Indigenous Ways and Decolonization
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.
Steven Loft is of Kanien'kehá:ka (also known as Mohawk), of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and Jewish heritage. He most recently held the position of Director of Strategic Initiatives for Indigenous Arts and Culture, and was formerly Director of the Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples program with the Canada Council for the Arts.
A curator, scholar, writer and media artist, in 2010 Loft was named Visiting Trudeau Fellow at Ryerson University in Toronto. He has also held positions as Curator-in-Residence, Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada; Director/Curator of the Urban Shaman artist-run centre (Winnipeg); Aboriginal Curator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton; and Producer and Artistic Director of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association (Hamilton).
Loft has curated group and solo exhibitions across Canada and internationally, and has written extensively for magazines, catalogues and arts publications, in addition to lecturing in Canada and internationally. He co-edited the books Transference, Technology, Tradition: Aboriginal Media and New Media Art (Banff Centre Press, 2005), and Coded Territories: Indigenous Pathways in New Media (University of Calgary Press, 2014).
Michelle LaVallee is Anishinaabe (Ojibway) and a member of the Neyaashiingmiing Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in Cape Croker, Ontario. She is also of English/Scottish/French descent through her mother. Prior to joining the Gallery, LaVallee held the position of Director of the Indigenous Art Centre at Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (Gatineau, QC), where she was responsible for the development, care, and management of Canada’s oldest and only federal heritage collection devoted to Indigenous art. She also worked as part of the federal department’s Corporate Secretariat management team, and led the Art Centre team towards greater stabilization in relation to human and financial resources, acquisitions and collection maintenance.
LaVallee has curated exhibitions for galleries including A Space Gallery (Toronto) and Gallery 101 (Ottawa), and most previously, she was curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan (2007–2017). Her curatorial work has frequently explored the colonial relations that have shaped historical and contemporary culture, through exhibitions including Moving Forward, Never Forgetting (2015); 13 Coyotes: Edward Poitras (2012); Blow Your House In: Vernon Ah Kee (2009); and Miss Chief: Shadow Catcher — Kent Monkman (2008).
LaVallee organized the historical and nationally touring exhibition 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (2013–2016), along with the award-winning companion book contextualizing the artists’ influential role in contemporary Canadian art history. Most recently she co-curated the touring exhibition Radical Stitch (2022-2024) with her colleagues Sherry Farrell Racette and Cathy Mattes, for the MacKenzie Art Gallery. She has been selected as a participant for a number of Canadian Indigenous curatorial delegations sent to Australia, New Zealand and Venice, and her curatorial work has been recognized through three Saskatchewan Book Awards, as well as the City of Regina Mayor’s Arts and Business Awards.
Senior Manager, Policy, Protocols and Strategic Initiatives
Reneltta Arluk is Inuvialuk, Dene, and Cree from the Northwest Territories, raised by her grandparents on the trap-line until school age. This early nomadic life provided Reneltta with the unique skill set to become the multi-disciplinary nomadic performing artist that she is.
She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Acting degree from the University of Alberta; becoming the first Indigenous woman and first Inuk to graduate from the program. For over twenty years, Reneltta has been part of or initiated the creation of Indigenous Theatre across Canada and overseas. In 2008, she founded Akpik Theatre, the only professional Indigenous Theatre company in the Northwest Territories.
Her previous position was as Director of Indigenous Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She was also responsible for developing and strengthening relationships with Treaty 6 Indigenous community members, and forging partnerships with non-Indigenous artistic institutions regionally, nationally and globally, all with the intention of creating space for Indigenous voice.
Reneltta will work with colleagues across the NGC to support Indigenous priorities with a focus on Indigenous communities, visitors, artists and other stakeholders. She will bring Indigenous centred worldviews into the gallery’s policy-making, and support engagement with Indigenous communities that ensures respectful, reciprocal and responsible relationships with them.
Associate Curator, Indigenous Art
Wahsontiio Cross is Kanien’kehá: ka from Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, Quebec. Bringing with her a wealth of experience and skills, she joined the Gallery in 2020 as an acting Associate Curator, working on projects that have included Movement: Expressive Bodies in Art and the 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition.
Cross is a PhD candidate in Cultural Mediations at Carleton University, where her research revolves around contemporary and historical Hotinonshón:ni (Haudenosaunee) beadwork and material culture. Her writing has been included in exhibition catalogues for Skawennati: From Skyworld to Cyberspace (McIntosh Gallery, 2019) and Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists (Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2019). Previously, she worked for the Ottawa Art Gallery, where she curated Michael Belmore And A.J. Casson: Nkweshkdaadiimgak Miinwaa Bakeziibiisan/Confluences and Tributaries and Wrapped in Culture, which recently returned from a tour of Australia.
Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow
Associate Curator, Historical Indigenous Art
Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow (she/her) is Anishinaabe and Kanien’kehá:ka, and a member of Whitefish River First Nation with maternal roots in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory. Born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, Nahwegahbow is the inaugural Associate Curator of Historical Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada, and is a PhD Candidate in Visual Culture at the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature Art and Culture at Carleton University.
She has experience working with historical belongings in art institutions internationally, and has worked with contemporary Indigenous artists on a range of creative and curatorial projects. She has a great love of stories and for the handmade. Her practices centre around visiting, relationality, care and customary arts.
Her current work at the National Gallery of Canada focuses on historical belongings, the work of contemporary Indigenous artists who are in dialogue with customary arts, the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries, the Re-Creation Project, and several upcoming temporary exhibitions.
Associate Curator, Inuit Art
Jocelyn Piirainen is an urban Inuk, originally from Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut. She has been living and working on Treaty 1 territory since 2019, when she was appointed Associate Curator of Inuit Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Qaumajuq.
Piirainen’s previous curatorial work includes recent collaborations with the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal on the exhibition ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home, and with the Asinabka film and media arts festival on NEON NDN: Indigenous Pop Art at SAW Gallery in Ottawa. In addition, she was a co-curator of the landmark exhibition Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2018.
Piirainen holds a B.A. from Carleton University with a major in Film Studies, and attended Algonquin College for Multimedia Development. Her writing has been featured in Canadian Art, Canadian Geographic and the Inuit Art Quarterly.
Curatorial Assistant, Indigenous Art
Ooleepeeka Eegeesiak is an Inuk/Qallunaaq writer and emerging curator. Her writing, curatorial, and visual art practices are centred around ecology, kinship, and climate change. Born in Iqaluit, Nunavut, she has lived in Treaty 7 for most of her life, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts – Indigenous Studies from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta. Ooleepeeka was previously Curatorial Assistant at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, primarily working with the Inuit art collection. As a newcomer to the Territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation, she intends to work in respect of these lands and traditions and is excited to start the new position at the National Gallery of Canada.
Lise Nadon was born in Ottawa, and was raised in Gatineau, Quebec. She has more than twenty-five years’ experience with the Canada Council for the Arts, including seventeen years as Senior Administrative Assistant for the Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples program. In that role, she coordinated and oversaw the logistics of several peer-assessment and advisory committees, partnerships, conferences, delegations of Indigenous artists and organizations for national and international events, as well as events for all Council staff.
Nadon has a college diploma in secretarial/administration from the College Larocque-Lafortune, and has worked as an administrative assistant in several Government of Canada offices, and in various departments at the University of Ottawa. She is also a Skate Canada Level 3 certified coach, which has allowed her to share her passion for the sport with young figure skaters for almost twenty years, in addition to running a sports study program for competitive skaters at the provincial, national and international levels.