• Beyond the Gallery

raise a flag

works from the Indigenous Art Collection (2000-2015)

Nov 20, 2018
by Ryan Rice

The curatorial premise of the exhibition raise a flag: works from the Indigenous Art Collection (2000–2015) was to bring greater public attention to this lesser-known, federally-managed (by INAC) national heritage collection (est. 1965) and to build upon the distinct profiles of contemporary Indigenous art and artists through a selection of the collection’s most recent acquisitions. For the inaugural exhibition at OCAD University’s Onsite Gallery, contemporary Indigenous art occupied and activated the new space located in Toronto’s Entertainment District. With over 9,000 visitors, raise a flag successfully widened the canon of a Canadian contemporary art history to be inclusive, diverse, relevant and Indigenous.

raise a flag emerged out of the sesquicentennial celebratory barrage and strategically shifted attention toward the collection’s significance as an archive and a legacy that contains many of the truths the country continues to seek out. Mining the collection’s creative and critical discourse also allowed me to address the sign of the times—namely, the issues confronting the national narrative in the era of reconciliation. The exhibition gave viewers an opportunity to activate an invaluable collection and offered a counter-narrative to the country’s anniversary messaging, shedding light upon the pressing socio-political issues that Indigenous artists are powerfully addressing in their practices.

The 49 works by 33 artists selected for the exhibition reveal the breadth and beauty that the collection represents and emphasize the critical creative contributions that have been made to an Indigenous and Canadian art history and that require immediate attention. Each work offers diverse points of Indigenous worldviews, an approach that authenticates the versatile nature of Indigenous art and that invites the viewer to take notice and bear witness to these critical discourses and approaches. From subtle to provocative, the works all interrogate and prioritize Indigeneity and its affect, radiating through the power of creativity, imagination and cultural expression.

Myra Kukiiyaut (1929-2006 Qamani’tuaq), Shopping for Pilot Biscuits, Flour, Salt, Groceries (2008), Stonecut, 62.2 x 99.1 cm
Through the curatorial project and process, I was afforded an opportunity to champion Inuit art’s vital, foundational aesthetic and influence as a critical component to the exhibition. Inuit art offered a broader critical perspective to the curatorial premise and collapsed the divide between First Nations and Inuit art practices and representation, which was previously emphasized in the Indigenous Art Centre’s collection exhibitions Transitions: Contemporary Canadian Indian and Inuit Art (1997) and Transitions 2: Contemporary Indian and Inuit Art of Canada (2001). These two exhibitions are notable for re-introducing, or re-integrating, Inuit art acquisitions into the national collection after the comprehensive Inuit Art Collection was dispersed to multiple institutions (the result of a transfer agreement reached in 1989) [1]. Since then the separate Inuit and Indian Art Centres have been amalgamated as the Indigenous Art Centre (formerly the Aboriginal Art Centre). This equity amplified the strength of the collection and recognized the tenacity of a distinct and diverse visual culture, upheld by generations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists across the country.

The artworks selected from 13 Inuit artists, whose careers range from emerging to established, addressed histories and narratives often hidden within the country’s fabric and uncovered critical issues that were central to and supported the exhibition’s conception. Barry Pottle’s photographs Awareness 1 and Awareness 2, from The Awareness Series (2009–10), introduced viewers to the insensitive and degrading governmental identification system (disc numbers) implemented across the North, while Jimmy Iqaluq’s argillite sculpture In the Past, the RCMP Killed the Dogs (2005) conveys the certainties of the forced strategy, sanctioned by government authorities, to limit Inuit access to the land [2]. Such consequences contributed to matters of food sovereignty addressed in Myra Kukiiyaut’s (1929–2006) linocut print Shopping for Pilot Biscuits, Flour, Salt, Groceries (2008) and the realities of traumatic crises allegorically revealed in Mark Igloliorte’s large oil painting Untitled (2008). These events continue to influence the current (and future) status of communal well-being, reconciliation and resilience. Inspiration drawn from transition, isolation, technology and encounters with the “other” are rendered through the experience of lived memories in prints by Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), Ohotaq Mikkigak (1936–2014), Pitaloosie Saila, RCA, and Tim Pitsiulak (1967–2016), among others, that offered multifaceted Inuit perspectives for viewers to contemplate.

Mark Igloliorte (b. 1977 Vancouver/Corner Brook), Untitled (2008), Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 396 cm
The exhibition also provided an opportunity to bring communities together: first, as a gathering of artists representative of the collection and second, through public programming that began with an afternoon block-party celebration, featuring a roster of Indigenous performers. The exhibition offered critical insight into the collection’s history with the symposium Stories from the Vault, featuring former managers and curators of the collection, including Tom Hill, David General, Rick Hill, Barry Ace, Barry Pottle and myself, and moderated by Linda Grussani. Rigorous programming fuelled the exhibition over the three-month run, with artist talks by Lisa Myers and Mark Igloliorte, presentations by Susan Blight and Lindsay Nixon, the first-ever public Inuit Artist Database Edit-a-Thon and an Indigenous mapping, pennant-making workshop.

In realizing the exhibition as primarily an educational opportunity that could invite public inquiry, I led 41 tours of classes and diverse groups from the GTA who were interested in enriching their experience and understanding of Indigenous art in Canada. A comprehensive resource guide was vital to the exhibition’s development and was made available to the public as a downloadable document on the gallery’s website. The survey of works contributed greatly to the interpretation of a dynamic national narrative, informing audiences of unfamiliar current issues, addressing colonial histories, identity politics, sovereignty, social injustice, land and reclamation; issues that are witnessed and exposed through the influence and relevancy of art.

The creative legacy that raise a flag introduced to the public represents only a fragment of the collection’s magnitude, which has the potential to encompass the vital contributions of Indigenous art and culture within the global art history canon. The opportunity to raise awareness of the power of Indigenous art is a reflection of the relationships and spaces between cultures that speak volumes to the multiple identities of a nation moving forward.

Installation view of raise a flag: works from the Indigenous Art Collection (2000-2015) at Onsite Gallery OCAD University, Toronto, 2017


[1] In 1989 the Inuit Art Collection of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND; now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada [INAC]), totalling some 5,000 pieces in varying media, including sculpture, print, drawing and textile work, was dispersed between the Inuit Cultural Institute in Arviat, NU (originally stored at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, NWT, and  now part of the Government of Nunavut Collection held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery [WAG]), the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC; now the Canadian Museum of History, the WAG and the Avataq Cultural Institute. In 1983 the collection was appraised at $1,592,162. Nancy S. Mullick, The Transfer of the Northern Affairs (NA) and Indian and Northern Affairs of Canada (INAC) Collections of Inuit Art: 1985–1992 (master’s thesis, Concordia University, 1998), 39. At the time of transfer the NGC, CMC and WAG committed themselves to establishing on-the-job training programs in museology for Inuit. Additionally, the CMC committed to including Inuit in its artist-in-residence program. The Department did not begin actively collecting Inuit art again until the mid-1990s. For additional details see Inuit Art Quarterly 4, no. 4 (Fall 1989): 40.

[2] These two works and the historical contexts surrounding their creation are discussed in the education guide created for this exhibition, available through https://www2.ocadu.ca/event/raise-a-flagworks-from-the-indigenous-art-collection-2000-2015. Also see Heather Igloliorte, “Arctic Culture/Global Indigeneity,” in Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada, ed. Lynda Jessup, Erin Morton and Kirsty Robertson (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).

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