Janneke and I wrote this review collaboratively.(1) We met in the course Issues in History and Culture: Transversal Modernism/s taught by Professor Ming Tiampo, where we gained an appreciation of each other’s intellectual work and were introduced to theories that appear within this article. Janneke’s work is around models of art-historical data, and she was excited about Amin Alsaden’s multi-scalar curatorial approach. As an Anishinaabe cultural producer working in Canadian cultural institutions following publication of the final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(2) in 2015, the inner workings of collecting institutions and the difficulties they face, in institutionally unique but structurally similar ways, is something that is of great interest to me. Alsaden’s exhibition was sharp and critical, and we wanted to spend more time intellectually engaging with it as a duo.
Looking the World in the Face featured thirty-nine artists and was held from June 16, 2022, to May 22, 2023, at Âjagemô, a gallery in Ottawa, Ontario. The exhibition’s curatorial focus was on works in the Art Bank Collection that acted as portraits made by Indigenous and racialized artists. What separates this exhibition from similar ones isn’t the works themselves but rather the curatorial approach: Alsaden’s refusal to contextualize the gesture of the artists as aspiring to “visibility” by a white audience and/or institutions. He takes this a step further by questioning the homogenizing tendencies within “inclusion,” enacting curatorial strategies that forefront the voices of the artists while considering and negotiating the role and responsibility of collecting bodies.
Alsaden’s curatorial concept was a proposal submitted to an open call by the Art Bank as part of celebrations for its fiftieth anniversary. This is important because, from an institutional standpoint, it signals that the Art Bank felt that an exhibition of works by BIPOC artists within its holdings was representative of either its fifty-year legacy or its aspirations for the future. The selection of Looking the World in the Face by the Art Bank was also a commitment to tackling what would be a fundamental and institutional obstacle to Alsaden’s concept: that neither the Art Bank database or its records track the plurality in which identity exists for racialized folks in Canada.3 The barriers that Alsaden encountered in curating this exhibition are not unique to the Art Bank. They persist across many art institutions in Canada, as outlined by Anne Dymond in her 2019 book Diversity Counts. According to Dymond, numeric records indicate that the representation of Indigenous and other racialized artists is underwhelming. There is also a “resistance to statistical information,” resulting in a lack of self-awareness.4 The related critiques offered in this review extend in their relevance beyond institutional walls that “otherize” and isolate identities of artists from their work.
Looking the World in the Face gathers artworks that reflect a demographic proportion of the population of racialized and Indigenous communities in Canada, with a tripled representation of Indigenous communities. To mirror this model through the exhibition, Alsaden confronted a complex obstacle: finding artworks in a collection of 17,166 works by 3,178 artists that matched his curatorial intentions without access to consistent demographic information. This scenario poses serious questions about the contents of art collections and their datasets: First, if no consistent identifying information is kept on artists, how does one know if a collection, particularly a contemporary and national one, truly resonates with the dynamic of the Canadian population? Second, how can institutions grapple with the responsibility of stewardship of works made by artists who are members of otherized communities when the collecting bodies are steeped in systems that are meant to essentialize those communities? Finally, how can these discrepancies be approached today?
A standard chronological presentation of the artworks reflects the sequential truth of how these artworks were acquired but hides the spatio-temporal reality. As illustrated in the infographic above, most artworks featured in this exhibition were acquired in the 2000s. This aligns with the Art Bank’s strategic acquisition projects (targeting “Aboriginal Arts” in 2003 and “Culturally Diverse” artists in 2009). The sequential truth suggests a false pattern of dedicated acquisitions of works by Indigenous and racialized artists over time. Although most of the collection in 2022 was acquired prior to 2000 (95 percent), only about 31 percent of the artworks featured in this exhibition were acquired between 1972 and 2000. We understand this to reflect how collection practices at the Art Bank have shifted over the years. Under the directorship of Victoria Henry (1999–2015) and Amy Jenkins (2015–present), the Art Bank has made purchases in a strategic direction that is mindful of historical gaps in the collection. Considering this, it makes sense that about 60 percent of the artworks Alsaden selected were acquired in more recent decades. In the exhibition text, Alsaden points to the larger proportion of Indigenous art in the Art Bank collection compared to the presence of art by other racialized artists, yet is still not representative of the amount or breadth of Indigenous cultural production happening in Canada. The inclusion of community affiliation for Indigenous artists might contribute to the proportionally larger representation within the collection that Alsaden identified purely because it is traceable. Another consideration is the commercial success of key artists, whose sales would have been facilitated by settlers who owned commercial galleries during a period when the Art Bank had a much more liberal budget.
