Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada includes works from Indigenous Peoples across Canada and around the globe.
The collection of Indigenous Art includes many divergent artistic practices that operate outside of established western canons of art and art history. Many contemporary Indigenous artists draw on their ancestral connections, combining these with their knowledge and engagement with contemporary international art practices. The resulting art is often a critique of current social conditions that are the consequence of colonial histories. The experience of forced assimilation, cultural repression, and displacement – common to many Indigenous Peoples – are defining characteristics of these art forms.
The National Gallery of Canada’s Collection of Indigenous Art includes First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artworks, with an emphasis on contemporary art from 1980 to the present day.
The National Gallery of Canada has collected works by Indigenous artists since the early 20th century. Several works were purchased as contemporary art in the 1960s from such artists as Rita Letendre, Robert Markle, and Kenojuak Ashevak. In 1979 a major donation of silver from the family of Henry Birks also included several works by First Nations artists.
Carl Beam’s The North American Iceberg (1985) was purchased for the collection of contemporary art in 1986. This acquisition signalled a change in the collecting practices of the Gallery, opening the institution to the richness and diversity expressed in the artworks of the First Peoples of the lands now known as Canada. The collection of contemporary Indigenous art has grown steadily since this time and increasingly since the first international survey of contemporary Indigenous art, Land Spirit Power was held at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992. In 2002, the landmark exhibit Art of this Land included works by such artists as Alex Janvier, Daphne Odjig, and Allen Sapp alongside those of non-Indigenous artists.
In the galleries, visitors can currently view works by some of the best-known Indigenous artists in Canada including Carl Beam, Brian Jungen, Faye HeavyShield, Shelley Niro, Jeffrey Thomas, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.
A remarkable chapter in the history of art in Canada has been the emergence of a new stage of creative expression in the Arctic.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Inuit artists – in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador – have contributed to a flourishing of sculpture, drawing and printmaking and work in other media that address issues of identity and aesthetics, as well as tell a compelling story of cross-cultural interaction. The National Gallery’s collection represents key artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak, Jessie Oonark, Karoo Ashevak, and David Ruben Piqtoukun and reflects the significant creative and historical developments within this contemporary (post-1949) period of Inuit art.
In 1956, the National Gallery acquired its first sculptures by Nunavik (Quebec) artists, including Charlie Sivuarapik, the first Inuit member of the Sculpture Society of Canada. In the 1960s, important early prints, such as The Enchanted Owl by Kenojuak Ashevak were purchased from the first Arctic printmaking studio established by the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset (Nunavut). In the 1980s, major donations received from the Friends of the National Gallery, Dorothy M. Stillwell, M.D., and M.F. Feheley increased the Inuit holdings to over 350 works. In 1989 and 1992, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development transferred a further 570 works to the Gallery.
Nunavik (Quebec) is the source of some of the most striking early sculpture. Davidialuk Alasua Amittu and Johnny Inukpuk are among the carvers represented who helped define the narrative character of the work from this region. From Nunavut, the new territory created in 1999, Cape Dorset artists dominate sculpture holdings, with some 100 pieces by artists such as Osuitok Ipeelee, Kiawak Ashoona, Qaqaq Ashoona and, Oviloo Tunnillie. From Kivalliq, or central Nunavut, the more austere, almost abstracted work of Arviat and Rankin Inlet artists is represented by important pieces by Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, John Pagnark, John Tiktak, and John Kavik. The Kitikmeot region of Nunavut, is known for its expressionistic style and strong links to spiritual / shamanic beliefs. The Gallery’s collection includes important group of works by Karoo Ashevak, Judas Ullulaq, and Charlie Ugyuk. From the Northwest Territories, Inuvialuit artists, David Ruben Piqtoukun and Abraham Anghik Ruben are important contributors to the representation more recent sculptural trends, as is Michael Massie, from the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador and Newfoundland, who works in silver as well as stone.
More than 800 prints and drawings are in the collection, with works from all the various print studios that have been active since the first experiments began in Cape Dorset in the late 1950s. These include Cape Dorset, Puvirnituq, Holman (Uluhaktok), Baker Lake, Pangnirtung, and Clyde River. Among the 350 drawings in the collection, of particular importance are the holdings of drawings by Parr, Pitseolak Ashoona, Kenojuak Ashevak, Kiakshuk and Pudlo Pudlat of Cape Dorset. Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Simon Tookoome of Baker Lake are also represented with a strong selection of drawings. The gallery is especially fortunate to have received Jessie Oonark's sweeping panoramic view of life in the North, When the Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night (1966–69) as a gift of Boris and Elizabeth Kotelewetz in 1991 In other media, works on cloth are represented by the wall-hangings of Jessie Oonark, Marion Tuu'luq, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk and the artists and weavers of the Uqqurmiut studio of Pangnirtung, including Elisapee Ishulutaq.
The collection and presentation of Inuit art is supported as well by the Gallery's growing research holdings in this area. The library, for example, has acquired the extensive library and archives of Sandra Buhai Barz. While focussed on the post-1949 phase of Canadian Inuit art, this collection includes important resources in circumpolar Arctic peoples and arts and spans that history from four thousand years ago to the present.
The Two Row Wampum Belt was first made in the 1600s and describes the relationship between the Mohawk people and the Dutch, recently arrived in Mohawk territory. In this conversation, Rick Hill (Tuscarora artist, curator and historian), Hohahes Leroy Hill (Council Secretary, Faithkeeper and Sub-Chief to Deskaheh, Cayuga Nation) and Greg Hill (Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada) discuss the importance of this historical wampum belt and what it means for us today.
An interview with Alex Janvier, whose major 2017 retrospective celebrated the artist’s lifetime of creativity, knowledge and perspective, gained through his love of the land, art and Dene culture.
Meet Jordan Bennett, one of the artists of the electrifying 2019 exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, which featured contemporary works from Indigenous artists located around the globe.
From the archives: a glimpse of the groundbreaking 2013 exhibition Sakahàn.
Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art
Associate Curator of Indigenous Art
Associate Curator, Historical Indigenous Art
Curatorial Assistant, Indigenous Art