Curators from the National Gallery of Canada began scouring the globe a few years ago to find, in the words of one of them, “great” contemporary art.
The only other ingredient beyond “greatness,” according to the gallery’s chief aboriginal curator Greg Hill, was that the artists had to be “indigenous,” a term generally referring to the original people of a particular geographic area who, over the centuries, have been swamped by colonists to the point of becoming a minority.
In the Americas, indigenous refers generally to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people. But there are indigenous minorities in Scandinavia, Taiwan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and other countries.
Once examples of “great” indigenous contemporary art were identified, Hill and his team selected the best of the best and created the newly opened exhibition Sakahan, the largest show ever staged by the National Gallery in its history. Sakahan fills the usual prime temporary exhibition space on the main floor, expands into rooms in the contemporary wing of the building and fills the second floor exhibition space normally displaying temporary shows of prints, photographs or drawings.
There is no overall theme to the show. That gave the curators the freedom to concentrate on the truly “great” and not feel restricted to selecting art that fit into a particular thematic box.
That tactic was wise. The show is indeed great. The “wow factor” is higher than anything the gallery has done since Diana Nemiroff stopped curating contemporary shows there many years ago.
Among the Canadian highlights is Rebecca Belmore’s photograph called Fringe. A nude aboriginal woman lies on a mat. On her back, a horrific looking scar travels from her left shoulder to her right hip. Blood-red lines (beaded strings, actually) drip from the scar.
In this one scene, Belmore has encapsulated the history of violence against aboriginal people, especially aboriginal women. The beadwork is a nod to traditional aboriginal handicraft but the medium – photography – is very much a contemporary, Western form of expression.
Similar themes related to violence and colonialism and marginalization do run through many of the artworks from around the world, from Australia to Lapland.
The wow factor is also high with the photographs by Maori artist Fiona Pardington from New Zealand. She has photographed the life-casts of the heads of some Maori and other South Pacific indigenous men that were created between 1837 and 1840 under the orders of French explorer Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d’Urville.
By chance, the artist discovered a trove of these heads — some of her own ancestors — at a Paris museum in 2007. The resulting photographs of these heads are simultaneously horrifying and hypnotic and definitely a reminder of the colonial era when indigenous peoples were treated more like wild animal specimens than humans.
Two Ottawa artists are in the exhibition. There is a Jeff Thomas photograph from a series he did spoofing the statue of Samuel de Champlain on Nepean Point. And there are two drawings by Ottawa-based Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, one a self-portrait lying down and another unusually large one for her (about 3 metres by 1.5 metres) showing a scene in Cape Dorset of Inuit shoppers peering into a large freezer in a grocery store. That scene naturally makes one think of that old joke about a salesman who was so skilled he could sell “a refrigerator to an Eskimo.” These drawings are two of the most technically skilled I have seen Pootoogook do. She has had a rough patch the last few years, basically living on the street. Let’s hope she gets back to a stable life and lots of drawing.
Sakahan continues at the National Gallery until Sept. 2.