10. Contemporary Native Art

          in a Primitive Art World



...Throughout their years of operation, these major Canadian galleries have arguably not made a substantial effort to collect and preserve Native Canadian heritage. Institutions dedicated to preserving Canadian heritage, in other words, do so selectively....


In the mid-1800’s, Canadian artist Paul Kane was inspired to paint Natives in an attempt to document a “dying” race.1 He followed various tribes throughout Canada and created sketches that, once back home in Ontario, were realized as larger oil paintings (Lord 94-5). Many people look back to Kane’s work and commend it for its role in the documentation of Canada’s history; however, many problems arise when considering Kane’s motives and methods. Kane sought to commemorate a race that in the end did not disappear. In the process of translation from drawing to painting, he altered the compositions of most scenes to fit accepted European models. Kane also amplified the idea of 'Indianness' in the paintings, adding 'Indian' paraphernalia, and thus supporting popular Euro-Canadian stereotypes of Indianness.2 Most problematically, Kane’s paintings suffer from the filter of a Euro-Canadian perspective. He created portraits of Natives based on the dominant culture’s concept of ideal Indians, not a perspective of Natives themselves. Kane’s paintings are nothing more than a white person’s romanticized notion of what Indians were. In spite of this, these paintings, and similar works, are accepted as representative of Native peoples in Canada’s history and even today. 

Then, and now, Native artists face many difficulties in endeavors to represent themselves and their culture in museums and galleries. By supporting national museums and galleries, the Canadian government has shown an interest in the preservation and display of Canadian culture and heritage, both past and present. Unfortunately, colonial stereotypes of Native peoples and colonial definitions of Native art have tended to result in the insufficient representation of Native art work, past and present, in art galleries. When contemporary Native art is displayed, it often appears in human history museums; places dedicated to human history, not current culture (Jessup xvii). Throughout the history of Canada’s national institutions, persistent notions of what Indian art 'is' have resulted in a lack of representation of Native culture by Native peoples. Misrepresentation has resulted in misunderstanding that has yet to be overcome. Although stereotypes have not changed, Native art has grown becoming a hybrid art, informed by both Native and European styles and techniques. Despite this, Native art often remains categorized as a craft, not a high art. Contemporary Native art’s lack of recognition as high art may be considered a result of two things. First, the general misunderstanding of contemporary Native art and the culture and tactics behind that art cause resistance to its inclusion. And second, institutions' avoidance of possible cultural conflicts and questions that may arise should Native art hang on the same walls as Euro-Canadian art.

In this paper, I examine first manner in which contemporary aboriginal art has been excluded from Canada's authoritative museums and galleries, before turning to look at the way that humor has been successfully used as a technique of resistance. I bring these points together at the end of the paper by analyzing how humor often references present inequalities in a way that is perhaps perceived as too subversive even for galleries that have begun to address the historic inequalities in their collections. I argue that the current resistance to and exclusion of contemporary Native art from authoritative galleries is the result of a combination of old ideologies, cultural misunderstanding, and aversion to conflict.

Galleries and museums are important institutions for the cultural heritage and identities they preserve. Knowing this, the Government of Canada instituted the Museums Act in 1990. The Museums Act declares that, “the heritage of Canada and all its peoples [are] an important part of the world heritage and must be preserved for present and future generations” (About NGC 2007). The declaration is problematic in its statement that the heritage of “all its peoples” are represented in galleries and museums. The Native population in Canada is largely overlooked in the gallery system; neither sufficient historical nor contemporary representation resides in the galleries of Canada.  In fact, to this point, “Aboriginal historical work […] has not been collected by Canadian art institutions in any systematic or consistent way, if at all” (Jessup xiv). Furthermore, the vast majority of Native works of art in these galleries are only indigenous in subject matter; the artist is Euro-Canadian and hence the ideologies presented are Euro-Canadian. In the Art Gallery of Ontario and in the Vancouver Art Gallery, “Aboriginal historical cultures are represented almost exclusively in painting, sculpture, and graphics that were made by Euro-Canadians” (Jessup xxiii). As a result of the Euro-Canadian perspective in the creation of these works, culturally uninformed and inaccurate depictions of Native peoples represent Natives within Canada’s heritage that, in the words of the Museum Act, “must be preserved for present and future generations” (About NGC 2007).

