Ottawa’s Jeff Thomas and Annie Pootoogook are among 75 artists from around the world being lined up for the first ever international exhibition of contemporary indigenous art to be held this summer at the National Gallery of Canada.
The exhibition, called Sakahàn, will also feature such Canadian heavyweights as Shuvinai Ashoona, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Rebecca Belmore, Shelley Niro, Nadia Myre, Edward Poitras and Brian Jungen along with indigenous artists from Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Taiwan, and other countries.
“Sakahàn” is an Algonquin word meaning “to light a fire” and is a nod to the fact the very land on which the National Gallery stands is traditional Algonquin territory.
This summer’s exhibition, running from May 17 to September 2, will be the first but not the last such show of international aboriginal art. A similar exhibition will be held every five years at the National Gallery.
These ongoing exhibitions emphasize that contemporary aboriginal art should be treated the same way as non-aboriginal contemporary art — not just hived off into ethno-cultural museums like the Canadian Museum of Civilization, but considered as fine art worthy of the National Gallery.
Pootoogook, originally of Cape Dorset, was once described as the “it girl” of Inuit art. Her childlike drawings of difficult social issues, such as alcoholism and family violence, became hugely popular in the art world. But Pootoogook has been battling her own demons related to substance abuse and sexual abuse, and has been making headlines because of her periodic homelessness and sale of her drawings on the street by the Rideau Centre for a fraction of what they are worth in galleries.
Greg Hill, the National Gallery’s curator of indigenous art, was not about to reveal the total lineup of works in the show but he said two of Pootoogook’s drawings will be in the exhibition. Thomas will be represented by a new work that is an addition to an existing body of work he has been doing.
Thomas is a prominent Mohawk photo-artist and curator; originally from New York State, he’s been a fixture of the Ottawa art scene for many years. He is a recipient of the Karsh Award, the prize given every two years to a distinguished Ottawa photographer. His work is widely exhibited in Ottawa and across the country.
The National Gallery often has a difficult time drawing crowds to exhibitions of contemporary art. The public seems to prefer the likes of Van Gogh, Caravaggio, or home-grown historical stars such as Emily Carr or Tom Thomson. The media also tends to lavish more attention on historical art. This all means Sakahàn will be something of a gamble at a time when the National Gallery is short of money and needs to keep the turnstiles spinning to increase revenue.
A second aboriginal exhibition will be at the National Gallery during much of the run of Sakahàn. That show, New Voices for the New North, will run from April 26 to September 2 in the basement Inuit gallery and is part of the National Arts Centre’s multi-venue, multi-disciplinary Northern Scene this spring. Expect to encounter all kinds of northern art from sculptures to music and dance in venues around the city.