Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart talks about the ongoing international exhibition on indigenous art SAKAHAN at the National Gallery of Canada.
New York: This summer the National Gallery of Canada launched one of its most ambitious exhibitions titled Sakahàn: International Indigenous.
Literally meaning “to light [a fire]” in the language of the Algonquin people- Native Canadian inhabitants of North America, the show features over 150 works of contemporary indigenous art by over 80 artists from 40 countries across the globe, ranging in medium from video installations to sculptures, drawings, prints, paintings, performance art, murals and site-specific projects created specifically for this exhibition, the largest in the history of the institution.
The project is co-curated by Greg Hill, the NGC’s Audain Curator of Indigenous Art; Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Indigenous Art; and Candice Hopkins, the Elizabeth Simonfay Guest Curator, with the support of an international team of curatorial advisors which includes the Delhi based artist Arpana Caur.
The exhibition not only transforms the space of the National Gallery but also extends to other parts of the city. A collaborative work by Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden titled Earth and Sky is a 50-metre-long banner that looms over the colonnade ramp depicting a summer landscape alongside a skyscape of celestial bodies. While another commanding installation transforms the façade of the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Canada into a work of art.
Behind the visual depth, variety and sheer monumentality of included works there lays significant discourses that cover the gamut of post colonial, identity, tradition and contemporary just to name a few. This iconic effort challenges, and to a large extent shatters, the long held narrow notions associated with the indigenous in various cultures.
The most prominent aspect of the exhibition is the contemporary nature of the works and artistic practice, negating the long held stubborn association of the indigenous with the traditional. The works demonstrate their simultaneous associations with the past, present and future. Vernon Ah Kee, known for his incisive critiques of White Australian culture, takes on the iconic subject of the beach and casts a critical eye on its special role in forming Australian identity. He includes surfboards painted with north Queensland rainforest shield designs as well as a video installation, a clearly contemporary trope for a relevant discourse linked to the past.
Identity and the idea of self representation is another integral aspect of the exhibit. The indigenous has often been assessed by the other eye and it is this understanding that is projected in the world at large. By reclaiming this space- its projection and reception, the ‘indigenous’ seem to be writing a new history and recasting their identity in the contemporary world. Toru Kaizawa’s work addresses this process of establishing an identity in the post colonial world. An Ainu artist from the Japan, he explores these issues in his work. The sculpture depicts a jacket front with its zipper pulled halfway down. Behind the zippered portion appears designs from traditional Ainu clothing.
In this milieu of self assertion and re definition of the indigenous, Indian artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s work seamlessly fits the narrative of the exhibition.
A gond artist from Bhopal, India he continues the family tradition of telling stories through art. His work Smoking Taj recalls the 2008 terrorist attack at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. His works depict not only traditional subjects but also current events in his immediate environment.
In the words of Greg Hill, head of the gallery’s indigenous art department since 2007,”…Indigenous artists don’t work in a vacuum restricted to their own cultures. They’re part of the modern world, too…And to insist that the most authentic indigenous art is (or has to be) traditional art “rooted in customary practice” is itself a kind of ghettoization.”