With the perpetuation of stereotypical images in official institutions, the negative conventions of the past 500 years present formidable obstacles for future understanding. As contemporary Native art scholar Allan Ryan has said, “As soon as they landed on the shores of the Americas, Europeans began to stereotype Native peoples. Over the centuries, the stereotypes fluctuated with changing political, social and economic norms, but they never disappeared” (Pearlson and Ryan 2006, 30). There is a definite need for the inclusion of Native art by Natives about Natives in Canadian institutions. People have a right to establish their own identity, and so long as a non-Indian wields the brush, the non-Indian ideas of Indianness will persist (Pearlson and Ryan 15).   

In response to the minimal presence of Native Art in Canada’s galleries, the Canadian government, through the Canada Council for the Arts, has supported initiatives that promote the purchase of artwork from contemporary Native artists by art institutions. The program was instated in 1997, and, within the first two years of operation, supported the purchase of 135 works by roughly forty institutions (Jessup xiii). The project was a success and generated interest in the collection of Native art; however, it had to be closed in 1999, after three years of operation, because “only the conclusion of the program could lead to the permanent inclusion of Aboriginal art in acquisition budgets” (Jessup xiii). Had the program remained open, there was the potential that Aboriginal art would only be purchased because it was subsidized, and not for its merits. 

Despite such efforts, both historic and contemporary Native artists remain underrepresented in Canada’s museums and galleries. According to the Director of the National Gallery of Canada, the NGC is the “home of the world’s most comprehensive collection of Canadian Art” (From the Director 2007). But, in actuality, the gallery does not “hold collections of work by North American Aboriginal peoples created before mid-[twentieth] century” (Jessup xiv). The same under-representation can be found in other major galleries as well, including the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario (Jessup xiv). Throughout their years of operation, these major Canadian galleries have arguably not made a substantial effort to collect and preserve Native Canadian heritage. Institutions dedicated to preserving Canadian heritage, in other words, do so selectively. 

On the National Gallery of Canada’s website, under the heading of “Compelling Vision,” it is stated, “The National Gallery of Canada strives to provide Canadians with a sense of identity with and pride in Canada’s rich visual-arts heritage” (About NGC 2007). Apparently Native art does not fall within the definition of Canada’s visual-arts heritage. Indigenous peoples are within the definition however, as the collection does feature many Euro-Canadian interpretations of Natives. Canadian galleries, however, do face challenges when attempting to include Native works of art. Many Native peoples do not consider themselves as part of Canada and, thus, inclusion in art displays is not enough. Accepted models of history must be challenged and overcome for Native art to hold a position in Canada’s visual-arts history.

The National Gallery, for example, deceptively publicizes its dedication to the collection of Native art. The website states:

National Gallery of Canada has collected works by First Nation’s artists since the early 20th century.  Several works were purchased as contemporary art in the 1960’s from artists such as Rita Letendre, Robert Markle, and Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak (Aboriginal 2007).

However, what conclusions may be drawn from the fact that all the First Nations works acquired are explicitly non-Indian in content? Rita Letendre, born to a Quebecois mother and father of aboriginal origin, is an abstract painter often described as an automatist or a colourist; her work is not inherently aboriginal in subject matter (Letendre 2007). Similarly, Robert Markle, primarily known for his paintings and works on paper, does not “employ traditional First Nations’ subject matters or techniques in his work” either (Permanent Collection Profile 2007). In actuality, the National Gallery did not purchase a Native themed work of art from a Native person until 1986 when they purchased The North American Iceberg (1985), by Ojibwa artist Carl Beam. This work, composed of photo-silkscreened images on plexiglass, features multiple self portraits, images of traditionally dressed indigenous peoples, and text. The work addresses serious issues affecting Native peoples that mainstream culture is oblivious to; what people know is only the tip of the iceberg. Importantly, most of the images and text are borrowed from other sources, further emphasizing the theme of conquest also present in the work (Seeing Red, 2008). Granted, much has transpired between the time the National Gallery of Canada opened, the time the gallery purchased these works, and when this statement was written. However, the elusive account of the gallery’s dedication to Native artists seems to indicate an acknowledgement of a past wrong. Since then, the gallery has added works by other contemporary Native artists such as Bob Boyer, Brian Jungen, and Shelly Niro, amongst others, although, in terms of the gallery’s collection as a whole the list remains minimal.  

