Frequently rocked by upheaval, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) let go of several senior staff members just over a year ago. Although the reasons were not disclosed by the institution, ostensibly to protect the privacy of those individuals, it was implied that the decisions were made to increase the diversity of the workforce, in line with a new strategic plan. It subsequently became known that more staff had been pushed out in recent years, some of them taking early retirement.
The updated 2021–26 roadmap, titled “Transform Together,” was released under the interim leadership of Angela Cassie, only a few months after the former director Sasha Suda departed to take a job in the United States. In July 2023, the NGC hired a new director, Jean-François Bélisle, who made controversial statements a few months into his tenure, suggesting that decolonization is a destructive force. It is unclear how these sentiments align with the relatively new “Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization” and the NGC’s professed commitment to support Indigenous self-determination.
Cassie could not have devised the strategic plan on her own during the few months that she held her temporary role, but she has been subjected to extreme scrutiny, including unwarranted personal attacks in the media in which her qualifications and intentions were questioned. The public discourse around the subject stooped to shockingly low levels, spearheaded by figures who appeared to be threatened by potential changes within Canada’s premier art museum. Based on the opinions expressed by the NGC’s new leadership, perhaps there is not much for the detractors to worry about after all.
Those staffing adjustments seemed to be not only part of a slow, long-overdue, and much-needed evolution within the NGC but also the mere façade for a larger ideological battle instigated by calls for a more inclusive team that mirrors the country’s multiplicity, which is hardly reflected within Canadian museums. The NGC’s updated vision promises to “advance a more equitable society” and proclaims that its mission is now anchored in “new ways of seeing ourselves, each other, and our diverse histories.” What is not spelled out, however, is who exactly is set to benefit from the proposed changes – and whether some of us in this country are deemed more equal than others.
What is not spelled out, however, is who exactly is set to benefit from the proposed changes – and whether some of us in this country are deemed more equal than others.
I lived in Ottawa, the unceded and unsurrendered Territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation, for just over a year while those changes were underway, and I visited the NGC sporadically. The institution always came across as a foreboding, even hostile, crystal castle, perhaps because of its austere concrete-and-glass architecture and isolation from the immediate urban environment. It might also have been the general atmosphere of public institutions in the rather conservative capital of Canada, especially unwelcoming to the rest of us, racialized Canadians who do not feel a sense of belonging to these spaces.
But it has everything to do with how we do not see ourselves represented at the NGC. During my time in Ottawa, I do not recall seeing an exhibition, a small corner, or even a single artwork that captures the experiences or heritage of the Arab or Muslim communities with which I identify (perhaps the only exception is the occasional presentation of a few racialized artists in some of the fleeting prize shows organized by the NGC, such as the Sobey Art Award and Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award). Moreover, when it comes to the institution’s vast collection, and aside from a few international names like Mona Hatoum, Walid Raad, and Wael Shawky – whose works were at times donated by NGC patrons – Canadian artists from these backgrounds are mostly absent. This is despite the fact that the Ottawa-Gatineau region boasts a sizable and diverse Arab community, and that Arab food is reportedly the city’s most popular cuisine. It takes an effort for the NGC to make Arabs invisible which is emblematic of how little engagement there is with the immediate context.
This erasure is exacerbated by Canada’s rising Islamophobia. There is finally a political reckoning with this issue at the Senate of Canada, followed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appointment of the country’s first ever Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, Amira Elghawaby. In 2021 alone, attacks against Canadian Muslims increased by 71% over the previous year (these are only the recorded incidents, however, believed to be a fraction of what Muslims endure in the country). In late 2023, Islamophobia shot up once again, this time due to a raging conflict in Southwest Asia (or the “Middle East”). Hate crimes have included the 2021 murder of an entire visibly Muslim family in London, Ontario, and the 2017 attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, where six people were killed and others seriously injured.
