A new building. A new gallery space. A new exhibition.
Temporal Re-imaginings is the most recent exhibition at Âjagemô (“crossroads” in Algonquin), an exhibition space in the Canada Council for the Arts building in downtown Ottawa. This group exhibition features the work of more than a dozen Indigenous artists, including several — such as Carl Beam, Rosalie Favell, Marianne Nicolson, Jessie Oonark and Alex Janvier — whose work is in the national collection at the NGC.
Temporal Re-Imaginings explores how Indigenous artists are remembering the past, telling stories about the future, and questioning the boundaries between the real world and the worlds we envision. It is the first exhibition to be curated by Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow, self-described as a member of Whitefish River First Nation (Anishinaabe) “with roots in Kahnawake” (Kanion’keha’ka/Mohawk). Nahwegahbow is pursuing doctoral studies at Carleton University, and was selected by the Canada Council to present an Aboriginal art showcase, using works primarily from their Art Bank — a repository of Canadian works purchased for display in government facilities and other public spaces.
Photo: Courtesy of Canada Council for the Arts
“There is a kind of permeability between the past and the future,” said Nahwegahbow in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Envisioning the future is empowering, so I wanted to explore these concepts of time, of renewal, of regeneration.”
Carl Beam’s Burying the Ruler #1 (1991) is the first work visitors see as they enter the space, and it epitomizes the disruption and challenging of Western perceptions of time and space. Subject of a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in 2010, Beam is depicted here on a beach in the Dominican Republic, holding an ordinary wooden ruler. The work is part of his series relating to an Indigenous tribe that became extinct not long after Columbus arrived on the Caribbean island in the 15th century. The ruler here has multiple interpretations: an instrument of punishment (such as those used at Indian Residential Schools); a measuring implement used to survey Indigenous lands to create the reserve system; and a tool of linear thinking, contrary to traditional Indigenous ways of seeing and knowing. The image also conjures up the euphemism of “burying the hatchet” — another ironic statement on Indigenous-settler relations.
“Family is a way for artists to access the past,” says Nahwegahbow, and several works in the exhibition incorporate family myths, stories, and references to cultural traditions. One of these is Marianne Nicolson’s Portrait of Am’yaxid (2001), a touching tribute to her brother, which also honours her family and her First Nation (Dzawada'enuxw). Nicolson apprenticed with traditional carvers and artists from her community on the West Coast, and Portrait of Am’yaxid incorporates several traditional designs, symbols and images specific to her Kwakwaka'wakw culture. The dominant image, however, is a black-and-white family photograph of seven children, juxtaposing a memory from the past with her culture and traditional stories.
Marianne Nicholson, Portrait of Am'yaxid (2001) from the series: Portrait of Two Brothers, acrylic on wood. Canada Council Art Bank
Anyone familiar with Dene artist Alex Janvier’s work will immediately recognize his vibrant and evocative blend of abstract and representational images. Other Worlds (1984) invites visitors to look beyond the borders of his painting to imagine other realities, other stories and, yes, other worlds. The National Gallery will be exploring Alex Janvier’s work in greater depth in a major exhibition set to open later this year.
Nahwegahbow placed two works by Jessie Oonark beside one another in the exhibition to show how characters move freely between physical and mythical worlds. Oonark was born and raised in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, and learned many traditional tales from her extended family. In several of her works, she explores legends surrounding the supernatural Inuit hero Kiviuk, who had many epic adventures across the Arctic.
In The Fishmaker Made Kiviuk a Fish to Ride (1981), Kiviuk is trying to cross the sea to get to his kidnapped wife and son. He meets the Fishmaker, who is making wooden fish that come to life when thrown into the sea. At Kiviuk’s request, the Fishmaker makes a fish for Kiviuk to ride on his search for his family.
The companion print by Oonark, The World of Sun and Moon (1976), features bold colours and shapes: particularly spheres drawing the eye to an inner circle populated by images of people and animals. But who are these people, and what is their relationship to the animals? This is one of the “temporal re-imaginings” that Nahwegahbow invites visitors to explore.
The artists featured in this exhibition all push the boundaries of our understanding of the past, the world around us, and the power of stories and traditions. As Simon Brault, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, said at the exhibition opening, these are breathtaking works from some of Canada’s most celebrated Indigenous artists, and to see this exhibition is to “move between myth, memory and reality.”
Temporal Re-Imaginings is on view at Âjagemô until April 30, 2016. Admission is free.
Jennifer David is of mixed Cree/Anishinaabe and European heritage, and is a member of Chapleau Cree First Nation in northern Ontario. She is a senior consultant with an Aboriginal consulting company in Ottawa, and in her spare time loves to read Indigenous literature and support Indigenous arts and culture.
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