In recent years an attempt for the inclusion of more contemporary Native art exhibitions is evident, but not sufficient. Since 1992, the five hundred year anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of North America, a small surge of contemporary Aboriginal art exhibitions has occurred. The survey exhibition “Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives,” took place at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec in 1992. Also in 1992, the National Gallery of Canada held “Land, Spirit, Power.”  Another contemporary Native art exhibition, “Reservation X: The Power of Place in Aboriginal Contemporary Art,” was hosted by the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1998. The Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec mounted the exhibition, “In My Lifetime: Contemporary Aboriginal Art” in 2005. In 2007, this exhibition was displayed again, this time in the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Also in 2007, the Royal Ontario Museum exhibited “Shapeshifters,” another group exhibition of contemporary aboriginal art. Despite an increased interest in displaying contemporary Aboriginal art, most exhibitions still take place in ethnographic museums, not in dedicated art museums, again suggesting that Native art, historic or contemporary, is the product of a past culture.  

The Canadian Museum of Civilization statement of purpose notes:
As the national museum of human history, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is committed to fostering in all Canadians a sense of their common identity and their shared past. At the same time, it hopes to promote understanding between the various cultural groups that are part of Canadian society (About the Museum 2007).

The museum’s statement lacks congruency with the display of contemporary aboriginal art. They are a museum of ‘human history’ yet display work representative of the current and contemporary. As a representative of human history, the Canadian Museum of Civilization rightfully should and does have Native artifacts. Generally, Native artifacts, often consisting of textiles, bead work, and leather work, are, according to arts reporter Paul Gessell “considered not as fine art, but as something akin to folk art, decorative art or handicraft and deemed worthy of being shown only in museums with mummies and dinosaurs rather than Rembrandts and Picassos” (A1). Problematically, the placement of contemporary artworks alongside anthropological crafts further removes Aboriginal art from the world of ‘high art’ by appending to it a trenchant hierarchy that privileges art over craft. As an institution that is intended to represent peoples of the past in an effort to facilitate communication between the people of the present, the display of contemporary aboriginal art in the Canadian Museum of Civilization is misleading as it automatically casts current cultural production as a product of the past. True, the subject matter of contemporary aboriginal art often draws on the past, both in an effort to make sense of the present and in an attempt to negotiate an identity. But, a large portion of Western art also does this and maintains a secure place in the walls of art galleries. Essentially, that which represents a living culture is displayed as contemporary-anthropological craft.3

The National Gallery of Canada did not host a solo exhibition of a Native artist’s work until 2006. Fittingly, the first exhibition to do so featured Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau’s work and was entitled, “Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist.”  Morrisseau, often considered the 'father' of contemporary aboriginal art, is also accredited with putting “First Nations art on the map of Canada” (Gessell A1).  In spite of such recognition, the National Gallery’s acknowledgment of Morrisseau is long overdue. He has been a practicing artist since the 1950’s, but has only received recognition from the gallery in his final years. Nevertheless, before this point, Morrisseau was a successful artist and otherwise recognized for his artistic merits by a wide audience. In 1989, for example, Morrisseau was the only Canadian painter invited to participate in the infamous “Magicians Of The Earth” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, France. In his lifetime, he has also received an honorary degree from the Royal Academy of Arts and become a member of The Order of Canada (Morrisseau). Despite recognition in a broader art community and “despite the pleas of some influential people, Morrisseau did not become part of the [National Gallery’s] collection until 2000” (Gessell A1). Based on Morrisseau’s accomplishments as an artist and his validation as an artist by the broader art community, the National Gallery’s delayed inclusion of his work seems unjustifiable.               

The exclusion of aboriginal art in art institutions proves, as art historian Lynda Jessup (xvi) has argued, that “art galleries remain powerful ideological spaces dominated by traditional Western aesthetics” (Jessup xvi). Although validated in the broader art world, aboriginal artists are excluded from the ‘white’ walls of the gallery space because their work does not correspond with the established Western idea of beauty. This disjuncture offers a suggestion as to why other institutions, particularly those based in anthropology, more willingly embrace contemporary aboriginal art; these institutions are “under less pressure […] to create the illusion that the works in their collections are a source of aesthetic experience” (Jessup xvii).

