Ottawa Art Gallery: Inaabiwin lights up art and emotion

Hannah Claus's Water Song is part of the Ottawa Art Gallery exhibition Inaabiwin. Courtesy the artist and the OAG.

Inaabiwin, which means “movement of light,” is the title of an exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery that, ironically, was undermined by the movement of light when I visited.

The word is from the Anishinaabe language, and it’s apt for an exhibition that is an outcrop of the National Gallery’s major exhibition Àbadakone (“continuous fire” in the same language).  Àbadakone includes work by indigenous artists from around the world. Inaabiwin has work by six indigenous artists from northern North American communities, as far flung as the Six Nations of the Grand River near Toronto and the rugged coast of Alaska.

Curator Danielle Printup writes of a light that “illuminates unseen spaces around us and within us, and connects us to each other,” and how each artist “opens doorways into thinking about the relationships that exist within and around us.”

A literal doorway was the temporary undoing of one installation, a video by Tanya Lukin Linklater, an Alutiiq artist from Afognak and Port Lions, Alaska.  Linklater’s 12-minute video centres “on the transmission of Indigenous knowledge” via oral tradition and bodily movement. The video is silent “to protect Indigenous knowledge,” but it’s unintentionally all but impossible to see in the middle of a sunny day, as enough daylight pours through two sets of open doors to wash out the projection. One of those sets of doors needs to stay closed when the sun is shining. Another video, by Scott Benesiinaabandan of the Obishikokaang Anishinaabe First Nation, suffers no such distraction, as it’s safely tucked into a black box room, where unwanted light dares not tread.

The main exhibition space is dominated by the installation Water Song, from Hannah Claus of the Tyendinaga Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. On a small forest of filaments suspended from the ceiling hang dozens of small acetate discs, each one bearing images of three rivers that are commonly known in English as the Cascapedia, the Restigouche and the Nouvelle. The discs move slowly and slightly, like birch leaves in a soft wind, each one catching and reflecting the light. I feel like I’m walking through a hardwood forest and I can hear in the distance the movement of the ancient waters that inspired the piece.

Photography is a big part of this small exhibition. Toronto-based Greg Staats (Oshweken, Six Nations) mounts 15 small silver gelatin archival prints of people and objects, each paired with wampum string, as an act of restoration to help move from the darkness of trauma to the light of renewal.

Meryl McMaster’ self portraits were inspired by the murmurations of birds. 

Three large self-portraits by Ottawa-based Plains Cree artist Meryl McMaster were inspired by the murmuration of starlings in flight. McMaster created a headpiece that even by her magnificent standards is elaborate — made of hundreds of starlings folded from pages she cut from books on North American history, and then gathered into a circling flock. In the three photographs she turns from facing forward to her right, while the harmonious flock of starlings seems to fly around her. The positions of McMaster’s arms — the way they move centrifugally and naturally out from her body — create a sense of motion that, whether viewed right-to-left or left-to-right, seems to be forward or backward in time.

Capping it all is a “poetic response” to the exhibition by Billy-Ray Belcourt of the Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta. “Art is so emotional,” it concludes. “Emotion is so artful. The goal of art and emotion is to make being alive less humiliating. I could go on forever like this: with the earth ringing in my chest.”

In town: Inaabiwin continues to Jan. 19.

Winnie Truong’s work includes drawings, paper cutouts and animation. 

At SAW Gallery in the SAW Centre next door is Winnie Truong’s exhibition Supernatural. It includes drawings, paper cutouts and animation that are mysterious and beautiful.

Truong, based in Toronto, draws idealized and anonymous women entwined in flowers and greenery or in their own bounteous hair. Drawn in what appears to be coloured pencil, chalk and pastel, the works initially seem to be about the female form and hair, but the more I look, the more I feel they’re as much about the creative act that gave them life — the intricate detail, the methodical creation of many smaller parts of a bigger picture. I’m reminded of looking at a painting or drawing by da Vinci, when I get so absorbed in the sheer detail of the drapery that I almost forget about the overall garment (not to mention the person wearing it).

The time and technique and the commitment it takes Truong to create those countless, tiny lines must be mind-numbing — unless it’s the very act of creating such detail that drives the artist. I wonder if Truong was the sort of child who ignored video games and such and instead stayed in her room to endlessly cut shapes out of magazines and turn them into scrapbooks or collages. Such an obviously obsessive commitment to fine detail must be rooted in a creative childhood.

I can only guess at such things while walking through the exhibition, as there’s zero detail provided about the artist or the work — no background, no context, not even titles, just the name of the artist and the exhibition.

I haven’t yet decided whether that lack of information was annoying or somehow freeing, as if the lack of any marked lanes allowed my imagination to go wherever it might go, to get lost in those exquisite fronds.

Regardless, you should go and decide for yourself. Get lost in Truong’s talent, and see where you end up.

In town: Supernatural is open to Jan. 31.

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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.