National Gallery of Canada Showcases Largest-ever Survey of Contemporary Indigenous Art

June 16, 2013

By Colin Rosemont

One of the most exciting and energetic surveys of contemporary Indigenous art finds its home this summer at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa. The exhibit, Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art, will be on display from May 17, 2013 until September 2, 2013 and claims to be the largest-ever global survey of contemporary Indigenous art. Sakahàn features over 150 pieces of art by more than 80 self-identified Indigenous artists hailing from 16 countries and 6 continents. “This is a breathtaking exhibition, the largest in our 130 year history,” said Marc Mayer, National Gallery of Canada director and CEO, speaking at a press preview on May 15. “It is hard to beat when it comes to scale. We have been working on it for four years.” 

With mediums of painting, video, sculpture, print, drawing, performance art, and mural filling exhibition spaces and flowing out into public spaces both inside and outside of the gallery, the artworks enter into a dialogue with each other and the increasingly globalized world around them, addressing questions of identity, self-representation, and art through a multitude of cultural lenses. Greg Hill, Sakahàn’s co-curator and NGC’s Audain Curator of Indigenous Art, says of the exhibit, “You come here with your ideas about what contemporary Indigenous art is and what you leave with is what contemporary Indigenous art can be.”

Sakahàn, meaning “to light [a fire]” in the language of the Algonquin peoples, really does seem to ignite the passion and inspiration found in both traditional and personal narratives from cultures and artists around the world, funneled into shared spaces filled with artwork and intention. The exhibit calls to the fore notions of discovery and reflection as visitors encounter the art—the art that blends aspects of the spiritual, sensational, and everyday that accompany the rich expanses of their cultural heritage.

Vernon Ah Kee, a Kuku Yalandji, Waanji and Yidinji Australian Aboriginal Artist notes, “I have a feeling that when people come to see this show there is going to be a lot on offer that they are not familiar with. There’s probably things they are uncomfortable with—things that they have never seen before. And for me I find that all interesting and a little exciting. But for a general audience…just visually there is a feast here.” Of Ah Kee’s work, Ottawa citizen Peter Simpson writes, “Ten vividly coloured surfboards hang from the ceiling like a forest of electric Fiberglas. A video in the next room, with two duller surfboards, speaks further to the conflict of aboriginal and colonist cultures. On the backs of the right surfboards are portraits by Ah Kee of aboriginal people, and on the wall are slogans with double meanings. One says “Hang Ten,” a surfing term and an allusion to 10 executed aboriginals. It’s an indictment painted on the tools of western recreation.” Simpson continues recounting the exhibit: “It’s almost impossible to imagine how any person could go through this exhibition and not come out with a profoundly changed view of what is “indigenous art” in the world today, and, by extension, what are indigenous people.”

There is hope and intention that the artworks will enter into a conversation amongst themselves and that, through their interaction with the art, visitors will be transformed into thinking in new ways and considering different relationships between contemporary indigeneity and art. As Native Anishinaabe and Haida Artists Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt express, “Even as an artist coming in and seeing other pieces, I’ve never felt so much emotion. Yea I’ve been blown away. Its not exhausting. You come and you walk away stimulated to keep going.”

With artists like Teresa Margolles exhibiting pieces with traditional Mayan embroidery on fabric carrying the stains from the body of a murdered woman in Guatemala City to artists like Marie Watt who says her work “explores human stories and rituals implicit in everyday objects”, Sakahàn opens a space to hear and tell stories of contested histories and futures in the making.

Find more information here.