An argument has been put forth that aboriginal art and aboriginal art institutions should “operate at a remove from majority cultural institutions and their audiences, thus maintaining their role in relation to the marginalized constituencies that define them and to whom they give voice” (Jessup xvii). Although the argument makes sense in that it provides an outlet for the creative expression of minority groups, the argument is inherently flawed in principle. If minority groups are separated from the mainstream art system, Western ideologies of aesthetic supremacy would be enforced. Institutional resistance to the inclusion of work by Native artists is a result of the European goals, ideologies, and influences of the past that persist to present times. As the influence continues, contemporary Native artists experience a difficult time as they attempt to inject their history and heritage into the established Canadian history.

A general misunderstanding of Aboriginal people pervades mainstream society’s conception of what it means to be Aboriginal. Despite the fact that much has changed since European inhabitation of North America, “the notion of authentic Indianness is frozen in time” (Pearlstone and Ryan 32).  The inability to overcome a centuries-old stereotype greatly hinders the ability of Native artists to advance in the contemporary art world. With stagnant concepts of Indian art, contemporary Native art lacks recognition for its intrinsic merits. Further, there is a common resistance to Native art that challenges non-Indian ideas of Indianness. The following section of this paper will discuss some strategies of contemporary Native art, predominately in the form of humor, that tend to undermine the status quo and in doing so might be considered too critical of established institutions, stereotypes, and histories for non-confrontational inclusion in art galleries. 

Contemporary Aboriginal art, as we know it today, appeared shortly after World War II.  The war “catapulted many Native artists out of their traditional homelands and into contact with new places and peoples, as well as new artists, media, techniques, and styles.” (Pearlstone and Ryan 1). At this point Native artists began to attend art schools, and were trained according to the European model. During this formal training, these artists began to merge Native content with European techniques. European art schools may be considered an influence; however, “Contemporary artists from a wide range of cultural backgrounds have increased their engagement with the international art world and developed their own forms of avant-garde art” and, these forms “may coincide with the historical Western concept, yet may also derive from indigenous concepts of innovation and rebellion” (Morphy and Perkins 2).  

Beginning his career as an artist in the 1950’s, Norval Morrisseau is one such artist, and an important innovator in the development of contemporary Native Art. It is perhaps necessary to understand Morrisseau’s career and his accomplishments in both Aboriginal and Western art to further demonstrate why he might have been the first Native artist to have a show at the National Gallery. Morrisseau’s Native heritage and traditions form the basis for his subject matter as “much of his imagery derives from legends of the Ojibway preserved in pictographs, petrogryphs and the birch-bark scrolls of the sacred Midewinwin Society” (Pearlstone and Ryan 26). Although Morrisseau’s work is clearly rooted in tradition, his pictorial style is not. Large areas of colour, sectioned by thick black lines, create a “technique that evokes stained-glass windows” (Pearlstone and Ryan 2006, 26). The use of bold black lines is also evocative of the currently flourishing pop-art of the time. Combined, the two Western techniques, stained-glass and pop-art, present Native ceremonial content in a way that is understandable and readable to a Western audience. During the 1960’s, Morrisseau experienced “surprising market success” and “spawned a number of imitators hoping to share in the benefits of interest in the new Indian art” (Ryan 47). The traditional nature of Morrisseau’s paintings no doubt helped his acceptance as an artist. In its imagery, Morrisseau’s work does not employ humor or challenge Euro-Canadian ideas of Indianness in a critical way.4

Few people know that humor is an integral part of Native culture. According to Allan Ryan (1999, 4), author of The Trickster Shift: Humor and Irony in Contemporary Native Art, the “comic spirit [is] at the center of Native cultural identity” (Ryan 4). Humor in Native culture originates in the figure of the Trickster. Nanabush, Weesakeejak, Iktomi, Coyote, and Raven are common names of the Trickster, but others also exist. The Trickster “is often characterized as a creative rebel whose humorous exploits frequently illuminate society’s artificial codes and arbitrary boundaries” (Pearlstone and Ryan 44). Although difficult to concretely identify the figure of Trickster, because “the symbol which Trickster embodies is not a static one,” he is best understood as a teacher and a spiritual mediator (Ryan 7). As Sioux poet and novelist Paula Gunn Allen writes, “Humor is widely used by Indians to deal with life. Indian gatherings are marked by laughter and jokes, many directed at the horrors of history, and at the continuing impact of colonization, and at the biting knowledge that living as an exile in one’s own land necessitates” (Quoted in Taylor 67). In current times, humor acts as a healing agent, “a salve or tonic to take the pain away […] often […] an antidote, even” (Taylor 69).