When you enter the exhibition, your physical presence is amplified by the action suggested in the title: Looking the World in the Face. The act of your looking, and the power that your gaze holds, is exposed. This act holds a different meaning for each visitor. Who can actually meet, rather than encounter, the gazes of those looking the world in the face? What is the role of the relationality that wall texts in the artists’ own voices try to establish? I felt a pull of familiarity as I stood in front of Howie Tsui’s piece Bipolar (2006). It is reminiscent of the therapeutic drawing exercises and discussions that my brother experienced following his diagnosis with bipolar disorder as a child. It evokes the tension between personalization and the characterization of a diagnosis, and I felt that the flexible, transparent aesthetic of the piece expresses the blurred line between the two.
Janneke’s experience circles back to the importance of artists being able to speak to their own works in the way they would like to speak to their own cultural production, which is not a luxury afforded all cultural producers. This allows us moments of opportunity for members of various communities to find resonances with one another without superseding or coopting those experiences. This is not to return to prescriptive notions around art that silo racialized artists in what conceptual work they can address or to make their work inaccessible to a white audience, but to acknowledge that cultural production by Indigenous and racialized people in Canada contends with ongoing imposed narratives. At one end of the spectrum, these narratives promote a multicultural mythos that erases and diminishes the ongoing structural racism experienced on this land. At the other end, they flatten our experiences to that of solely oppression, and the consumption of our cultural production is offered as a means of self-actualization and betterment. Despite the current art movement or period being defined as “post-modernism,” we still have bits of modernism stuck to the bottom of our shoes; that tacky feeling becomes more palpable on the squeaky, polished floors of institutional exhibition spaces. This is why our words, our perspectives, our worldviews and lived experience, and the cultural production that reflects all of these facets are a gift – as is the critical discourse at the heart of exhibitions such as this. The criticality is to encourage spaces such as this to turn away from what are widely accepted as harmful and exclusionist foundations, which ultimately harms those inside those spaces too, even if not to the same degree as outsiders.
For the Art Bank, it is impossible to fill historical gaps in the collection. The current acquisition policy requires that artworks be made within the past five years, by living artists.5 Janneke and I had many conversations as we wrote this article. They were difficult, and the bureaucratic reality and the grand issues circulating in contemporary Canadian art institutions right now sometimes left us feeling discouraged or overwhelmed. These are the very issues that Alsaden addresses head on in the exhibition: questioning what it means to collect or acquire artwork by racialized folks but to not have those communities physically present in the staff or audience, how collections can retroactively make reparative gestures to communities that remain excluded, and an overarching discourse around what inclusivity and diversity mean within colonial institutions and frameworks. We kept returning to Alsaden’s work, invigorating in its embrace of new challenges and possibilities. In his curatorial text, he envisions people sharing the act of looking the future in the face.6 Art institutions, as Alsaden’s exhibition suggests, can turn to the very communities whose works they exhibit, to welcome and effectively wield a collective power that can shift us all toward a pluriversal future.
The French translation of this article is also published in the 273 issue of Vie des arts – Winter 2024 and can be consulted here.
1 To highlight both voices within the article, the text in italics is written by Franchesca Hebert-Spence and the text in regular type is written by Janneke Van Hoeve.
2 For links to all of the Commission’s reports, see https://nctr.ca/records/reports/.
3 Community affiliation exists for artists who are Indigenous to Turtle Island; we will discuss this at greater length below.
4 Anne Dymond, Diversity Counts: Gender, Race, and Representation in Canadian Art Galleries (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), xii.
5 Canada Council Art Bank, “Guidelines: Art Bank Purchase Program,” Canada Council Art Bank, https://artbank.ca/our-collection/guidelines-art-bank-purchase-program.
6 Amin Alsaden, “Looking the World in the Face: Curatorial Statement,” Canada Council for the Arts, https://canadacouncil.ca/about/ajagemo/looking-the-world-in-the-face/curatorial-statement.
Looking the World in the Face
Curator: Amin Alsaden
Âjagemô gallery in Ottawa
June 16 2022 to May 22 2023