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Wanda Nanibush, curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, at the gallery in Toronto on Jan. 25.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush left her job last week in what the institution calls a mutual decision, following years of outspokenness that caused friction with some at the gallery and in the arts community – which came to a head with the Israel-Hamas war.

Ms. Nanibush is a celebrated Anishinaabe curator who joined the AGO in 2016 as the inaugural curator of Indigenous Art and co-head of the Indigenous and Canadian Art Department. She recently won the Toronto Book Award for her co-authored book Moving the Museum and was a jurist for the 2023 Sobey Art Award.

She has publicly supported Palestinian causes both recently – including in a since-deleted social-media post viewed by The Globe and Mail – and in the past, including in a 2016 feature for Canadian Art magazine. In that story, she linked the experience of Indigenous peoples living in Canada to that of Palestinians. “Colonization marks a before and after where identity is radically altered by loss,” she wrote.

Stephan Jost, chief executive of the AGO, wrote to gallery staff last week about Ms. Nanibush’s candour.

“One of the many things I always heard from Wanda was her honesty, which at times resulted in difficult conversations, including in the last few weeks,” Mr. Jost said in a memo obtained by The Globe. “She unswervingly inserted Indigenous art and artists, with grace, honesty and pride – which has changed our sense of history and our collective future at the museum.”

The AGO confirmed Ms. Nanibush’s departure but declined to give the reasoning because it was a personnel matter. Ms. Nanibush could not be reached for comment.

Three people connected with the AGO told The Globe that Ms. Nanibush’s vocal opinions – not just about Palestinians and Israelis but including that subject – had both benefited the institution since her arrival and rankled some of its staff and supporters. The Globe is not identifying these people because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

But the situation highlights the tension that can exist in the role of institutional curators – that is, whether they should let art and artists speak for themselves or whether they should contribute to the confrontational nature of art.

One of the sources said that Ms. Nanibush’s departure was a mutual decision that would allow her to speak more freely without the expectations that come when representing a nationally recognized institution. This echoed remarks from Mr. Jost’s letter to AGO staff.

Public division over Israel-Hamas war spills into the arts world

The cultural world is being ruptured by the Israel-Hamas war

Division over the Israel-Hamas war has been spilling into the art world in recent weeks. While freedom of expression and dissent are core tenets of art, the war has upset the delicate balance between those tenets and the art institutions that rely on donations, sponsorships and community connections.

A growing number of Indigenous scholars, activists and artists in Canada have expressed solidarity with Palestinians, who they believe are undergoing similar treatment to what Indigenous peoples have experienced under what they describe as a colonial state that has uprooted and mistreated them.

At an Edmonton Oilers game earlier this month, for instance, The Bearhead Sisters, the Juno-winning musical group from Paul First Nation, brought kaffiyehs – traditional Arab headdresses – with them as they sang Canada’s national anthem from the ice, later directly expressing solidarity with Palestinians.

But some Canadians active in a support group of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem claim that Ms. Nanibush “perpetually denies that Jews are indigenous to Israel.” In a letter leaked to social media this week, which The Globe has verified, they wrote to Mr. Jost accusing Ms. Nanibush of “posting inflammatory, inaccurate rants against Israel.” (The letter did not cite a specific post, and Ms. Nanibush appears to have since deleted all social media.)

One of the sources with knowledge of the reasons for Ms. Nanibush’s departure from the AGO said that the letter did not play a role in the decision for her exit and disagreed with some of its contents.

The signatories of the letter included Pearl Berman, executive director of the group, called Israel Museums and Arts, Canada; and Sara Angel, a former long-time arts journalist and Chatelaine editor who now runs the Art Canada Institute, a not-for-profit based in Toronto.

In an e-mailed statement, Ms. Berman pointed out that the letter did not call for Ms. Nanibush to leave the gallery but said that it pushed for “substantive” antisemitism training and for the AGO to make use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism.

Ms. Berman added that “as police have noted, this is a time of rising hate against Jews in Toronto and around the world.”

The IHRA, an international organization focused solely on Holocaust issues, has proposed a non-legally binding definition of antisemitism that some say could be used to silence those critical of Israel.

When demonstrators interrupted last week’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala to protest the sponsor bank’s stake in an Israeli arms company, and were later charged, more than 1,500 members of the publishing industry signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and for charges to be dropped.

And one media organization pulled sponsorship from the U.S. National Book Awards last week over fear that finalists would make a pro-Palestinian statement on stage, which they did.

Even as Canada’s arts institutions have spent recent years working more closely with Indigenous curators and artists, three of the country’s flagship museums and galleries have lost their Indigenous curators in recent years. On top of Ms. Nanibush’s exit from the AGO, Lucy Bell stepped down from the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives in 2020, and Greg Hill lost his job at the National Gallery of Canada last November.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify where Art Canada Institute operates.

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