Contemporary Native artists seek to aid the healing process with humor in their work, and in turn this often infuses the work with criticism of institutions. Allan Ryan (1999) has termed the recent amplified humor in Native art the 'Trickster Shift.' In art, the Trickster Shift is characterized by humor, irony, and parody. Artists act as Tricksters and their work functions as a Trickster, often working as a catalyst to initiate the discussion of ‘taboo’ subjects between groups of people. However, viewers often overlook or misunderstand the intentional humor, ultimately obstructing possible dialogue. Take for example, the work of Iroquois artist Bill Powless, who portrays himself as a Trickster (albeit with a European twist) in his drawing on paper, Self-Portrait as April Fool (1995). The drawing features a broadly grinning Powless, wearing a court jester’s hat, as a flamingo lawn decoration sits in the foreground. Traditionally in Western culture, the role of a jester has been “to offer both wise counsel and biting critique to those in positions of power and authority” (Pearlstone and Ryan 22). Thus, Powless offers himself to the viewer in an ironic fashion of role reversal. Now, the viewer should seek wise council from Powless, not the other way, as is assumed to be best. Powless’s broad grin offers a silent yet taunting critique through the subversion of the jester figure. However, many people know the jester as a comical figure to be ridiculed; hence, the work may be understood through two quite opposite interpretations. 

How humor is interpreted in contemporary Native art often adds to the critique the work presents. A viewer’s reaction may reveal a lot about the cross-cultural misunderstanding between Natives and non-Natives, and sometimes between Natives and other Natives. In the summer of 1985, Bill Powless caused quite a commotion near Brantford, Ontario with his painting, Indian Summer. In this painting, a rather obese Native gentleman, wearing barely visible red swim trunks and sporting an umbrella hat, wholly fills the picture frame. The image was inspired by a scene Powless observed at a beach on Manitoulin Island; however, the image proved too ‘real’ for some people.  One angry observer sent an editorial to the local newspaper signed, 'An Offended Indian.' In the piece, 'An Offended Indian' wrote, “Indians though the years have been stereotyped as being fat, lazy, illiterate and just plain stupid, even in cartoons. In conclusion, what is this artist trying to prove?” (Ryan 15). The explicit humor of Indian Summer, to say the least, was lost on this patron. 'An Offended Indian’s' inability to laugh at the painting may be considered the result of stereotypes that permeate society. Although it is possible to read Indian Summer as a blatantly negative stereotype of Native peoples, the painting makes a jab at traditional Western portraiture through parody. The central figure of Indian Summer, is “seated in a classic, three-quarter-length portrait pose” (Ryan 6). In addition, he turns to the side slightly, also a convention of traditional portraiture. People in portraits often hold an object that helps to identify their social status, in this instance a popsicle. Indian Summer does not mock Natives, it mocks Western portrayals of Natives. The complexity of this parody is made apparent by examining Paul Kane’s portrait of a Native, Man Who Gives the War Whoop (1846). In this traditional Western portrayal of a Native, the man is elaborately surrounded by ideas of Indianness. He is painted from the mid-section up, turned to the side, and holds an object that identifies him as a warrior in the tribe. Powless’ painting updates the outdated and stereotypical image with a contemporary native man, confidently relaxing at the beach enjoying a popsicle. 