Additionally, given Canada’s support for the United States’ imperial military adventures in the Arab-Muslim world, particularly the endless wars in Southwest Asia, one would expect some public discussion about these ravaged cultures, or at least about those of us who had to flee their ancestral homelands and seek refuge in Canada. My own family had to escape war-torn Iraq, and we just marked the twentieth anniversary of the devastating American-led invasion; Canada was implicated in that conflict, and there are still Canadian troops in Iraq today. We are grateful for the security this land has afforded us, but we have certainly felt the suppression and marginalization of our identities, narratives, and causes, especially within Canada’s art and cultural institutions. For instance, I recently had to make the difficult decision, along with a group of twelve Canadian artists who hail from Southwest Asia and North Africa, to withdraw an exhibition from Art Canada Institute after its attempt to censor our work simply because of our identities.
I had hoped that the NGC, as the principal museum of Canada, would display works that tackle the mischaracterization of Arabs and Muslims, address some of the challenges our communities confront – such as the prejudice that frequently leads to brutality – or find nuanced ways of honouring our place in Canada. But Canadian art and cultural institutions, including the NGC, continue to bask in their blissful elective ignorance, turning a blind eye to our plight. It is as though these institutions are waiting for a major catastrophe to befall our people in order to possibly react, relinquishing some of the stifling control and gatekeeping, and provide us with a platform to share our stories. The lack of representation in museums is not just an oversight; suppressing our voices amounts to deliberate gross negligence, and even complicity in the discrimination and harm that we experience.
But Canadian art and cultural institutions, including the NGC, continue to bask in their blissful elective ignorance, turning a blind eye to our plight. It is as though these institutions are waiting for a major catastrophe to befall our people in order to possibly react, relinquishing some of the stifling control and gatekeeping, and provide us with a platform to share our stories.
The woeful lack of representation – not just of the Arab and Muslim communities, but of many others in this incredibly diverse country, with an influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year – underlines a disturbing dichotomy between the rhetoric of Canada’s official art museum and the reality of its collection, the exhibitions and programs it organizes, and the composition of its decision-making and curatorial staff. If a modern nation is understood as an imagined community unified by specific traditions and institutions that affirm that community’s belonging, then whose “national” gallery is the NGC, when many of us are excluded, and when we do not see ourselves reflected on its walls?
Some of the best work I observed at the NGC was around Indigenous art, which has been gradually brought into dialogue with mainstream Western art. Permanent installations are balanced with rotating displays, presenting artists from Carl Beam to Shuvinai Ashoona, and from Rita Letendre to Michael Belmore. But the integration is still rather timid, and much more could be done to assert Indigenous sovereignty and provide First Nations, Inuit, and Métis artists with the dignity and room their work deserves on their own land. Some of the innovation can be credited to Indigenous curators such as Greg Hill – one of those inexplicably impacted by the highly publicized 2022 restructuring. But it was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report that forced more accountability by Canadian institutions when it came to representing Indigenous communities.
Following the heinous murder of George Floyd in the United States in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement brought much-needed attention to the continued oppression experienced by the African American population, and the need for structural changes within institutions around the question of including traditionally underrepresented communities. The NGC was one of the museums that attempted to address similar criticisms in Canada by introducing a few artworks by artists of African descent – but not strictly from Canada. There have been new commissions by Tau Lewis and Rashid Johnson, and prominent displays of works by artists such as John Akomfrah and Stan Douglas. Featuring Indigenous artists, as well as those of African heritage, is absolutely crucial, and it must continue with a more thoughtful and sustained engagement.
However, it is fairly evident that what motivates such inclusion is not a sense of justice, the imperative of representing all of Canada’s “otherized” communities, or a desire to enrich the museum’s offerings. Rather, the reluctant admission of historically marginalized communities has been tokenistic and reactionary, a knee-jerk response to public outcries and political pressure. Otherwise, the NGC continues to embrace antiquated Eurocentric frameworks, remaining tethered to a deeply problematic colonial history (as the new director Bélisle casually conceded in his recent remarks, followed by a public apology), which privileges the worldviews and achievements of one group – settlers of European descent – as superior, at the expense of all others.
