A Toronto art gallery will mark a first when it opens its doors in early October. Not only will the Native Arts Society’s new space become one of the few Indigenous-run in Canada, it will be the only two-spirit, trans-led gallery co-founded by an Inuk artist.
The gallery and accompanying studio space is the brainchild of Inuvialuk artist Nanook Gordon, and their fiancé, arts administrator and harm-reduction specialist Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, who is a member of the Wiikwemikong Unceded First Nation. I caught up with the two Native Arts Society coordinators by phone as they embarked on a well-deserved trip across the country to Vancouver. They were on the road somewhere outside Edmonton, AB, and despite the crackling cell service, their enthusiasm came in loud and clear.
The couple had just come off of a week of pop-up sales in late June, selling out their orange t-shirts manually screenprinted by Gordon (a gorgeous image of Olson-Pitawanakwat standing with power in a jingle dress) to raise money for Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction (TIHR). The grassroots collective, which they launched during the early months of COVID-19, supports houseless and other vulnerable people through various health and cultural initiatives. In addition to the money raised for TIHR, $2,000 of the proceeds were reserved to send art supplies to the community organization Ilisaqsivik in Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), NU, for their youth programs.
To date, the online campaign for the gallery has raised more than $36,000—about a third of the way to their target—which will help cover operating costs, supplies and the needed renovations.
When it’s finished, the new gallery will combine Gordon and Olson-Pitawanakwat’s work with TIHR, offering studio space, workshops and a place for street-involved, houseless and incarcerated artists to sell their work. Two artists will be featured in each rotating three-month exhibition, for which they’ll be paid and also receive all the proceeds from any works sold.
Tuk Gordon Native Arts Society logo (2021)COURTESY NATIVE ARTS SOCIETY
Before moving to Toronto, Olson-Pitawanakwat worked at an art and music studio for youth in Edmonton, guided by many of the same harm-prevention principles they plan to incorporate into this new venture. Many of the artists whose work will be shown at the Native Arts Society gallery most likely would never have a show in a traditional gallery. They haven’t had a place to sell their work other than on the street, where Gordon says they’ve been exploited and their work undervalued.
While the Native Arts Society will act as organizers and caregivers, the intention is that the space belongs to the artists. Gordon and Olson-Pitawanakwat will still actively do outreach for TIHR, connecting with other artists and increasing their work in remote communities. Having access to temporary digs during the pop-ups to silkscreen t-shirts reinforced to Gordon that artists need a physical space where they feel safe and supported to create and develop their skills.
“It allowed us to be creative—and create something that we really love,” says Gordon. “I think everyone should be able to try everything and see what they enjoy and then have the opportunity to have someone who knows how to teach it to them."
Born in Inuvik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, Gordon—who was adopted into Serpent River First Nation and whose dad is Anishinaabe artist Isaac Murdoch—discovered art in their early twenties, when they began deeply connecting with their culture, learning more about Inuit carving and traditional tattoos. Gordon’s wide-ranging art practice, which is guided by compassion and a strong sense of community, is also driven by activist needs. Their screenprinting skills were honed making t-shirts for fundraising and, thanks to a newly purchased camera, there are plans to produce mini-documentaries about the gallery artists.
"Part of what we do together is art so that we can raise funds," says Olson-Pitawanakwat.
In a July 18 TIHR Instagram video, Gordon and Olson-Pitawanakwat shared an update, including the news that they’re planning more fundraising pop-ups to sell swag, including one in collaboration with Gordon’s auntie and gallery mentor, celebrated Métis artist Christi Belcourt.