Christi Belcourt
So Much Depends Upon Who Holds the Shovel, 2008
acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 243.8 cm
Collection of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Canada

An expressive, multifaceted, and crucial first exhibition from OCADU’s newest gallery


Collecting and exhibiting works by Indigenous artists is a process that has long been fraught with missteps. There is a history of prejudice and ignorance in the white-dominated world of curating—Indigenous works, if they are shown at all, have tended to be shown decontextualized, as artifacts, and/or as ethnography or “natural history.” In addition, institutions have tended to purchase works that display expected notions of Indigeneity or explicitly address their artist’s Indigenous background, as though works by Indigenous artists are only valuable insofar as they can be didactic or can make obvious the purchasing institution’s ostensible dedication to showcasing Indigenous work. The vast majority of arts institutions in Canada are funded by government grants, most notably those available through the Canada Council, and these grants have diversity requirements. Although the intention isn’t inherently wrong or misguided, this kind of financial incentive for featuring Indigenous work can be conducive to performative actions. The issues continue: the right of non-Indigenous curators to curate Indigenous work is deeply contested and the historic prevalence of group shows can be symptomatic of valuing “Indigeneity” and erasing individuality. Group shows, of course, are common practice—in this context, however, their implications need to be considered.

raise a flag is, yes, a group show, and it does focus on the “general” theme of Indigenous histories in Canada, but it is nevertheless—as Lindsay Nixon, Canadian Art’s Indigenous editor-at-large puts it—subversive. Curated by Ryan Rice, the Delaney Chair of Indigenous Visual Culture at OCAD University and a Mohawk of Kahnawake, Quebec, raise a flag seeks to inspire critical discourse, advocate for justice, and celebrate a “creative legacy.” The show exhibits 49 works from the Indigenous Art Collection, founded in 1965 and overseen by the Indigenous Art Centre program at Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Canada (INAC). The collection comprises more than 4,000 works by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis artists at various stages in their artistic careers.

The works in the exhibit are richly contextualised: most works are displayed with detailed essays by Indigenous art scholars and curators, such as Wanda Nanibush, Assistant Curator of Canadian and Indigenous Art at the AGO, and Lee-Ann Martin, Curator of Contemporary Aboriginal Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. In addition, the Nations of the artists are identified on artwork panels, and common threads of method and meaning run through each of the show’s works. A proclivity for multimedia is clear, as well as the union of the traditional and the contemporary and the oft-ironic joining of Indigenous methods with Settler motifs, or vice versa. Wally Dion’s Shield Wall, for instance, is a row of connected star-patterned shields made from circuit boards, overlaying a traditional plains First Nations motif with the idea of modern excess, including technology, waste, constant communication, and a Plexiglas reference to riot shields. Through painting, in So Much Depends Upon Who Holds the Shovel (2008), Christi Belcourt repurposes pointillism to reference the ceremonial intricacy of Métis floral beading. She also chooses to feature endangered or nearly extinct flora and fauna; references to a national history of anti-Indigenous violence exist in varying degrees of overtness throughout the exhibit. Rebecca Belmore’s arresting Fringe (2013) suggests horrifying aggression, while also depicting healing through self-representation and cultural connectivity. Ruth Cuthand’s beautifully beaded viruses in Surviving… (2011) note the destructive prevalence of HIV and Hepatitis C in Indigenous communities, but, as Nixon states, serve also to express acceptance and assert identity. Dana Claxton’s photographic suite Tatanka Wanbli Chekpa Wicincala (2015) comments on the commodification of stereotypical Indigenous identities and mocks the disparity between the imagined Indigenous individual and reality. Each artist’s work is uniquely powerful, expressive, and visually compelling; raise a flag, has the potential to become a seminal work. It goes without saying that a review is no replacement for the real thing: this is a show that warrants a visit.

A print copy of the show’s accompanying Education Guide is offered in the gallery to “enrich [the viewer’s] experience of the artworks” and “aid in interpreting the meaning of Indigenous art forms in the context of tradition, contemporary art and today’s society.” The publication is also available online as a PDF, accessible via the exhibit page on the OCAD website. As mentioned earlier, an exhibit of Indigenous art does not require a didactic element to be of value; as a response to Canada 150, however, raise a flag ensures that it works to its full communicative potential.

Onsite Gallery is located at 199 Richmond Street. The gallery is open from noon Wednesday through Sunday; admission is free.