The National Gallery of Canada is painting a more complete picture of Canadian identity. By intertwining Indigenous art history with artworks produced by European settlers, the gallery is revamping the former Canadian Galleries to create the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries: From Time Immemorial to 1967.
Director Marc Mayer and curator Christine Lalonde share what they believe visitors will find the most surprising when the galleries open on June 15th:
Breaking down walls
It’s not just the artwork that’s improving. Attendees will be “very surprised by how beautiful the galleries are,” Mayer says, as the space itself is getting a facelift. According to Mayer, doorways have been opened up, the colour of the floors have changed, walls have been torn down, and new ones have been built. “It’s a much more fluid space.”
A circle in time
A “now and then” approach has been taken in one of the first rooms, placing recent artworks — such as Armoured Whale by Tim Pitsiulak — alongside historic artifacts to establish the influence history has had on contemporary Indigenous art. Lalonde says that for Indigenous artists, “cultural continuity is a very important theme.” She adds that while most galleries follow a chronological order, this display takes a more “circular” approach to time.
Something borrowed, something new
The National Gallery’s collection of historic Indigenous artwork is fairly small. To make up for this, it will be bringing in about 200 new artifacts on loan from other museums and archives, resulting in over 600 works that will be featured in the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. This includes amulets, paintings, sculptures, and photographs.
Catch them while you can
Despite being a permanent collection, what visitors see on display when the gallery first opens won’t be there in the long run. Lalonde explains that many of the historic works are light-sensitive, and can only be exposed for about six months at a time. “That’s another exciting aspect of it, is that there will be a constant renewal and shift of things that are on display,” she says.
Men can step aside — the first significant European artist to practice in Canada was a woman by the name of Marie la Mère de Songe, Mayer says. While the National Gallery has previously acknowledged paintings and sculptures by priests as the earliest Canadian artworks, Marie was an Ursuline nun with a talent for embroidery. Says Mayer: “Her imagination and her skill is so superior to the men who were working at that time that it’s just unfair to not identify her as the first European artist to practice in Canada.”
Quillwork and beadwork and artwork — oh my!
The gallery will redefine what Canadians traditionally understand as art by incorporating a broader definition of artistic expression. Lalonde explains that for Indigenous peoples, art wasn’t separate from everyday life, meaning they channelled their creativity into clothing and footwear. “So while these were objects that we would consider in the past as strictly functional, and not having a place in a fine arts museum, we now recognize that the artistry, the knowledge, the techniques that went into it are on parallel with the other art forms.”
By including these traditional Indigenous practices of beadwork and quillwork, the gallery is taking a more inclusive approach to what it considers part of the Canadian art scene. “We have no argument with the artists who are in the canon, [but] we need to expand the canon, because the story of art-making in Canada goes back thousands of years, not just hundreds of years, and it’s not just Europeans,” Mayer says.