Arts & Culture

Two institutions transforming how audiences view Indigenous-made art

For Sarah Garton Stanley, the notion of an Indigenous theatre department at the National Arts Centre became clear at a gathering on Manitoulin Island in the early spring of 2015. The associate artistic director of English Theatre at the NAC had already spent a year collaborating with Indigenous performers and industry leaders from across the country, all with an aim to question the status quo, to change the way Indigenous theatre is presented. The culmination, which took place at the Debajehmujig Creation Centre on Manitoulin Island and included 10 days of intensive workshops, finished with performances by over 100 artists. That’s when Stanley started to see the relationship between Indigenous theatre and the NAC in a new light.

As Indigenous performers told stories around a fire, Stanley began to realize that more Indigenous work on NAC stages called for something bigger than her department could do.

“It’s not that English Theatre should be programming more Indigenous theatre,” Stanley says. Rather, she explains, Indigenous artists need to feel autonomous to create in a way that was all theirs.

“It took me a little while to crystallize the idea [of an Indigenous theatre department]. But as soon as it was out there, Peter Herrndorf [CEO of the NAC] said, ‘This is late, this is what we should be doing, let’s do it.’”

That idea has blossomed, and the country’s national performing arts space has begun a job search to pick the first artistic director of the new department — which will have a budget of $3 million, on par with the English and French theatre departments — by this June.

The National Gallery of Canada is changing the way it presents Indigenous art too. In June, it will unveil renovated galleries featuring more than 1,000 works — the largest ever display Canadian art. The new spaces will be dedicated to art made in this country for hundreds of years up to and including 1967. There will also be a special double gallery greeting visitors to the new Canadian and Indigenous galleries, which will feature Indigenous art, both historic and contemporary.

“It is time for us to commit to telling these two stories in a cogent way at the same time. [They] don’t make sense in isolation,” says gallery director Marc Mayer.

Why now?

Many point to the re-port of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which came out in 2015, and its recommendations, which call for a redressing of the nation’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. The sesquicentennial adds some momentum as well.

“I think most Canadians are really grappling with the history of cultural genocide as it’s being retold and rediscovered,” says Stanley, who has become the NAC’s point person on Indigenous matters. She says the stories that have existed in Indigenous culture — whether about residential schools or something more positive — are part of our history as Canadians, but they have always been presented as separate. “We all have to come together to share this history,” Stanley says.

For the past few years, Stanley has worked closely with Corey Payette, a Vancouver-based theatre artist of Oji-Cree heritage. The two first met through Northern Scene in 2013; since then, Payette has been involved with the many workshops, reports, performances, and experiments that went into the decision to create a department of Indigenous theatre at the NAC. His musical Children of God, about residential schools, plays June 7 to 18 at the NAC.

An image promoting Corey Payette’s play Children of God. Payette has been heavily involved with the development of an Indigenous theatre department at the NAC
An image promoting Corey Payette’s play Children of God. Payette has been heavily involved with the development of an Indigenous theatre department at the NAC

“It is important to have Indigenous theatre at the NAC, because it connects the Canadian identity to Indigenous culture,” says Payette. “Who we are, as Canadians, is based on the land of Indigenous peoples, and we must acknowledge their histories and cultures.” For Payette, the creation of an Indigenous theatre department is a sign that Canada is moving in a direction that is more inclusive to Indigenous cultures. “[It] allows us to feel represented at the foundation of this country.”

According to the job posting, the first artistic director will be of Indigenous heritage — First Nations, Inuit, or Métis — and from Canada. But the director doesn’t have to be strictly a theatre person, Payette says. The artistic director should be of Indigenous heritage, but their practice can be interdisciplinary — anything from music, theatre, dance, and everything in between. It is very exciting to imagine.”

Indigenous theatre in Canada, which has been evolving steadily since the 1980s, often does not resemble Shakespeare or Shaw. When the curtain rises for the first performance of the NAC’s new department in the fall of 2019, audiences might be surprised.

“It’s not a for-sure that Indigenous theatre will look like French or English theatre. Where it may perform, how it will be performed, could be tied to ritual and ceremony — those are exciting things to consider. But it’s all up to the first artistic director to decide,” Stanley says.

People will no doubt be watching the new department closely — and judging it. Stanley urges audiences to give it time and support.

The National Gallery is also looking at the big picture. The integration of cultures is really only the beginning; Mayer expects the work will continue for years.

Next steps, Mayer says, include building a more substantial collection of historic works and appointing a curator for the growing collection. (Right now, if the gallery displays something, it’s likely borrowed.)

When Indigenous art takes its place in the renovated space, it will signal a new frame of mind at the gallery.

The traditional view of visual art as painting and sculpture does not consider beadwork, say, or blankets made by Indigenous people. The new galleries will include exceptional examples of Indigenous art that have traditionally been described as handicrafts. And if these belong in an art gallery, so does embroidery, quilts, woodworks, and ceramics made by other people. 

“The National Gallery has to get beyond the old 19th-century taxonomic categorization of art,” Mayer says. “We are looking again at the historical artistic crafts of settler women to see what should be considered for display in the National Gallery. For example, we will begin the story of European art in Canada with a spectacular embroidery made here by a nun in the second half of the 1600s.”

Carleton University professor Ruth Phillips is a leading expert on Indigenous art; an art historian, she has spent 30 years in the field.

“I have never seen a moment like we are in right now. My concern is: are we going to stick with it this time? I haven’t got a crystal ball, but I think the signs are better.”

Those signs include building their Indigenous art collection, as well as establishing an Indigenous art curatorship and hiring Greg Hill, who is of Mohawk heritage, as the first such curator in 2007. Phillips also notes the broad consultation with experts in the field — including many Indigenous people. Ultimately, she says, “These initiatives have built a momentum and an Indigenous presence in the gallery that will not easily be reversed.”

Mayer is determined to move forward. 

“I want Indigenous Canadians to come here and be extremely proud and to not have a sour note anywhere.”

“We are not showing anything that the descendants of the makers don’t want us to show,” Mayer says. “We have Indigenous people who work at the gallery who are making sure we don’t do anything stupid.” In addition to Hill, who remains the curator of Indigenous art, the gallery consulted with Indigenous experts  from outside the region.

At the NAC, the excitement surrounding the new department is palpable. Stanley has been steeped in the development of Indigenous theatre for over three years now, and her energy for the movement is infectious.

“In these shifting times, the stories and skills and innovations of Indigenous peoples are a beacon,” says Stanley.