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Gerald McMaster, a Cree curator and artist, is retiring from OCAD but will continue to work on other projects including Indigenous curation.

Ashley Fraser/Globe and Mail

Throughout his long career, Cree curator and artist Gerald McMaster has kept notebooks as convenient places to record thoughts, compose texts and make sketches.

There are about 70 of them now showing at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, part of a small display to acknowledge McMaster’s recent honour: a Governor General’s Award in visual and media arts. A few of the notebooks are open to show pages of dense writing and precise drawings of faces, bodies and a series of moccasins, alongside his notations.

“It’s my curatorial life on display through these notebooks. Writing and drawing were so synonymous for me, just putting something on paper,” McMaster said in a recent interview.

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Writing and drawing – or language and image – are also closely linked in his critical thinking, as he has worked to establish an Indigenous approach to seeing and showing art.

“Language helps us to conceptualize the world,” said McMaster, who grew up speaking Plains Cree on the Red Pheasant First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan.

“We see the world through this linguistic lens. And so if we’re speaking English and learning only Western art history, we are going to see the world through that lens. The work that I’ve been doing is to try to go back to original languages to see what’s in them.”

This philosophy can have very practical implications. At the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, where McMaster recently retired from teaching, it means courses in Canadian art start long before Europeans arrived.

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“If you come to Canada, it is an Indigenous lens through which you are going to be seeing, and being presented with. I think that’s the direction which we’ve been moving toward. It’s exciting because it’s much richer.”

And it can have critical implications. McMaster had always thought the Cree word, tapasinahike, which he had known since childhood, just meant “drawing.” But researching the language as an adult, he realized there were subtleties not contained in the English translation. Tapasinahike might be better translated as making a truthful mark or doing something in a truthful way.

“When I looked up drawing in the dictionary, not one connotation indicated that drawing was a truthful act. So, I thought, maybe we’re on to something here. Maybe we’re contributing a new, additional meaning to the notion of drawing.”

It made sense to McMaster because he has researched 19th-century ledger art, the transitional art of the Plains First Nations that mainly recorded battle exploits. (It was named for the source of the paper, the pages of settler account books.)

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“Putting marks down, making their drawings, making their stories, they had to be truthful,” McMaster said of these warrior artists. “Otherwise you were castigated, you weren’t a serious warrior.”

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McMaster looks over an installation at the National Gallery of Canada featuring the Birks’ collection of trade silver, displayed in two parallel rows representing the paths of Indigenous people and settlers.

Ashley Fraser/Globe and Mail

The implication that art making is a form of truth-telling or accurate record-keeping seems simultaneously more demanding and more expansive than traditional Western concepts of art as something primarily linked to aesthetics.

“When we think of art today, we think of artistic licence, but this didn’t give you licence to make up stories.”

It was this kind of idea McMaster was developing at the Wapatah Centre for Indigenous Visual Knowledge that he established at OCADU. (The university is now looking for another scholar to carry on research in the field, while he will stay in touch as a professor emeritus.)

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He is not the first Indigenous curator to revolutionize settler art institutions, crediting Tom Hill, former director of the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., and artist Robert Houle as the real pioneers. It was Houle who recommended McMaster for his first curatorial job in 1981 at what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

But he wasn’t being invited into an art gallery – he was being asked to curate Indigenous art in an institution that, in those days, considered it to be ethnographic material.

“Struggling to get Indigenous artists recognized and accepted into the mainstream art world, that took decades. Of course, today all our museums now have Indigenous artists or, in many cases, there are Indigenous curators who are active participants in their stories, their collections, their acquisitions and exhibitions,” he said.

“That’s been quite an amazing turnabout from the time period when I began.”

Meanwhile, McMaster has often reached out to Indigenous artists in Australia and New Zealand, where he says the shared English language makes contact easy. He has also connected to Colombia and Brazil with the current Arctic/Amazon show he co-curated at Toronto’s Power Plant, making the links across the hemisphere.

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In that regard, he is following an influence that dates to his early years in Saskatchewan where the Cree-Shoshone artist and teacher, Sarian Stump, had introduced him to the Indigenous cultures of South America.

“My early days were coloured by this notion of a global Indigeneity. That’s what we talked about, this view I had very early is now kind of infiltrating,” McMaster said, referring to contemporary discourse.

He continues to make contact with Australia: He will be spending next year as a visiting professor at the University of Sydney. And he is also working on a yet-to-be-announced Canadian museum exhibition for 2025.

“I’m not sitting back with a drink in my hand,” he said of his recent retirement from OCADU.

McMaster has now returned to the Ottawa-Gatineau region, moving to Chelsea, Que., to be close to his grandchildren. Across the Ottawa River, at the National Gallery, there is another of his marks: In a circle of moccasins on display in the Canadian and Indigenous galleries, he has added “the curator’s footprints.”

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They are two strong shapes in dark ink carefully pressed into the circle of First Nations footwear by a figure who walks firmly through Canadian art.