Marc Mayer is calling it "the largest undertaking of our history" and the fulfilment of an ambition he vowed to entertain after being named director of the National Gallery of Canada four years ago. This would be Sakahan, the NGC's upcoming summer exhibition of more than 150 art works, all created within the last 10 to 15 years, by some 80 indigenous artists from around the world, one-third of them Canadian.
Mayer's use of the superlative is not because Sakahan – Algonquin for "lighting a fire" – contains the most artifacts of any exhibition the NGC has mounted in its almost 135-year history. It's because of "its sheer sprawl" within the Ottawa gallery, outside its walls and in other institutions in the Ottawa-Gatineau region including the Carleton University Art Gallery, Galerie SAW, the Ottawa Art Gallery and the Art Centre at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
"Really, it's too big to tour," Mayer said Wednesday at a media conference in Toronto, adding that Sakahan also will rank as the largest single exhibition of contemporary indigenous art anywhere. "If we were to tour it, it would be much, much smaller. We really want people to experience the whole thing, the sheer size of it, in Ottawa."
Running May 17 through Sept. 2, the exhibition is a decided departure from the fare the NGC has usually presented as its summer showcase. Previously, the gallery has highlighted European and U.S. art and artists: Last year's presentation was titled Van Gogh: Up Close; in 2011 it was Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome; in 2010, Pop Life: Art in a Material World. Sakahan represents the NGC's attempt to ride what Greg Hill, the gallery's curator of indigenous art, on Wednesday called the "gaining momentum" of awareness of, and appreciation for, aboriginal art here and abroad among curators, institutions and collectors. Today indigenous creators such as Brian Jungen, Kent Monkman, Shuvinai Ashoona, Annie Pootoogook and Rebecca Belmore – all of whom will have works in Sakahan – are among Canada's most popular artists and, indeed, were chosen as participants at Oh, Canada, the mammoth survey of Canadian art currently at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art through April 1.
Besides the Canadian contingent, indigenous artists from the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Finland will be featured at the NGC, along with representatives from Finland, Australia, Colombia, Taiwan, Japan, Norway, the Dominican Republic, Denmark and Greenland.
Encouragingly, Sakahan will not be a one-off. Mayer said the NGC plans to do a survey of international contemporary indigenous art every five years. While future iterations may not be held in the summer, "We thought it best for the first one at least that it have the best shot at the largest possible audience."
The 2013 exhibition, three years in the making, will feature what NGC associate curator of indigenous art Christine Lalonde calls "a wild diversity of media" – video, painting, sculpture, masks, photographs, drawings, mixed-media works, found objects and installations (including Jimmie Durham's Calm Again, an honest-to-gosh small airplane crushed in two by a large boulder). But the art, she said, won't be organized so much around themes as "resonances and overlays" – how contemporary artists address traditional history, reconnecting with a sense of place, the interaction of the political with the personal, "what it means to be indigenous in contemporary reality."
Several new and collaborative works are being prepared for the exhibition, including Seneca artist Marie Watt's Blanket Stories: Seven Generations, Adawe and Hearth. Watt is inviting members of the public to donate blankets to the NGC by March 3 and asking that each blanket be accompanied by a story related to its significance. The blankets will be folded and stacked in seven tall "welcoming poles" at the exhibition's entrance. (The word "Ottawa" comes from the Algonquian adawe, meaning to trade.)