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As Manitoba hesitates on its $15-million pledge, the gallery remains determined to build a permanent space for Inuit work

Hustle & Bustle/Downriver House, 2016, by Bruno Canadien.

Work has begun on the Winnipeg Art Gallery's (WAG) $65-million Inuit Art Centre, in spite of the Manitoba government's continued reluctance to confirm a $15-million contribution made by a previous administration.

The province committed funds to the new 3,700-square-metre facility in 2015. A change in government last year, however, put the pledge in doubt.

"We're in the queue," said WAG director and chief executive Stephen Borys, referring to a number of prior commitments being reviewed by the Conservative cabinet of Premier Brian Pallister. "There are other projects that have not just been stalled, but stopped. The fact that the Inuit Art Centre is still on the agenda gives me confidence that it's not a no.

"We have been told at the highest level to expect news soon and I'm confident the province will be on board."

The Winnipeg Art Gallery has received pledges from the federal government, the City of Winnipeg and private donors for its planned new 3,700-square-metre Inuit Art Centre. Renderings above show the proposed interior and exterior of the building.

The WAG has received a $15-million pledge from the federal government, Borys said, as well as $5-million from the city of Winnipeg and another $21-million in private donations. None of the federal or municipal money, he said, is contingent on the province signing on. Just in case the news from the government is not good, he said, the WAG has prepared a contingency plan to go ahead with the project on a reduced scale.

All this testifies to the WAG's determination to build a permanent space for its collection of contemporary Inuit art, which it says is the largest in the world. Borys said that about half of the gallery's 13,000 pieces will be on display in the new building at any given time, as compared with the 1 per cent of the collection that the WAG can show now.

The building project, which will include renovations to the WAG's existing building, will shift the gallery's studio activities to the top level of the old structure, Borys said. There will also be a new café at ground level, an expanded adjacent gallery shop and more rentable space for community activities.

The building project, which will include renovations to the WAG’s existing building, will shift the gallery’s studio activities to the top level of the old structure.

The old studios adjacent to the WAG have been pulled down to make way for the new structure and work has begun on a unified and upgraded physical plant for the existing building and the one yet to come. A full public campaign for funds has not yet begun, Borys said, and the target of $30-million includes an endowment to help cover the cost of running the new facility.

As if to show its determination to make the WAG a global centre for Indigenous art, the gallery recently opened a major group exhibition called Insurgence/Resurgence. The show includes work by 30 artists from across Canada.

Curators Jaimie Isaac (WAG curator of Indigenous and Contemporary Art) and Julie Nagam (chair of the History of Indigenous Art in North America at the WAG and the University of Winnipeg) have assembled a broad and powerful collection of works in many media. Some, such as the dark monoliths of Scott Benesiinaabandan's Animikiikaa 10/97, create holistic imaginative spaces that seem to challenge the tendency of European-style museums to situate art works in neutral, vault-like environments.

Kenneth Lavallee’s Creation Story, 2017. Collection of the artist

Several pieces relate to the land and its dynamic role in Indigenous cultures, as well as to its more passive position in non-Indigenous society, as something to be subdued or exploited. Heather Campbell's Methylmercury, an ink drawing on paper, is a shockingly blunt depiction of the quasi-sexual violation of the Earth and its waters at Campbell's territory near Muskrat Falls in Labrador.

Linus Woods's tragicomic painting After the Next Ice Age in Long Plain Res check spelling shows a surfer riding a wave, beneath which the outline of a submerged canoe can be seen. The painting seems to take the long Indigenous view of history, in which the rape of the Earth may be a blip that will eventually be corrected by irresitible natural forces.

Other pieces make open-ended use of Indigenous symbols and aren't necessarily related to colonial experience. Joseph Tisiga's cryptic paintings are land-centred and dreamlike, mingling the everyday and the archetypal in ways that can't be settled into a single narrative. Duane Linklater's A gift from Doreen drapes a tepee canvas over the wall and across the gallery floor, like the wings of a thunderbird.

Dee Barsy’s My Four Grandmothers, 2017.

Several works refer to the permeability of Indigenous societies relative to technologies from outside, as well as the resilience of aboriginal cultures within the vortex of technological change. KC Adams's pieces in the show involve beading on digital reproductions of birchbark, Caroline Monnet's Shield uses tooth-like masses of concrete and copper pipe to create a quasi-geological spine, and Tiffany Shaw-Collinge's miniature trap-line cabins include one made from zip-ties.

Resurgence seems an apt notion, when looking at these pieces by such a diverse group of Indigenous artists. But the flowering of Indigenous art has been under way for decades. What is really new is the determination of museums and galleries in Canada to recognize and celebrate Indigenous arts for what they are, rather than to treat them as a subset of ethnographic studies.

No doubt there may be bumps in the road, as evidenced by the disgruntled recent departure from the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) of curator Andrew Hunter, who complained that the AGO is moving too slowly toward inclusion at all levels. His criticisms, however, were published just as the AGO announced the appointment of its first-ever, full-time curator of Indigenous art. The times, they are indeed a-changing.

Insurgence/Resurgence continues at the Winnipeg Art Gallery through April 22, 2018.