Artful Blogger

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Groundbreaking Aboriginal art exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada

By PAUL GESSELL

Aboriginal-Art-National-Gallery
Bentwood Chest by Charles Edenshaw, ca. 1870 (Canadian Museum of Civilization Collection)

The National Gallery of Canada, for the first time in its history, has a solo exhibition of historical art by an Aboriginal artist.

In recent years, there have been solo shows by 20th century Aboriginal artists such as Norval Morrisseau, Carl Beam, Daphne Odjig, and Robert Davidson, but never one from the 19th century or earlier.


The new exhibition of wooden carvings, silver bracelets, elaborate masks and miniature argillite totem poles by Charles Edenshaw, a Haida hereditary chief, is a first for the National Gallery.

Edenshaw lived from 1829 to 1920, was recognized in his lifetime as an accomplished artist, and was a huge influence on many other West Coast Haida artists after him, including Bill Reid and Jim Hart.

“It is great moment,” Greg Hill, the National Gallery of Canada’s Aboriginal curator, says of the Edenshaw show.

It is also an example of the different way Aboriginal art is treated these days.

Hill agrees with the suggestion that just 10 years ago the Edenshaw show, a travelling exhibition organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, would likely have landed at the Canadian Museum of History (then called the Canadian Museum of Civilization) instead of the National Gallery.

Until recently, all historical Aboriginal art was treated by major art museums; the National Gallery treated these as ethno-cultural curiosities or crafts rather than as fine art. Thus, the Edenshaw exhibition would likely have been at an ethno-cultural museum such as the former Museum of Civilization.

Aboriginal-Art-National-Gallery
Beaver Bracelet by Charles Edenshaw, c. 1900 (Art Gallery of Ontario/Gift of Michael and Sonja Koerner)

But the National Gallery has increasingly been treating Aboriginal art, both contemporary and historical, as fine art to be displayed alongside the more Euro-centric art produced by other Canadians.

And that’s a good thing for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Canadian Museum of History, with its new mandate, will likely be acquiring and exhibiting less Aboriginal art, especially contemporary art.

Patricia Lynch, spokeswomen for the History Museum, denies that, saying contemporary and historical Aboriginal art remain on the agenda. However, the museum’s curator of contemporary Aboriginal art retired in December and has yet to be replaced. This all comes at a time when the museum’s “curators” are expected to be rebranded as “historians” with less emphasis on self-directed research and more emphasis on history-related exhibitions organized from on high.

As well, there are fears the new museum will be creating exhibitions designed to suit the Harper government’s agenda rather than to fulfill scholarly or aesthetic goals. This is the same philosophy that guides much of the federal government’s science-based organizations: Scientists are increasingly being funnelled into projects furthering the government’s agenda, or commercial interests, rather than in pursuing pure research.

Whether in art or science, the country loses. Groundbreaking discoveries become rarer.

Meanwhile, visit the Charles Edenshaw exhibition. It is a winner. The show officially is on view from March 7 to 25. For information, visit gallery.ca.