By: Abeera Shahid
McMaster University is located on the traditional territory shared between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Anishinabe nations, but the history of this land is often unfamiliar to the larger McMaster community.
The resilience of Indigenous people can be witnessed through the Unapologetic: Acts of Survivance exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art, which opened on Jan. 12.
The exhibit brings together works of prominent Indigenous contemporary artists from the 1980s whose work continues to challenge assumptions about Indigenous arts and affirm a presence for Indigenous artists in the modern art world.
Curator Rhéanne Chartrand began to conceptualize the exhibition in 2015, during which she worked on the Aboriginal Pavilion at the Pan Am Games.
She is currently the first Indigenous Curatorial Resident at the museum, and earned her Bachelor of Arts in History and Anthropology from McMaster.
“It seemed that my interests and what I wanted to explore conceptually, artistically, could be fulfilled at McMaster… I was interested in looking back, acknowledging where we, [Indigenous people], came from,” said Chartrand.
The show includes a range of works, from a mixed media piece with the writing, “Preserve our language and culture,” splashed across the centre, to a piece titled, “If You Find Any Culture, Send it Home,” which features an ancestral mask with a corresponding letter from a father to his son about selling the mask. The observer is prompted to reflect on the ongoing challenges Indigenous people face as a result of colonialism, and the way in which these issues are confronted in galleries and museums.
Chartrand selected the pieces through a non-linear and often chaotic approach.
“For me it’s about really allowing the works to speak to me… I am very interested in how works relate to each other, the conversations I can create with work. The process is very much back and forth, trying to map out the narrative I wanted to construct,” said Chartrand.
The conversations created by the show are as bold as the artists involved. The artists featured in the exhibit include, Carl Beam, Bob Boyer, Robert Houle, Gerald McMaster, Shelley Niro, Ron Noganosh, Jane Ash Poitras, Edward Poitras, Pierre Sioui, Jeff Thomas and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptu. Chartrand sees naming the artists as an important part in acknowledging their activism to create a place for Indigenous work in the contemporary art world.
In the 1980s, these artists spoke against the exclusion of Indigenous art in contemporary art museums and how they were only featured as a relic of the past in history or anthropology museums. They challenged the norm, becoming documentarians of Indigenous experiences at the time, and paved the way for current artists to continue the work.
The exhibition honours the contributions of these artists, but it also makes the job of curating their work intimidating.
“I initially felt very daunted with taking on the responsibility of curating work by such foundational artists… it was really overcoming my insecurities as an emerging curator and saying I do have something of value to say about this work, I do have a new analysis to offer,” said Chartrand.
When we talk about indigeneity, sometimes diversity is neglected. However, this exhibition features artists from different Indigenous groups in various geographical contexts.
Government policy and popular representations have often tried to treat all Indigenous groups as the same, but each group has its own unique perspectives which are reflected in their art. For instance, Bob Boyer’s blanket painting uses motifs and symbols from the plains, referencing the traditions of his respective region.
The exhibition, open at the museum until Mar. 25, conveys Indigenous people as survivors rather than victims of hardships they have endured. It is a powerful depiction designed for all of us to rethink our relationship to the land we stand on.