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Canadian Indigenous art is a major part of the nation’s contemporary art scene. Here’s a primer on this dynamic and evolving milieu. By Clayton Windatt.

Indigenous art pieces hang on gallery walls.

Created from descendants of the original inhabitants of this land, Indigenous art occupies a vital position within Canadian art. Indigenous people do not form one homogenous cultural group and there are strong regional identities among First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, bands and tribes. When viewing Indigenous art, understanding the cultural context it was produced within will provide you with a deeper appreciation of the artist and their work.

Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, just north of the city, showcase many of Canada’s leading modern and contemporary Indigenous artists. Here is an overview of the most influential Indigenous art movements, as represented by seven leading artists, most of whom either have work in the collections of these galleries or have exhibited at them.

The Woodland School & Beyond

Ojibway painter Norval Morrisseau was one of the first Indigenous artists to achieve mainstream success during the 1960s. Considered the leader of the Woodland School of art, Morrisseau is known for a visual aesthetic of bright colours and what came to be known as “Indian” stylization, with thick lines connecting people, places and creatures together.

Morrisseau’s works depict—among other messages—transformation, capturing the power coming from within the land, water and animals. Morrisseau was a residential school survivor who lived through the suppression of native culture and language during the early half of the 1900s, and his stylized paintings are as political as they are symbolic: they declare ownership over territory and claim agency for his culture.

Today, the Woodland School and its iconic imagery retain their cultural significance, reimagined by younger artists. Contemporary visual artist Christian Chapman’s work Elvis Changing into a ’77 Ford Thunderbird (2014) is a pop-culture-tinged riff on Norval Morrisseau’s Man Changing into Thunderbird (1977). Chapman’s works often explore the intersection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous society. They also tell a story of heritage and identity, preserving the evolving Anishinabe culture he is a part of.

Artists’ Statements

Many Indigenous artists have engaged their practice as a platform for socio-political change, a strategy that artists around the world have employed. Ojibway artist Carl Beam frequently explores themes of identity and the impact of colonization on Indigenous Peoples. His 1985 painting The North American Iceberg (whose title ironically references an Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition of that same year, The European Iceberg) was the first work by an Aboriginal artist purchased by the National Gallery of Canada for its contemporary art collection. In Beam’s striking 1990 The Columbus Suite, a series of 12 monumental etchings that are part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection, he examines and reclaims colonialist ideas of discovery and identity, using appropriated photo-reproductions as well as images of himself at various stages of life.

In Canada, as elsewhere, conversations about Indigenous rights remain ongoing. This context is a persistent concern for Indigenous artists, as many issues between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous society remain unresolved. Yet as Canadians, we share collective history and geography. That is a perspective explored prominently in the work of Kent Monkman, a Toronto-based, contemporary artist of Cree ancestry whose queer alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is depicted in painting, film and video works as a counter narrative to conventional colonial history.

Monkman’s paintings, in sweeping 19th-century Romantic style, depict a wide range of historical narratives, deconstructing existing notions of “Indians” that have been portrayed in historical textbooks and art over the past few hundred years. Monkman reimagines these works in his own fashion, painting scenes of love and war, appropriating and subverting the conventional. It’s an approach that’s confrontational—and effective. Monkman is one of Canada’s most renowned contemporary artists, with work featured in Australia’s 2010 Biennale of Sydney festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (now called Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada) and the National Gallery of Canada. His work is also in the permanent collection of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.

Subversion & Reconciliation

While some artists choose to confront the world with images that challenge head-on, others aim for the same impact through subversion.

Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook is known for her ink and coloured pencil drawings. Pootoogook portrayed life in her community, Northern Canada’s Cape Dorset (known as Kinngait in Inuktitut). Her representations explore everyday occurrences, including personal experiences. These include representations of typical, day-to-day life, such as children watching television—or a woman experiencing domestic violence. Pootoogook’s work mixes humour and blunt representations of the disparities found in Indigenous life, making these scenes of “normal” life a point of confrontation.

Métis painter Jim Logan works in a similar way, often discussing the church’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Born in New Westminster, British Columbia, he depicts his experiences as a lay minister in the Kwanlin Dün Village, in the outskirts of Whitehorse, Yukon. Logan employs humour and tragedy to raise awareness of the conditions within Indigenous communities and in Canada’s former residential schools.

Pootoogook’s work has been included in prestigious international group exhibitions, like Germany’s Documenta, and in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Dozens of her pieces can be viewed at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (which staged an exhibition of her work last year). Logan has had a solo exhibition at the McMichael and was a featured artist at Vancouver’s Expo 86.

Rebecca Belmore is a multi disciplinary Anishinabe artist whose politically charged work has brought considerable international acclaim. Belmore was Canada’s official representative (and the first Indigenous woman to represent Canada) at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and won the 2016 Gershon Iskowitz Prize at the Art Gallery of Ontario (the AGO also has three of her works in its collection.) Known for pushing boundaries, Belmore’s performance art functions as both protest form and coping mechanism. Belmore’s work has raised awareness of violence toward Indigenous people (especially women) and Indigenous rights. Belmore’s work looks at how politics relate to the construction of identity and representation.

A New Era

Although all these artists are unified under the identifying term Indigenous, each retains individual identity coming from different places, cultures and backgrounds. What they share is a connection to the struggle that Indigenous Peoples have faced in Canada, as elsewhere. Indigenous art and Indigenous rights will forever be intertwined. That context is the first step in appreciating the ground breaking work from creators as varied as Morrisseau to Belmore.

With files from Jennifer Krissilas.

Artistic Legacy

Here’s where to find even more Indigenous art, all across the city.

  1. Four totem poles carved by members of the Nisga’a and Haida communities of the Pacific Northwest tower above the stairways at the Royal Ontario Museum. Don’t miss the ROM’s Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples.
  2. The Inukshuk is a sculptural figure that serves as a multifaceted guide to the Inuit, both practically and symbolically. West of Harbourfront, Toronto Inukshuk Park features a 50-tonne mountain rose granite version created by Kellypalik Qimirpik of Nunavut.
  3. The oldest professional Indigenous theatre company in Canada, Native Earth Performing Arts has a full slate of theatre, dance and multidisciplinary art programming planned for 2018.
  4. The imagineNATIVE film + Media Arts Festival is the world’s biggest presenter of Indigenous screen content. The event celebrates its 19th birthday in 2018.
  5. The Bata Shoe Museum and Gardiner Museum collections both house handcrafted works of historical and cultural significance.
  6. Finally, if you’re souvenir hunting, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto’s gift store sells pieces designed by Indigenous artists and artisans.
  7. Kleinburg’s McMichael Canadian Art Collection is home to one of the country’s foremost collections of contemporary Indigenous art, including photography, mixed media, installations, performance art and assemblage. The McMichael’s Inuit collection features contemporary work, and is the long-term home to over 100,000 drawings, prints and sculptures from Cape Dorset, Nunavut’s historic West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative artist co-op. –Tara Nolan