By Emmanuella Dwumfour, Tobin Ng and Ben Skene
Gerald McMaster has been driven by the same vision since he finished high school — a dream of seeing greater representation of Indigenous art in Canada. He has dedicated his life to the pursuit of this goal, serving as one of the only Indigenous curators in the country up until the 2000s.
“My hopes have been realized to some degree,” said McMaster, currently a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous visual culture and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University.
“More presence of artists, more presence of Indigenous curators, more presence of writers and so on — so that major institutions would eventually wake up and start thinking about the contributions both historical and contemporary Indigenous creativity have had on our society.”
For McMaster, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC)’s new exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire marks the beginning of an exciting, fresh chapter. The exhibition features the work of more than 70 artists from 16 countries, connected to nearly 40 Indigenous nations, ethnicities and tribal affiliations. This map shows the birthplaces of some of the artists featured in Àbadakone.
McMaster said Àbadakone starts an interesting dialogue about the transnational connections between Indigenous communities.
“It’s a question of their interrelations in their areas, and how they see what makes them Indigenous. Indigeneity doesn’t only draw on prior presence,” he said. “It’s about your relations to your territories, your stories, questions of who you are and what your stories are from long ago.”
Allan J. Ryan, the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal art and culture at Carleton University, agreed, saying the similarities between the artists’ stories are tangible.
“I imagine a number of these artists, or at least the countries being represented, have had a colonial experience,” he said. “So part of this exhibition is visualizing what that experience has been.”
Ryan added that this international collective of artists is able to share the impact of colonization with non-Indigenous people.
“The average gallery-goer is going to be educated in a really broad and significant way, whether they identify with the Indigenous people themselves or whether they identify with the colonizers or settlers,” he said.
A key feature of Àbadakone is its combination of various types of media, including murals, performances, videos and large-scale installations.
Ryan said the exhibition demonstrates Indigenous communities’ ability to adapt to changing circumstances using different materials.
“That’s one of the joys of this exhibition, to see all the old concepts, old ideas, old items and artifacts being reinterpreted in contemporary media,” he said. “It’s just full of surprises.”
Will Wilson, a Diné (Navajo) photographer whose works are featured in Àbadakone, integrates technology into his artwork.
His app Talking Tintypes uses augmented reality to bring his portraits to life. After scanning the photographs, museum-goers can watch a jingle dress dance or listen to a member of the K’ómoks First Nation talk about his grandmother.
“I’d like [visitors] to engage with the photographs and understand that the traditional has always incorporated new technologies,” said Wilson. “Culture is a living thing — it’s always been innovated.”
But Àbadakone’s influence extends beyond the walls of the gallery.
McMaster said the exhibition is part of a gradual shift towards greater recognition of Indigenous art in Canada.
“Within the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been greater accountability by public institutions to begin thinking and representing Indigenous art at a local, regional, national and perhaps an international level,” he said.
A key milestone in this development was the NGC’s 2013 exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art. Sakahàn preceded Àbadakone as the first instalment of a series representing the largest recurring Indigenous contemporary international art exhibition in the world.
Candice Hopkins, a co-curator of Sakahàn who was consulted for Àbadakone, said the new exhibition expands the conversation.
“[Sakahàn] was really the first large-scale exhibition to chart a global Indigenous image and its artistic practices,” she said. “This is an exhibition that continues doing that, and it’s also a really formative exhibition to establish relationships with the Algonquin community.”
Hopkins pointed to the NGC’s gifting of a fire to the Algonquin community and the land acknowledgement given by Sasha Suda, the NGC director and CEO, at Àbadakone’s opening on November 7, 2019.
“I can see how much the relationship has transformed between the gallery and the community that it represents and is also responsible towards,” Hopkins said.
The image of fire carries through the exhibition — Àbadakone is the Algonquin word for “continuous fire.”
“I think of ‘continuous’ meaning a continuity of an existence,” said McMaster. “I think it’s responding, to some degree, to the fixation that Indigenous people are past — or at least, that used to be an older fixation.”
McMaster added that he hopes the exhibition will impact younger generations and inspire colonial countries to take a similar approach to addressing their past.
“We have to have Indigeneity in all that we do,” he said. “It’s my hope that [global institutions] will begin to examine their own histories and representations, and what it means to be in relation to Indigenous peoples.”
For Ryan, it is hope and resilience that defines Àbadakone’s essence.
“When you immerse yourself in that exhibition, I think you feel good about the world,” he said.
“There’s a sense of so much celebration and creativity that has been produced. At a time when things look kind of grim around the world, and also out of a grim history, there’s a sense of recovery that’s going on now.”
Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel is showing at the National Gallery of Canada (380 Sussex Dr) until April 5, 2020. Visit gallery.ca for info and hours.