• Feature

Bridging the Distance Between the Arctic and the Amazon

Oct 04, 2022
by Sue Carter

More than a decade ago, when professor and curator Gerald McMaster first began researching the exhibition Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity, the pins on his map were in very different locations. While working with Indigenous artists in Australia’s Central Desert region, he was struck by similarities to artists from the Canadian Arctic.

Although McMaster’s idea for an exhibition pairing Inuit artists with Indigenous artists from Australia didn’t work out, the concept was still in the back of his mind as he was chatting with a German curator who had spent time in the Amazon. As they talked more, McMaster, who is a Plains Cree member of the Siksika Nation, began to envision another exhibition that would bring together artists from the Americas.

Arctic/Amazon opens October 1 at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, ON. McMaster, who acts as lead curator, along with co-curator Nina Vincent and the Power Plant’s Associate Curator, Noor Alé, have brought together works by 14 artists who are interconnected, yet working great distances apart. 

The show features artists working in a variety of media: Arke (Greenland/Denmark), Sonya Kelliher-Combs (United States), Tanya Lukin Linklater (United States/Canada), Couzyn van Heuvelen (Canada), Máret Ánne Sara (Norway), Uýra (Indigenous in diaspora), Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano, Wilma Maynas and Ronin Koshi (Peru), Morzaniel Iramari (Brazil), Leandro Lima and Gisela Motta (Brazil), Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe (Venezuela) and Outi Pieski (Finland).

IAQ Deputy Editor Sue Carter spoke to McMaster and Alé in early September about their plans for this groundbreaking show.

Sue Carter: Is this idea of connecting North and South a rarity? I can’t remember another exhibition that pairs these two perspectives in such a way.

Gerald McMaster: There is the idea of global Indigeneity connecting peoples. You have organizations and exhibitions taking place across the Circumpolar Arctic. So that’s already happening. There are local and global Indigenous dialogues, but not across the North and South. The only North-South dialogue is between Canada and the US, but when you start thinking of Latin America and the Amazon, in particular, that is different.

Global Indigeneity has been happening already for about 10 years or so to some degree, with exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada, and artists are now being invited to biennials all over the world where they’re mixing with other artists. This isn’t new, but I think this dialogue in the Americas is something new, and which we feel is quite interesting. 

Noor Alé: If we think about the title of this show, there’s this idea of a network, an entanglement of sorts, of all the Americas right from the circumpolar north to the so-called global south. I think quite closely about how we’re all interconnected and how there are interrelationships and interdependencies, informed Indigenous ways of thinking and being and also how the land is a source of practical knowledge for survival, but also for profound creativity. There are also conversations about resistance, resurgences and the interrelationships that bind us all together. 

SC: As you started investigating more, did you uncover any themes that came as a surprise?

GM: In 2019 we held the Arctic/Amazon Symposium at the Power Plant, which was representing primarily Canadian and the US Arctic. At that point, we had not expanded to the circumpolar Arctic or Scandinavian countries, which we have now in the show. 

I think what was surprising was how quickly the artists came together and really started connecting on the similarities that exist across both regions. We thought that because of the distances or other particularities that their differences would be the most significant discussion points, but it seemed like they were much more interconnected.

The similarities we found were perhaps in colonization and the degree to which Christianization has impacted their communities. More to contemporary times, the extraction of raw materials in these two regions is occurring. Mining in both areas, and what the forestry industry is doing in the South. Finally, the idea of global climate change was something we felt impacted both regions. It’s a global issue, but these two regions in particular have been impacted tremendously with the melting ice caps and then with the fires that were raging a few years ago and still are, and the farming and the gold mines.

Installation view of ArcticAmazon 2022

Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity, with works by Couzyn van Heuvelen, Uýra and Sheroanawe HakihiiwePHOTO HENRY CHAN COURTESY THE POWER PLANT

SC: What were some other themes that were drawn out as you began working with the artists?

GM: The theoretical idea we’re using in the exhibit is “Indigenous ontologies.” That’s this notion of being. I think it’s critical to how the artists think about themselves in relation to others and in relation to the land. 

Land is another theme. This notion of an Indigenous ontology is evident everywhere but it’s perhaps more magnified when you have the obvious differences in the land between the Arctic and the Amazon. When you speak to the artists and writers in the exhibition, those ontologies start to come out in the way that they articulate their relationships with the land. 

The arrival of Europeans created connections and contacts. Most often when we think about those contacts, we think of wars, diseases, famine—colonization is that great influencer, if you will. But what you get out of contact as well is trade. Intermarriage and a trade in ideas, and trade in goods; that’s how you have the Arctic co-operatives and the art markets. 

Noor Alé: Traditional knowledge as well, carrying on the continuity of their cultural heritage and ancestry and how that’s reflected in their works, but also how there are different kinds of synergies. If we think of Couzyn van Heuvelen, he uses his own ancestral knowledge but also turns it by using contemporary materials for things like fishing lures. 

GM: Having worked in this field for 40 years with artists, I believe the interest in traditional knowledge has always been there. It’s what gives them that Indigenous centeredness. Artists may not have used it in the past, but there’s this notion of looking back because so much has been erased through colonization, government policies, residential schools and the removal of children from their homes. The impact of the government and outsiders has had a tremendous impact on cultural, economic, social and political erasure. 

When you think of Inuit, there is a recovery happening of that knowledge. I think that the artists who are constantly working with different ideas and materials, it’s almost presupposed that they’re going to use traditional knowledge at some point, so it became a very interesting starting point for us. It’s really quite exciting to see how traditional knowledge is articulated using contemporary materials and being influenced by certain contemporary artistic practices. Couzyn, as Noor has pointed out, is a really good example.

Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Kamie ya uriji pi jami Parawa ujame theperekui uriji ter- imi thepe komi kua_2018

Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe Kamie ya uriji pi jami Parawa ujame theperekui uriji ter- imi thepe komi kua (Where I live in my jungle and in the Orinoco river all these animals also live) (2018) Acrylic on 79 sheets of cane fibre paper 35 x 51 cm eachCOURTESY COLECCIÓN PATRICIA PHELPS DE CISNEROS 
SC: This is the first major showing of Amazon artists' work in Toronto. How do Amazon artists' work get out into the world? What kind of supports do they have?

NA: If we think about someone like Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, who is represented by ABRA Caracas, a really good gallerist in Venezuela, sometimes these entry points with galleries allow the artist to be seen elsewhere. These galleries on the ground in Latin America facilitate fantastic opportunities for the artists. We are quite lucky to be working with both private and commercial galleries that represent the artists. 

GM: There were a number of years—I’ve been familiar enough with Indigenous artists of South America and how they’re treated and how they’re looked upon—that have been quite negative, with loaded phrases from the past like “primitive.” But the measuring stick that was always used was Western. So consequently, if you’re not art-school trained, this yardstick of measuring Indigenous artists against Western art has been to their detriment. They are going to lose out on the connections with the gallery systems and they’re going to be suppressed. 

Now a few artists like Sheroanawe and some of the others that we’re working with, gallerists are starting to find out who they are. Sometimes they’re discovered through other non-Indigenous artists who’ve gone into the Amazon, who work with the communities and may somehow make those connections, or they might influence gallerists to take a chance on some of these artists. 

It’s almost like Southern Indigenous artists in Canada. Alaska doesn’t even have a system like in the Canadian Arctic, nor does Scandinavia. So the Canadian Arctic is quite special and unique from that point of view, and it has set new standards. 

NA: Western Eurocentric art histories have very much erased contemporary global Indigenous art histories. When we think about our training in the West, I’m assuming most of us were not exposed to Latin American Indigeneity. Some peoples have been doing this since time immemorial, and it has just been relegated, as Gerald mentioned, to being primitive or childlike or just not sophisticated enough to enter into the market, or to be part of a wider public discourse about why this art matters.

SC: Inuit artists are well known for their stone sculptures. I am curious if there is a common material that connects Amazon artists?

GM: No, and you know what’s interesting, Noor and I have been talking, along with some of the staff at the Power Plant, about thinking of colour in terms of materiality. 

Indigenous folks love colour, and we wanted to get away from the white-cube gallery walls. I think that that will be the dynamic part of the show, and there’ll be a subtle complementarity that will happen.

NA: Our exhibition design team has been working with the artists to give the works and the way that they’re situated a particular kind of sensibility. In the context of Couzyn, we’re creating this great room for his balloons to shimmer and gently sway as if they’re swimming. The wall will be a very dark blue, and there will be these cracks in the walls that reference ice breaking up.

Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano_NonKenebo_2022 Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano Non Kenebo (2022)  PHOTO HYERIM HAN COURTESY THE POWER PLANT © THE ARTIST
SC: I’d love to learn more about the offsite mural collaboration between Olinda Reshijabe Silvano and Niap.

GM: Originally our team approached the Toronto Metropolitan University Image Centre, thinking our exhibition would spill over into their space with some photography, but timing didn’t work out. But then we had this opportunity to do a mural project. Right away I thought, “Well, why don’t we bring the artists from the South and the North together?”

We always had an artist in mind from the South, Olinda Reshijabe Silvano. She is from the Shipibo-Konibo community in the Peruvian Amazon, and she lives in the Shipibo-Konibo community in the city of Lima, Peru. And in the past year, we started to connect with Niap about collaborating. I knew that [Niap] had already done a number of murals and so we approached her.

[Niap] said, “By the way, I do speak a little bit of Spanish. I spent a number of months in Bolivia with a community where there were no other English speakers.” So that was pretty cool. 

The Image Centre spent a couple of years fundraising for this project. At first, we hoped to work with a small Kinngait community and with the young kids there, but in the end, it didn’t turn out. So we thought [Niap] would be able to do this herself. We were so pleased to learn that [Niap] was really into it, and the fact that she was working with Olinda, two women together. 

We’ll set up a studio for them and they’ll work on their ideas together. The painting itself will be done in studio, which will then be photographed professionally and taken to the printers and then they’ll create this magnificently large print, which then they can install on the TMU campus, as opposed to climbing a gigantic wall and having to spend a week training on harnesses and scaffolding.

Olinda’s approach to creating is to sing ideas into existence. Song is important for her culture, and for the production of art. So it’d be an interesting process to see how that works with Niap, and the kind of relational situation that will occur between them. How do we deal with the complexities because they’re two very vastly different visual languages? How will that come together? That’s where the art takes place. 

NA: The Shipibo-Konibo cultural artistic tradition includes pottery, jewellery, textiles and paintings. Olinda expands this practice and encompasses urban settings like the mural. This is a way to speak about her culture and address it at large and also build bridges amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences, which is very important. 

I think Gerald spoke about this quite beautifully that there’s also a very relational way of working with Olinda, there’s a lot of collaboration in this project: with TMU, the Power Plant as the home institution for the mural, but also with OCAD U, who is allowing us to create the mural in their great hall. It’s a fantastic project that has a lot of spirit and life in itself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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