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Sakahàn: Connections through Indigenous Art

By Eva Morin on July 23, 2013




For the past 2 months, the National Gallery of Canada has featured Sakahàn, an ambitious exhibition showcasing works from international Indigenous contemporary artists. Sakahàn, which means, “to light a fire” in the language of the Algonquin peoples, showcases over 80 artists from 16 countries with works and styles as diverse as their cultural backgrounds. The response from critics and museum-goers has been overwhelmingly positive thus far, so I went to the exhibit with high expectations, and with the hope of seeing provocative and unique pieces that would leave a lasting impact.

Sakahàn certainly didn’t disappoint, and I found my art-dense self marveling at pieces that were the complete opposite of what I typically favor. Video installations, paintings, photography, sculpture; nothing is off-limits in this exhibition.

I spoke with one of the curators of the show, Christine Lalonde (Associate Curator of Indigenous Art), and expressed how impressed I was with the diversity featured within the exhibit, especially since my previous experiences with Aboriginal art were mainly limited to Canadian artists.

“Maybe people’s perceptions when thinking of Indigenous art would be of one collectivity, of being homogenous and somehow very tightly bound together,” she explains, “and we wanted to dispel that and show the diversity, not only between different regions of the world, but even within the same region. It comes down to artists working as individuals, in their chosen media expressing ideas that are important to them.”

Despite the uniqueness of each work of art, it is easy to recognize similar themes presented by the artists. While no specific checklist was utilized to seek out and select the artists showcased in Sakahàn, the links discovered between pieces was a happy realization for the curators. “There were surprising connections between pieces, even from different parts of the world,” explains Lalonde. “In the end, the exhibition is really these pieces that found their counterparts with other ones. It grew almost organically.”

While the National Gallery of Canada has a permanent showcase of Canadian Indigenous Art, an exhibit of this grandeur – and featuring works from international Indigenous artists – has never taken place in Ottawa. “The idea of putting on a major international Indigenous Art exhibit is really part of a new commitment and initiative taken by the National Art Gallery”, explains Lalonde. “This isn’t just a one time exhibition, there is a commitment to do it every 5 years. As the art forms and artists continue to expand and evolve, the exhibition will as well.”

The exhibit is spread throughout a few rooms within the Gallery and has many video installations that are worth watching from beginning to end, so I would recommend dedicating a few hours to be able to fully experience all that it has to offer. While the pieces can’t be compared to one another, a few definitely became my favourites, such as Crystals in Maba-l Bala Rugu (of Power and Darkness) by Danie Mellor, which features Swarovski crystals. As for Lalonde’s? “I think I have a new favourite everyday, but I think today my favourite is Iluliaq. I’m hoping that it’ll help me cool down” she laughs.

Sakahàn is at the National Gallery of Canada until September 2nd 2013.