Following the news that artist collective Isuma will represent Canada at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) has confirmed that, for the first time in the Canada Pavilion’s history, the project will be curated by a team.
The curatorial team includes visual artist, filmmaker, writer and curator Asinnajaq, executive director and chief curator of the Art Gallery of Alberta Catherine Crowston, senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada Josée Drouin-Brisebois, executive director and chief curator Art Museum at the University of Toronto Barbara Fischer and independent curator and writer Candice Hopkins.
“We are thrilled to work with the Isuma collective—Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn—toward the realization of a new multi-faceted project for Venice," the team said in a joint statement.
The Canadian exhibition at the Biennale has historically been organized by a single curator, but collaboration seems to be a defining theme for this highly anticipated show. “Because [Isuma is] a collective, I think it’s more natural for them to think of working with a collective,” said Asinnajaq. “I think everyone’s really proud of [the exhibition], which is nice. Everyone’s really real, and everyone’s attentive to each other.”
The curatorial team was hand-picked by Isuma, and each curator was chosen based on their skills and experience. According to Hopkins, “they also felt it was important to have mentorship built into the team, so, in effect, we are learning from one another as well as from Isuma.”
Both Asinnajaq and Hopkins have previously worked with Isuma. Asinnajaq curated the short film series and accompanying exhibition Channel 51: Igloolik, which celebrates the films of Isuma and Arnait Video Productions and was sponsored by the Inuit Art Foundation. Hopkins was involved in the 2004 acquisition of Isuma’s TV series Nunavut (Our Land) (1995) when she was the Indigenous Curator in Residence at the Banff Centre between 2002-2005. The series was later included in Hopkins’s exhibition Shapeshifters, Time Travellers and Storytellers (2007–2008) at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, ON.
The idea of mentorship is further reflected in Isuma’s work. “Isuma’s is a practice often focused on doing things, which is a very interesting perspective on southern film and television, which is often about dialogue,” explains Hopkins. “You see this practiced in Isuma’s films, in particular, where, in a scene, you often see someone young learning from someone older.”
Alongside Asinnajaq and Hopkins, the remaining members of team bring extensive prior experience curating the Biennale. Drouin-Brisebrois curated Steven Shearer’s exhibition Exhume to Consume at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and Shary Boyle’s Music for Silence at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. Two years later, she was on the committee that selected the Quebecois mixed-media collective BGL for the 56th Biennale. In 2017, she was the project director for the Canada Pavilion in the 57th Biennale, and part of the committee that chose Isuma for the upcoming edition. Crowston was part of the committee that selected Shearer for the 2011 Biennale and in 2016 she was the commissioner for the Canada Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition. Fischer also served as the commissioner of the Canada Pavilion for the 53rd Venice Biennale, where she curated the exhibition Mark Lewis: Cold Morning.
“The Biennale allows us to spread the word that there is great work here [in Canada],” Fischer said of the 2009 Biennale. "The artists bring with them an intense connection to what this place is and what it has to offer, what its culture is, what its diversity is, what its points of view are.” Fischer’s words still ring true today.
Isuma’s participation in the Biennale is poised to provide much-needed insight into the lives and perspectives of Canadian Inuit. This is only the second inclusion of an Inuit artist in the international arts exhibition’s 122-year history. The first was Kananginak Pootoogook who was included in the 2017 fair's central exhibition Viva Arte Viva, curated by Christine Macel.
“Inuit art has long impacted a huge global audience. [This project in Venice], then, will loop back to that history, but also to people’s real lives in the North. And that is really something that is a shared goal between Isuma and the curatorial team for the pavilion,” Hopkins concludes.
About the curators and artist:
Asinnajaq is a visual artist, writer and curator, from Inukjuak, Nunavik and based in Montreal. She studied film at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, after working for two summers on a cruise ship in the arctic. Asinnajaq is a co-creator of the Tillutarniit Inuit Film Festival in Montreal. She is the Writer/Director of Three Thousand (2017), a film which is in the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s landmark show INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE and is nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. Asinnajaq has been working with Isuma on their retrospective titled Channel 51: Igloolik this past year. She looks forward to the continued learning all her posts afford her.
Catherine Crowston is the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Art Gallery of Alberta. In 2016, Crowston served as the Commissioner for the Canada Pavilion of the Venice Biennale of Architecture featuring landscape architect Pierre Belanger and OPSYS, and was the Canadian Commissioner for the Sydney Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2002. Crowston has held curatorial positions at the Walter Phillips Gallery and the Art Gallery of York University, and was awarded the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts in 2002. She was inducted into the City of Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame in 2015.
Josée Drouin-Brisebois is the Senior Curator of Contemporary Art responsible for the collections of Canadian and international Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada. She was the Project Director for Geoffrey Farmer’s Canadian participation at the 2017 Venice Biennale, and organized the Canadian participation in both the 2013 Venice Biennale art exhibition and the 2011 Venice Biennale. She has curated numerous exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada.
Barbara Fischer is the Executive Director/Chief Curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto where she also holds the position of Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Visual Studies Curatorial Studies in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. She has held curatorial positions at the Walter Phillips Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, as well as the directorship of the Blackwood Gallery. She curated Mark Lewis for the Canada Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale and was the recipient of the 2008 Hnatyshyn Award for Curatorial Excellence in Contemporary Art.
Candice Hopkins is an independent curator and writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was a curator for documenta 14 in Athens (Greece) and Kassel (Germany), and has held curatorial positions at the IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Western Front, Vancouver; and the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre. In 2014, she received the Joan Lowndes award from the Canada Council for the Arts for excellence in critical and curatorial writing, and in 2016 the Prix pour un essai critique sur l’art contemporain by the Foundation Prince Pierre de Monaco. She is a citizen of Carcross/Tagish First Nation.
Isuma, meaning “to think, or a state of thoughtfulness” in Inuktitut, was co-founded in 1990 and is Canada’s first Inuit-owned independent production company. Led by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, Isuma is best known for its award-winning, Inuit-language Fast Runner Trilogy: Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (2001), The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) and Before Tomorrow (2009). Atanarjuat made history as the first Inuktitut-language feature film ever made. It went on to win the Camera d’or at Cannes, in May 2001, and it screened at documenta11 in Kassel, Germany, in 2002. Isuma is also responsible for the creation of IsumaTV, a collaborative multi-media project and the first website dedicated to Indigenous media art. The site currently boasts more than 6,000 films and videos in more than 80 languages.