Humor is elusive, especially concerning the boundaries of what is and is not appropriate. Humor, as it is almost always at the expense of another person, is largely an oppressive medium and hence tact should be exercised in the expression of humor. In “Whacking the Indigenous Funny Bone” Ojibwa author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor presents a theory that examines the boundaries of politically correct and politically incorrect humor. Taylor (71) begins by creating a “Ladder of Status” upon which he places minority groups in order of their level of oppression; most oppressed on the bottom, least oppressed on the top. The top of the Ladder of Status is occupied by the white man, with all minorities below him.  Humor climbs from the bottom of the ladder up. Therefore, “those situated at the top cannot make jokes aimed at those towards the bottom […] those at the bottom, however, can make fun of those higher up the social ladder the butt of their jokes” (Taylor 71). If someone at the top of the ladder makes a joke at the expense of someone lower than them on the ladder, the joke is offensive. Basically, so long as the joke moves up the ladder and not down, the joke is amusing. The ladder also moves horizontally, thus, people can joke about other people who share the same wrung of the ladder. The humor present in contemporary Native art functions within the boundaries of Taylor’s model, creating a situation wherein humor can be used as a political tool by aboriginal artists against the white mainstream. Unable to use humor without falling into the politically incorrect, Euro-Canadians are incapable of defending themselves against a Native humor attack, which can result in the Euro-Canadian resistance to contemporary Native art.    

This begs the question of what is an appropriate response. If an aboriginal person makes a joke at themselves, can a white person laugh? While Indian Summer was first exhibited, Powless observed gallery-goers reactions to the painting from a distance. As Powless recounts the event, “They weren’t sure whether to laugh or not.  Some people just broke out [in laughter], they couldn’t help it, and some people weren’t sure if they were supposed to laugh or not. I could see them trying to hold it back” (Quoted in Ryan 19). A work of art that makes gallery-goers and gallery supporters uncomfortable is an unlikely acquisition to be a priority. Also, the fact that patrons fail to recognize intentional humor further demonstrates the cross-cultural misunderstanding. The artist intends for the viewer to laugh, but only good-natured and not vindictive laughter, is within an appropriate reaction to the work. Despite the fact that contemporary native artists have relatively little inclusion in art galleries, the work may still be considered politically effective as it does highlight cultural misunderstanding to those who do see it.

Humor in contemporary Native art is not exclusively self-referential.  Establishments and established concepts are often the target of Native art works. In his watercolour painting, Self-Portrait in my Christian Dior Bathing Suit (1980), Carl Beam subverts popular culture and popular stereotypes at the same time. The painting parodies conventions of fashion advertisements and modeling. Large letters vertically climb up the side of the painting and Beam poses like a model, one hand on his hip, the other at his side, evoking a sense of confidence and purpose. This very well could be an advertisement; but something appears 'wrong' with the image. It is probably the free-flowing, thick, black, hair and beard surrounding the model’s face. Beam accomplishes many things within this painting. He prominently subverts the notion of naked-noble-savage; certainly he looks noble, but gone is the expected context of a forest or wilderness scene. Beam also draws attention to the exclusion of Natives from the high fashion industry. Indianness has had its fashionable moments in style through beaded clothing, suede jackets, and moccasin slippers. But, the inclusion of Native peoples in the fashion industry remains to be seen.

Self-Portrait in My Christian Dior Bathing Suit provoked reactions from other contemporary Native artists that resulted in a humorous, yet critical, dialogue around the relationship between mainstream popular culture and aboriginality. In 1989, artist Vivian Gray made a mixed media installation entitled, Carl, I Can’t Fit into My Christian Dehors Bathing Suit! This work features a bathing suit lying at the base of a full-length mirror. While the title identifies the artist’s relationship to the items, the mirror invites the viewer to observe how they measure up to popular ideas of beauty, and thus, draws attention to the double standard of what is, according to popular culture, acceptable for non-Indians but not for Natives. Ojibwa artist Ron Noganosh responded with, I Couldn’t Afford a Christian Dior Bathing Suit in 1990. Noganosh’s painting mimics Beam’s in format but portrays a roughly painted nude aboriginal man as a means of drawing attention to the noble-savage stereotype and the poverty within many Native communities. All three of these works are highly critical of popular culture and the general stereotypes and treatment of Native peoples in contemporary society.  

