– Spring/Summer 2017

Anger and Reconciliation: A Very Brief History of Exhibiting Contemporary Indigenous Art in Canada

Lee-Ann Martin

Rebecca Belmore, Artifact #671B, 1988, performance, Thunder Bay, Ontario. Courtesy the artist

In 1986, while working in a university museum in the US state of Maine, I began to hear media reports regarding the planning of an exhibition titled ‘The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples’.1 Organised by the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta to coincide with the 1988 Olympics held in that location, ‘The Spirit Sings’ was to include over 650 historical objects borrowed from national and international ethnographic collections.2 I was angry and frustrated to learn that the curatorial committee included no Indigenous curators. My anger was exacerbated by the fact that the exhibition would include only historical objects, without regard to contemporary realities – typical of

  1. Note on terminology: ‘Indigenous’ is the preferred terminology used today with specific reference to the arts in the Canadian context and internationally. However, throughout this text, I use the terms ‘Native’, ‘Indian’ and ‘First Nations’ to respect their historic context and usage in Canada.

  2. The exhibition ran from 15 January–1 May 1988 at the the Glenbow Museum, before travelling to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, 1 July–6 November 1988.

  3. ‘Revisions’ took place 8–28 January 1988. The participating artists were Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Jimmie Durham, Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, Zacharias Kunuk, Mike MacDonald, Alan Michelson, Edward Poitras and Pierre Sioui.

  4. Helga Pakasaar, in Revisions (exh. cat.), Banff, Alberta: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1992, p.3.

  5. Now the Canadian Museum of History.

  6. Turning the Page: Forging New Partnerships Between Museums and First Peoples, a report jointly sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association, Ottawa, Ontario, 1992.

  7. The study was supported by the Canada Council as part of a residency I was then undertaking at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Quebec.

  8. Funded in part by the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada), previous symposia included: Symposium I, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, October 1978; and Symposium II, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, Regina, Saskatchewan, September 1979.

  9. At this event, artists and representatives of Canadian arts and funding institutions debated issues surrounding the definitions of and contexts for contemporary Indigenous art. See Alfred Young Man (ed.), Networking: Proceedings of the Fourth National Native Indian Arts Symposium, Lethbridge, Alberta: University of Lethbridge 1987.

  10. Karen Duffek and Tom Hill, Beyond History (exh. cat.), Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1989.

  11. Ibid., p.5.

  12. Diana Nemiroff, Robert Houle and Charlotte Townsend-Gault, ‘Land, Spirit, Power’, in Land Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada (exh. cat.), Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992, p.11.