The NGC is dragging around unwieldy baggage from another era, weighed down by outdated narratives that centre Western art and artists. This is unequivocally conveyed by a stroll through the institution, the ground floor of which is dedicated primarily to settler “Canadian” art, even though there has been incremental inclusion of Indigenous artists – whereas the upper floor is reserved for Western art, primarily American and European (with rare exceptions). So it is not surprising that art by members of other communities is nowhere to be found. We just do not fit in, and perhaps our very existence disrupts those neat linear Western narratives.
The NGC’s laconically biased methodologies do not just disregard Canada’s diverse communities but also render the institution oblivious to the progressive curatorial and scholarly work informed by critical and post-colonial theory that has been evolving over the past few decades and is gradually transforming institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Tate Modern in London, and Centre Pompidou in Paris. These Western museums have been attempting to reform their collecting strategies and expand who can be seen within their spaces, focusing on building robust, variegated, and truly global collections of modern and contemporary art.
What is needed at the NGC is nothing radical. This is not a call for a revolt against a dominant culture that exerts its power by prescribing who gets to be seen within museums. What is missing at the NGC is genuine democratic reform, which can start only by candidly confronting how its current museological practices are rooted in, and actively perpetuate, the violence of a colonial, extractive, and fundamentally racist mindset, inherited from times that all of us presumably want to leave behind. Not to come to terms with this reality is only to bolster more pervasive and systemic injustices.
What is missing at the NGC is genuine democratic reform, which can start only by candidly confronting how its current museological practices are rooted in, and actively perpetuate, the violence of a colonial, extractive, and fundamentally racist mindset, inherited from times that all of us presumably want to leave behind.
Canada is great at talking about its supposedly tolerant, multicultural society, but it remains dismally behind on doing the work it takes to respect and honour all its citizens, particularly in the spheres of art and culture. What is absent from the NGC is a sincere and conscientious appreciation of Canada’s actual demographics today, along with an acknowledgment of the current and ever-changing makeup of the country’s communities. What would also be helpful is more transparency about the funding streams and the strings attached to major donors – that is, understanding who precisely is orchestrating the NGC’s fiscal policies, thus ultimately commanding its operations.
This is work that must be done collectively, led by qualified representatives of each group of Canada’s diverse communities (and if these cultural workers cannot be found, then the structural obstacles need to be grappled with, including at the NGC itself, and purposefully dismantled). What is needed is a reassessment of existing insidious assumptions about non-Western and racialized cultures and the quality of their artistic production, along with exhibitions that explore overlooked figures, demonstrate the inextricable relationships among different places, and expand the definition of objects worthy of display and collection.
There cannot be meaningful progress if we do not pay sufficient attention to the fact that much of the existing knowledge about art revolves around Western subjects, produced primarily by Western historians and curators. Western artistic production has been conventionally presented not only as exceptional but also as universal, which routinely characterizes all other cultures as inferior – peripheral, secondary, or derivative – in relation to a purportedly peerless Western original. Changing those who would do the necessary revisionary work, and who could honour and provide a deeper understanding of their communities’ cultural traditions, is vital, at the NGC and elsewhere. This should not be demanded; rather, it should be integral to the ethics of this institution, which must understand by now that positionality is essential to cultural work.
Ongoing power struggles surrounding the NGC, and the public debates that ensue in their wake, are nothing but a smokescreen, mere noise distracting Canada from the disturbing truth that this institution is far from fulfilling its own mandate – that is, to be a truly national gallery. At this pivotal juncture in history, the NGC can aspire to become a place where the traumas of the past and the agonies of the present might lay the ground for a future built on mutual recognition and reciprocity, on elevating Canada’s plural creeds, lineages, and belongings.
The opinions I express here must be part of a vigorous ongoing debate about the NGC’s role, because the stakes are indeed high. Instead of failing Canada, the NGC can step up and lead nationally, perhaps even globally, setting the tone for how this society can be served through inclusive, participatory, and accessible displays that decentre existing exclusionary paradigms. The NGC must do this important work not as a favour to any of us, but to simply ensure its own survival and relevance.
Amin Alsaden is a curator, educator, and scholar whose work focuses on transnational solidarities and exchanges across cultural boundaries. His research explores the history and theory of modern and contemporary art and architecture globally, with specific expertise in the Arab-Muslim world and its diasporas.