As our identities are continually challenged in an age of globalization, intercultural exchange becomes increasingly a language for this world’s art. What being indigenous is, or could be, or was, all revolve around questions not just of place, but also of technology. Global migration challenges our conventional definition of indigenous culture as being rooted in a specific place. The new templates are neither colonial nor imperial. The artists in Sakahan – the world’s largest indigenous exhibition of contemporary art ever– from 16 countries and six continents – bring a sense of wit, wisdom, and irreverence to the worn out world of exploited peoples. They reinvent the old soul as they reconfigure art through performance, video, installation, or multi-media recombination.

Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey’s red and black fish designs adorn the outer walls of the National Gallery of Canada, a Haida and Anishnabe artists’ collaboration. The flow of the wall mural follows the flow of this wall in its urban setting. Chocktaw and Cherokee Jeffrey Gibson’s Op art on skins have titles like Someone Great is Gone (2013) and This Place I Know (2013). The merging of historical modernism with traditional Amerindian style is edifying, and challenges the structural (read Historical) ethos behind avant- gardism of the 20th century. Art is relocated in a continuum of bio-history. The same can be said of New Zealand Maori Michael Parekowhai’s My Sister, My Self (2007), a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel on a stool. Now conceptual art is unframed, re-sited, as it were, balanced by a seal. Nature’s interactive agencies have re-entered the dry landscapes of early 20th century proto-modernism, that desert of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. Fiona Pardington’s Portrait of a Life Cast of Matoua Tawai, Aotearowa, New Zealand (2010) is a soulful head cast, with its bodily tattooed topographies. Alan Michelson’s TwoRow II (2005) catches the upriver / downriver flow, a metaphor for cultural understanding and reconciliation in our times.

Metis artist Ed Poitras’ 2000 Pounds of Rope (2004) references Louis Riel’s hanging, out there in Canada’s west. Finnish Sami Marja Helander has documented a near mythic “white” gas station surrounded by snow at night for her Dark series (2010). We also get the message behind Seneca native Marie Watts’ pile of tagged blankets, donated by the public for this installation. Tongue-in-cheek Jeff Thomas’ For Rent (2005) from the series Seize the Space, documents the removed Amerindian sculpture bronzes that once knelt beneath Champlain’s statue at Nepean Point behind the National Gallery of Canada. A “For Rent” sign sits where the statues once stood.

Brian Jungen’s Court (2004), a full room-sized basketball court-like assemblage of sewing tables from South Korea, alludes to the 3rd world exploitation of workers to produce sports equipment for the 1st world’s “winners” in basketball, and all sports. Likewise, Jungen’s Dragonfly (2008) motifs, delicately engraved into a red gas can counter the culture of our era with the beauty of nature. Jungen synthesizes Amerindian and contemporary culture as few can. He is among today’s greatest artists.

The best works in Sakahàn, which in Algonquin means to “light a fire”, are the healing ones. Each of the over 150 artworks by some 80 artists is a gesture in healing in a way. We can feel what we humans all share. Here are the keys we can actually turn, to open our thoughts, our actions, enabling understanding, sharing, and growth in this world. Yuma Taru’s On the Wings of a Dream (2002) consists of two wall-sized wings made of bundles that are like brushes. According to traditional Taiwanese native legends you can only enter the afterlife if you wear the traditional tattoos and clothing of your ancestors. Maori artists Brett Graham and Rachel Rakena Aniwaniwa (2007) ceiling placed video spheres are image lamps that we look up at from floor-placed mattresses. What we see are people sewing, digging, engaged in all manner of ordinary daily activities. These people are underwater, in traditional lands that have been taken over and flooded. The gestures and the chanting, the singing we hear in this darkened room are healing actions, contemplative, generous, serene, a collective wisdom…

Outside the National Gallery of Canada, whose roof-top crystal structure built by Moishe Safdie is undergoing renovation, Greenland’s Inuk Silis Hoegh has created a giant iceberg inkjet print on PVC coated scrim mesh, a collage of photos of ice taken by his father. This huge iceberg assemblage is three-dimensional and can be seen from afar, even over the river in Gatineau. If you walk close up to it outside, you can hear the sound of ice melting… A powerful metaphor for the times in real time and real space. One that we all share… 

Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
17 May 2013—2 Sep 2013