Humor, although present in a lot of contemporary Native art, does not always have a place in an artist’s message. In The Batoche Centennial (1985), Métis artist Bob Boyer decided to “really go for the jugular” (Quoted in Ryan 104). The Batoche Centennial is composed of a satin quilt sewn in the pattern of a Native starblanket. It also features four appliquéd Union Jacks and the words ‘O CANADA OUR HOME AND NATIVE LAND’ can, “with much difficulty, be detected on the surface” (Ryan 102). The quilt embodies a history of violence in many ways. Red is splattered across the center reminiscent of a slaughter.  Rips, roughly sewn, together circle the central star. And, the primary structure of the work —a blanket— represents the introduction of the devastating small-pox disease to North America. This work was the result of a commission from a government organization with the purpose of commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Batoche Rebellion in 1885. As the only descendent of a participant in the rebellion that was asked to submit a work, Boyer decided to test limits with blatant criticism. Rejecting the work would be a sign of repression. If the work was accepted, there was the possibility this was only because Boyer was a descendent of the rebellion. The work was accepted. Why the work was accepted is impossible to know. Perhaps it was a display of tokenism or perhaps the acceptance was genuine. But, perhaps Boyer’s work was accepted because it coincides with a new stereotype that has formed, one that acknowledges a sense of guilt on the part of Euro-Canadians, but places that guilt firmly in the past. What happened is done, feel free to paint about it, but make sure it stays firmly in the past. 

Unlike Boyer’s piece, works such as Powless’ and Beam’s deal with the here and now; refusing to be placed in history, they boldly inhabit the present. These works blatantly challenge predominate stereotypes of both past and present Native Peoples. Among gallery collections these works would also stand in opposition to the Euro-Canadian stereotype of Indianness already present. Recently, “First Nations in Canada have fought for greater political representation” (Whitelaw 1). Art galleries have responded to this need for representation in various ways, many of which have “shied away from displaying historical objects and have focused their attention on works by contemporary artists of aboriginal decent whose choice of media and style […] fit more easily into their existing collections” (Whitelaw 2).

In 2003, however, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) made attempts to include historical aboriginal art in their Canadian History wings. The NGC’s attempt resulted in the long term exhibit “Art of This Land.”  Although the addition of historical pieces may be considered a success a few aspects of the project deter a problem-free interpretation of the exhibit. First, pieces selected “are presented in such a way as to conform to Western conceptions of aesthetic interest, with the result that the ceremonial character of many of these works is erased” (Whitelaw 2). Also, all of the works on display are on loan from other galleries and museums and the NGC has made no efforts to add historical Native art to their permanent collection. This suggests that the inclusion of historic Native art is only a temporary one. 

The AGO’s attempt may be considered even less successful than the NGC’s; the exhibit, intended for long term display remained open less than a year. Whereas the NGC injected Native art into the established Canadian setting, the AGO redecorated the McLaughlin Gallery in a uniquely Native manner. Thus, the Euro-Canadian works were injected into a dominantly Native setting that successfully created an atmosphere conducive to questioning history and traditional methods of display (Hill 58). Unfortunately, after opening in January 2003, the gallery was closed in October 2003 along with the rest of the Canadian wing (Hill 51). In these examples, both galleries have attempted to add historical Native art to their collections, thus supporting an argument that it is easier to incorporate works related to the past than it is to include art situated in the present themed on current issues. Like Boyer’s The Batoche Centennial, historic Native art is often in dialogue with past transgressions and hence acknowledges past guilt, but ignores current issues. 

Despite all this, contemporary Native artists continue to produce art and, more importantly, they continue to produce art consistent with their culture’s true spirit: humor. Humor proves to be a powerful weapon in the hands of a contemporary Native artist.  But, the Euro-Canadian is left with no politically correct defense against such biting critique, and it is much easier for the Euro-Canadian to politely ignore and exclude contemporary Native art from galleries than it is to address the issues provoking such critical humor. With images of established Euro-Canadian history and stereotypes saturating prominent galleries, a humorous Native artwork that parodies and subverts these representations appears to have no place. As a great deal of contemporary Native art, humorous and serious, negatively portrays Euro-Canadians, the images are not congruent with the stereotypical concept of Canadianness currently displayed in the galleries. It portrays Euro-Canadian culture through a Native’s perspective, but national galleries, the upholders of Euro-Canadianness, can not support that artistic vision. In an effort to avoid conflict, galleries deny contemporary Native work a place within their collections. The injection of contemporary Native art into these collections would provoke new interpretations of old works.  But, it appears these galleries do not consider themselves places fit for innovative and creative thought. Over the past 500 years, Natives have proved their ability to survive in a society that represses them; no doubt, the Trickster artist will persist as well.

