quinquennial. This one happened to take six years; we’ll try to make it a little quicker next time,” Hill said.
He added that he feels the next show will have to be a global survey. “I think it needs to be. It’s still nowhere else in the world. We have assumed a leadership role in that respect. I think we should keep running with it and see where it takes us.”
As for his own understanding, “you learn how much you don’t know, the more you learn. I feel more and more ignorant as I go along.”
For some holding a survey of Indigenous work in a settler space like the National Gallery might pose a concern.
“This is the building we have,” Hill said. “We make it the best we possibly can, but it’s a daily thought. There is a tension between working as an indigenous creator with indigenous artists to indigenize in a colonial context.
“The colonial art history stands in opposition to Indigenous creative expression in a lot of ways, but where they can support each other, this is the space we are trying to occupy.
“I think it takes some patience and some tenacity and a willingness to find those opportunities to move things forward. We are now in the second iteration of this exhibition. It’s a process. We have talked about how long that process has been and how much work has been done at the gallery. Where we are now is part of that process. That is not to say there still isn’t a lot more work to do.”
He said the local Indigenous community is turning out for shows more and more.
“That is part of building relationships with local communities. Those kinds of outreach activities are bearing fruit.”
Àbadakone opens Nov. 7 at 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Canada. This is a free event. The exhibition will be on view until April 5, 2020. For more information about the exhibition please see gallery.ca
Artists featured in Àbadakone include:
Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou
Joi T. Arcand
Inger Blix Kvammen
Mique’l Dangeli & Nick Dangeli
Jeneen Frei Njootli
Helen Haig-Brown & Gwaai Edenshaw
Balu Jivya Mashe
Mata Aho Collective
Inga-Wiktoria Påve & Anders Sunna
Krista Belle Stewart
Tribal Women Artists Cooperative
Rajesh Chaitya Vangad & Gauri Gill
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory
Cris Derksen & Christine Tootoo
Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas