A visit to the National Gallery of Canada's summer show Sakahan is an occasion to see a lot of great art from around the world – the show brings together 80 indigenous artists from 16 countries – but it also offers an occasion to reflect. Looking back to the opening of the National Gallery of Canada's 1992 exhibition Land, Spirit, Power, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization's concurrent Indigena, I can remember a time when First Nations and Inuit art in Canada was still at the fringe. It's true that there were aboriginal artists in Canada who made a good living and who became public citizens of note – among them Bill Reid, Kenojuak Ashevak and, later, Carl Beam. But their art then was not integrated into the mainstream conversations of the art world.
Walking through the galleries of Sakahan (the term means "to light a fire" in Algonquin) last week, one had the chance to reflect on the changes that have come about since those days, and how that initial, historic segregation has been eroded by sustained vision, commitment and effort – by artists, aboriginal curators, theorists and cultural leaders like Marcia Crosby, Gloria Cranmer Webster, Gerald McMaster and Tom Hill, and by the museums and the federal and provincial funding agencies that have created a space for aboriginal voice. I found myself thinking: This might be the only area of aboriginal development in which the white world has not dropped the ball, operating from a core of good faith, open mindedness and sincere respect. Is there a model here to follow?
The Canadians shine here, and their confidence and sophistication are palpable – Sakahan presents many of their notable recent highlights, including a number of key works that have been bought over the past few years by the NGC. There's the now-classic feminist photo work from the NGC collection by Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinaabe artist whose hair-raising photograph of a woman scarred and then beaded (with decorations stitched into her wound) bears witness to the human capacity to heal and to transcend suffering. There is Brian Jungen's sharp 2008 take on native beadwork and on environmental and land-claims issues – two red plastic gasoline containers decorated with delicate skeins of plant imagery wrought with tiny drill holes, evoking stitchery. Shuvinai Ashoona, in her recent large-format drawings, has given us a window on the Inuit world of Cape Dorset, where harsh local realities and inner fantasies mingle with the junk-strewn incoming tide of southern culture. The NGC now owns 25 of her works.
The issue of authenticity simmers below the surface. Who gets to say what "Indian" means? Kent Monkman, now in Toronto but originally from Winnipeg, is presenting his hilarious and brilliant film installation Shooting Geronimo, housed in a tepee screening room. It's a homoerotic silent movie about a white filmmaker in the Old West who aims to instruct two young male aboriginal film stars on how to act the part of Indians more convincingly. (His suggestion? Amp up the fierceness factor and ditch the breakdancing for something more ethnically appropriate; the white man is happy to demonstrate.) In the tradition of sculpture, Jamasee Padluq Pitseolak's pair of carved stone hands in handcuffs speaks of the social conditions of Inuit men, but also, I think, of the tensions beneath the surface of a carving tradition initially shaped by southern stereotypes of Inuit identity. Carve, the southern market has historically said, but carve to express what we need you to be. Pitseolak pushes back, and the Gallery gives him the platform to make his case.
One newcomer stands out in the crowd – 34-year-old Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin from Sitka, Alaska, whose sculpture The Good Book updates the tradition of native carving. Using as his medium a 1,100-page volume of the Bible, Galanin carves into the bound pages to create the shape of a raven mask, which he has adorned with flourishes of glossy black human hair – a deft compression of divergent ways of believing and belonging.
This is not Galanin's first attempt at cultural cross-pollination, however. He is also the standout talent in Beat Nation, the Vancouver Art Gallery's current touring show, which explores the hybridization of hip hop and aboriginal cultures. His offering for that show is a video projection that shows a young indigenous man in contemporary street garb breakdancing to traditional Tlingit chanting, as well as a man performing a Tlingit traditional dance in ceremonial attire to the sounds of hip hop – improbable pairings that come together uncannily well. (The show lands at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal in the fall.)
Galanin will be having a solo show at the Audain Gallery at the University of Victoria in September, and he'll also be included in a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto in the same month. So look sharp. Happily for us, and thanks to a lot of people doing their jobs well, we'll be seeing him again.
Sakahan: International Indigenous Art was curated by Greg Hill, Christine Lalonde and Candice Hopkins. It continues at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until September 2.