Shifting Ground is a survey of art produced by Indigenous Canadian artists currently at the Nova Scotia Gallery of Art in Halifax. Note that I say art by Indigenous artists and not Indigenous art. There is an important difference. I have a problem with limiting artists’ work by categorizing them by expected subject matter. Artists are individuals and deserve respect as such. They should not be limited by themes. If an Indigenous Canadian artist wants to paint colour-field paintings in the Clement Greenberg post-painterly-abstraction tradition, so be it. I have nothing against thematic exhibitions, be they about Canadian realists, artists under thirty, the Painters Eleven, or this one. They bring art together to make a point, and Shifting Ground does make a point: there are excellent contemporary Indigenous Canadian artists.
The exhibition highlights the work of Indigenous artists from east to west and, fortunately, the far north. The first work encountered as one enters the show, which occupies the second-floor space of the north gallery, is by Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016). This is amazing work by an artist whose life was cut tragically short, but who leaves behind the testament of her work. Pootoogook was an Inuk from Cape Dorset whose parents were both artists, as was her grandmother, the famous printmaker Pitseolak Ashoona. Pootoogook thus followed in a fine tradition of art making.
What makes Pootoogook’s work unique is her break with traditional media and subject matter. Drawing with wax pastel, ink, and coloured pencil, she portrayed contemporary Inuk life with a critical eye that showed not only day-to-day life but its darker side as well. There are four drawings in the exhibition: Man Talking on CB Radio (2003–04), Three Men Craving a Seal and Three Women Cleaning (2006), Living Room (2006), and Angel with my Brother (2006). The first three are set in a living room. They show what Inuit home life is really like, complete with things like refrigerators and what looks like a family sitting on, and around, a sofa watching television. Pootoogook is widely known for her images of domestic violence, but these three images have no hint of that. They focus on the mundane aspects of everyday life. Angel with my Brother is a different matter, and I can only guess at its meaning. One thing is certain: all are beautifully drawn. I will not go into the details of Pootoogook’s death except to say that it exemplified all that is wrong with the treatment of many Indigenous women in both life and death.
A different side is offered by Carl Beam (1943–2005). A large mixed-media-on-canvas work of his is in this exhibition: Observer (1998). Beam was a professional artist with a BFA from the University of Victoria and a nearly completed MFA from the University of Alberta. He was the first Indigenous artist to have a major work bought by the National Gallery of Canada as contemporary art rather than Indigenous art. Although nearly all of his art drew on Indigenous themes, as does Observer, he was likely to include references from Renaissance art as well. Beam made it known that he wanted to be known as a contemporary artist rather than an Indigenous artist. I know for certain, as I knew Carl and he told me this more than once. He was very proud of his heritage and made no secret of it, but he wanted to be included in the mainstream of Canadian art. He is.
One artist featured in the exhibition came as a surprise to me: Quebec painter Rita Letendre. I have never thought of her or her work as Indigenous, although I am aware of her important place in Canadian art history with the Automatistes. However, her biography proves me wrong. She is of Abenaki heritage on her father’s side and suffered racial prejudice as a child while living in Saint-Majorique-de-Grantham, a small town near Drummondville. There are three works, two paintings and serigraph print, all from the early to mid-1970s, by Letendre in Shifting Ground. All are typical hard-edge abstractions from that period in her career. They are quite beautiful – in particular, Arafel (1974). They illustrate my point that art by Indigenous Canadian artists does not have to have Indigenous content. That being said, there are many works in the exhibition that do. One is a beautiful carved wooden mask, Ni’ceska (2011), by New Brunswick sculptor Edward “Ned” Bear. It is based on a traditional theme, but it needs to be seen as finely crafted sculpture by a gifted artist. Bear who is a Plains Cree/Wolastoqiyik was the first Indigenous graduate (with honours) of the New Brunswick College of Arts and Crafts in Fredericton.
It is time for Indigenous artists to be fully integrated into Canadian art history. Certainly, there is a place for designated spaces within our art institutions for Indigenous art.
A fine Norval Morrisseau, painting, Untitled (Moose with Birds) (c. 1975), echoes an Indigenous theme. Morrisseau (1932–2007), a self-taught artist, was a member of the Anishinaabe Nation of Ojibwa ancestry and the founder of the Woodlands School, a unique and recognizable style. He was a survivor of the residential school system and had a difficult life, but he lived to become an inspiration to many generations of Indigenous artists. He was the first Indigenous artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.
It is difficult to have a survey of Canadian Indigenous Art without including another pioneer, Bill Reid (1920–98) from British Columbia. He is represented in Shifting Ground by a silkscreen on cotton, Raven Banner (c. 1980), but he is widely known for working in many media, including sculpture. He is the “godfather” of the rebirth of Haida art in Canada. Although his father was American, his mother (Sophia Gladstone) was Haida. His interest in Haida culture came from Gladstone’s father, who tutored him in the history and craft of a culture that had largely been suppressed. In my conversations with Reid, I found him to be passionate about Haida culture and the environment. Like Morrisseau, he is the founder of a distinct school of Indigenous art.
There are many more artists in this survey exhibition. All demonstrate the breadth of talent of Canada’s Indigenous community. It is time for Indigenous artists to be fully integrated into Canadian art history. Certainly, there is a place for designated spaces within our art institutions for Indigenous art. However, I long for the day when I see a Norval Morrisseau painting hanging in a permanent public collection between a Jean-Paul Riopelle and an Alex Colville with no explanation of why it is there. It is happening. I spoke with Aiden Gillis, the AGNS’s Indigenous Art Programmer, and he told me that is certainly happening now at the gallery. We need to judge our artists on the quality of their art and the rest will follow.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
November 2, 2013 – Ongoing