1 The concept of the ‘dying race’ stems from the thought that through displacement and assimilation Native Americans and their culture would cease to exist, becoming a civilization of the past.

2 The term ‘Indian’ is used instead of Native American when a stereotype is being discussed. 

3 Recently anthropological museums have attempted to reconstruct themselves as appropriate places for the display of contemporary Native art, but the venue remains problematic due to its fundamental ideologies. 

4 Throughout his career Morrisseau did produce political works including a series dealing with smallpox.  However, the critical aspect is less evident in Morrisseau’s work than in that of later artists.

Works Cited

Aboriginal.  National Gallery of Canada.  8 December 2007.
< http://www.gallery.ca/english/91.htm >.

About NCG.  National Gallery of Canada.  8 December 2007.
< http://www.gallery.ca/english/91.htm >.

About the Museum.  Canadian Museum of Civilization.  8 December 2007.
< http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/introeng.html >.

Brian Jungen.  Vancouver Art Gallery: Vancouver/ Toronto/ Berkeley: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.

From the Director. National Gallery of Canada.  8 December  2007.
< http://www.gallery.ca/english/345.htm >.

Gessell, Paul.  “An art pioneer makes his final breakthrough.”  The Ottawa Citizen.  29 Jan. 2006, ed.: A.1.

Gessell, Paul.  “A hero of aboriginal art.”  The Ottawa Citizen.  8 Dec. 2005, ed.: F.1.

Hill, Richard William. “Meeting Ground: The Reinstallation of the AGO’S McLaughlin Gallery.” Making a Noise: Aboriginal Perspectives on Art, Art History, Critical Writing and Community. Lee Ann Martin, ed., Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery/Banff Centre Press, 2004.

Jessup, Lynda. “Hard Inclusion.” On Aboriginal Representation in the Gallery. Ed. Lynda Jessup. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2002.

Lord, Barry.  History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art, The.  Toronto: NC Press, 1974.

McMaster, Gerald, and Lee-Ann Martin, ed. Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives.  Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992.

McMaster, Gerald, ed.  Reservation X: The Power of Place in Aboriginal Contemporary Art.  Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions; Hull, QU: The Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1998.

Morphy, Howard, and Morgan Perkins, ed.  The Anthropology of Art: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006.

Norval Morrisseau. Coghlan Art 2001.  8 December 2007.
< http://www.coghlanart.com/norval.htm >.

Pearlstone, Zena, and Allan J. Ryan.  About Face: self-portraits by Native American, First Nations, and Inuit artists.  Santa Fe, NM: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 2006.

Rita Letendre.  Library and Archives Canada.  8 December 2007.
http://www.collectionscanada.ca/women/002026-513-e.html >.

Ryan, Allan J. “Contemporary Aboriginal Art.”  Lecture: University Western Ontario. 22 February 2007.

Ryan, Allan J.  The Cowboy/Indian Show: Recent works by Gerald McMaster.  The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1991.

Ryan, Allan J. “One Big Indian.” Me Funny. Ed. Drew Hayden Taylor.  Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.

Ryan, Allan J. The Trickster Shift: humor and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.           

Seeing RedCybermuse.  9 January 2008.             
< http://cybermuse.gallery.ca/cybermuse/showcases/redshow/seeing_e.jsp >

“Permanent Collection Profile.” The Spiral. Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery. 8 December 2007.
< http://canadianclayandglass.com/spiral.feb.05.pdf >.

Taylor, Drew Hayden. “Tickling the Indigenous Funny Bone.”  Me Funny. Ed. Drew Hayden Taylor. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 2005

Whitelaw, Anne. “Placing Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Canada.” Canadian Journal of Communication.  Vol. 31. No. 1 (2006).


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Katherine McFadden, currently a fourth year student at the University of Western Ontario, is completing her Honors Specialization in Visual Arts and a minor in English Language and Literature. Her interest in the arts has been life long, while her appreciation for Contemporary Aboriginal Art developed in her second year of studies at Western in a Canadian Art History class.