Post by Rose Ekins, an Ottawa-based curator and arts writer.
Greeted by bright blue walls, visitors who enter Our Masterpieces, Our Stories, the exhibition opened this month as part of the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, are struck with three noticeable changes: the open-concept exhibition design, the bold juxtapositioning of cultures and timelines, and a clear new focus on showcasing Indigenous art.
Past the initial blue walls, the colours of each room showcase other striking choices: green, teal and yellow ochre make for exciting and vibrant spaces. The exhibition design of the revamped galleries allows visitors to move freely around the many works (nearly 800) to the side galleries adorning each large room. The new glass object cases are a notable success, adding to the feeling of openness. Refinished floors (removing the previous orange tinge) and new complementary oak wooden benches marks a fresh change to those who knew the older setup. Restoration of classic works such as Sunrise on the Saguenay and Meeting of the School Trustees heighten the awareness of the massive amount of effort put into the project – the works appear practically brand new.
Throughout the entire rehang, the curators have largely ignored a chronologically historical hanging, instead opting for a myriad of surprising combinations. In the first room alone, an Indigenous object sculpted over 5,500 years ago is exhibited close by another Indigenous work dated from 2009. It is not only time that is juxtaposed between works, but also cultures – in the room of Emily Carr’s work a Haida transformation mask hangs centered in between some of her earlier paintings. This curatorial decision puts into practice the Gallery’s voiced intention of highlighting the validity of Indigenous art alongside the more well-known traditional (and white) Canadian historical artists.
Indigenous art and objects are positioned in the centre of several rooms – in the room of Group of Seven artwork an intricate and full display of moccasins grabs the visitor’s’ attention first. This strategy is effective in reminding the viewer that our famous Canadian landscapes, such as in Tom Thomson’s The Jack Pine, were not the empty expanses previously referred to. In another room, tall cases filled with Inuit sculptures (moved from the basement) fill the the room, surrounded by the stunning abstract works of Riopelle and Borduas among others. This focus on Indigenous artwork and cultural objects is one that is overdue by national institutions like the National Gallery of Canada, but ultimately welcome. The extensive consultation of elders and advisory groups, as well as the intermixed translations of labels into appropriate Indigenous languages, are some of the Gallery’s notable efforts to engage with largely ignored Indigenous communities who preexist the nation state of Canada.
While some wall labels focus heavily on description and lack helpful contextualization, the amount of effort required in restoring, sourcing, curating, re-curating and installing works was surely a mountainous task – one spread across several departments and involving hundreds of employees and contractors. Ultimately, the show is successful in its choices of variety and design, but mostly through its respect to Indigenous art across generations.
Our Masterpieces, Our Stories is open in the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries (rooms A100 to A114) at the National Gallery of Canada until Monday, September 4, 2017. To learn more click here.