The first thing that strikes a visitor to the National Gallery of Canada’s new survey of international Indigenous art is scale. It is not merely the size of the endeavour – we might call it a biennial except the previous, inaugural edition took place in 2013 – which brings together more than 100 works by 70 artists from 40 tribes, nations or ethnicities. It is also the size of the work itself. Newfoundland artist Jordan Bennett introduces Abadakone or Continuous Fire, as the exhibition is called, by decorating the gallery’s soaring Great Hall with banners and mobiles that use images from Mi’kmaq petroglyphs and quillwork to evoke a new cosmos above our heads. Down the hall, you’ll encounter the towering Aka, a 14-metre column of woven marine rope created by New Zealand’s Mata Aho Collective.
That impressive piece of work, enlarging domestic hand-weaving to a monumental scale, is engaged in a lively conversation with Between Dreams by Eleng Luluan of Taiwan, a great tapestry or robe of Styrofoam and paper packaging spilling on to the gallery floor inside the exhibition space proper. Is this all-white thing a bridal gown or an environmental accident?
Abadakone is full of such intriguing encounters, and they don’t have to be oversized. Between Dreams is also speaking to a work by Norway’s Inger Blix Kvammen, a heavy necklace woven with multiple strands of tarnished silver wire into which the Sami artist has secreted tiny photographs. The Nenet artist Evgeniy Salinder, who lives in Siberia, contributes a series of miniature figures of antler and hide that visually recall historic Inuit talismans, as well as his own delicate self-portrait as a swimmer, a small, pale figure twisting its body toward the surface.
Salinder is one of several artists consciously reviving historic practices. From Sweden, Fredrik Prost creates a decorated hand drum of the type used by a Sami shaman; British Columbia artist Dempsey Bob, represented by his Wolf Warrior Helmet, is a master carver in the Northwest Coast tradition.
Other artists are immersed in modernity and hybridization, and comment on the encounter between Indigenous and settler culture, or traditional and Western art practices. Bob’s alder-wood helmet is sitting right beside a photograph by the Navajo artist Will Wilson showing a figure dressed in Kwakwaka’wakw regalia from the Northwest Coast with the addition of a Star Wars stormtrooper’s helmet. In an evocative video installation, Quebec artist Caroline Monnet, who is French and Algonquin, suggests the fatal contact between cultures with a pair of screens offering mirror images of footage she shot on a cargo ship travelling from Europe to North America.
Of course, identity emerges as a major theme. In a photographic series entitled Musclemen, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, from Benin, poses macho bodybuilders against a backdrop of colourful floral fabrics usually associated with African women. Sometimes the approach is simply documentary: The Alaskan photographer Brian Adams contributes an image from his book I am Inuit showing a parka-clad woman outside her house surrounded by chunks of whale meat. And sometimes it is achingly poetic: Inspired by her great-grandmother, the Mi’kmaq basket-weaver Caroline Gould, Nova Scotia artist Ursula Johnson etches drawings of the baskets onto the sides of empty glass display cases.
Absence is another recurring theme. The Guatemalan artist Manuel Chavajay paints an impressionistic image of a dugout canoe – but there’s a figure reflected in the water who is not on the boat. Anishinaabe artist Barry Ace creates an ornately decorated pair of boots with long otter-pelt tails – an updated version of the “trail dusters” that erase the wearer’s footsteps as he walks.
Certainly, there is anger against colonialism here. When Kaska Dene artist Joseph Tisiga of Whitehorse states that “the game cannot be won” on a wall piece of fur and artificial grass that resembles a map of a golf course, you wonder whether he’s telling that to the golfers and developers or to Indigenous people.
But in an exhibition that is, first of all, a big collection of excellent contemporary art, there is also hope. In an act of language reclamation, Joi T. Arcand spells out words of encouragement to Indigenous people in brightly coloured Cree syllabics on the National Gallery’s stone entrance ramp. For Canadian viewers, Abadakone will provide expansive evidence that the renaissance of Indigenous art underway at home is actually an international phenomenon.
The Sami artist Joar Nango, from northern Norway, has taken over the lobby with his Sami Architectural Library. It’s a fantastical, rough-hewn cabin on stilts filled with books on Sami culture and Indigenous policy, and it speaks to Nango’s belief in Indigenous resilience and ingenuity. If you mount the stairs, you will notice a little bird’s nest supported by a forked twig. A copy of the calls to action from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is nestled inside.
Abadakone: Continuous Fire shows at the National Gallery of Canada until April 5, 2020.
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