A Visual History of Contemporary Indigenous Art: the collection of the Indigenous Art Centre

Cover of The Indigenous Art Collection. Selected works 1967–2017, with cover image Faye HeavyShield, slivers, 2010. Mixed media, 236.22 x 243.84 x 3 cm. Collection of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. © Faye HeavyShield. Photo Lawrence Cook


In the lobby of a large government office tower in Gatineau, Quebec, visible across the river from the National Gallery of Canada, is an art gallery that holds “the most important living art collection of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada”, according to a new book called The Indigenous Art Collection: Selected works 1967–2017. In this first major monograph of this extensive collection, the current and former directors of the Indigenous Art Centre chronicle the fascinating history of a collection that began in 1965 when a young Alex Janvier, hired as a cultural advisor, encouraged the federal Department of Indian Affairs to support Indigenous artists and purchase Indigenous art. The Indian Art Program and the Indian Art Collection were born.

More than 50 years later, the Indigenous Art Collection encompasses more than 4000 works by 838 artists. According to former director Viviane Gray, who oversaw the centre from 1989 to 2010, it is “one of the best public educational resources for scholars of Canadian Indigenous art and one of the most popular lending collections for contemporary Indigenous art exhibitions.” The National Gallery of Canada and most major art galleries across Canada have borrowed works from the collection for various exhibitions, including the NGC’s first exhibition of contemporary First Nations art in 1992, titled Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada. Over the past 30 years, the Indigenous Art Centre developed more than 40 exhibitions, assisted in almost 50 Artist-in-Residence exhibitions and lent more than 1200 works of art to galleries, museums and art centres.

Eric A. Robertson, Bearings and Demeanours, 1990. Mixed media, overall 243.8 x 243.8 x 121.9 cm. Collection of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. @ Eric A. Robertson. Photo Lawrence Cook


The centre participated in Canada’s centenary celebrations in 1967 when several Indigenous artists were invited to paint murals for the Indian Pavilion at Expo ’67, but at the time very few institutions were interested in contemporary Indigenous art. The Department of Indian Affairs originally supported Indigenous art for “economic and community development” purposes. In the early 1960s, Inuit art had “captured the attention of art dealers and art galleries” and while First Nation contemporary art did have audiences and showings, the country's public galleries and museums were slow to take notice. The National Gallery of Canada only purchased its first work of contemporary First Nations art in the mid-1980s with Carl Beam’s The North American Iceberg (1986).

Originally there was an Indian Art Collection and an Inuit Art Collection, but by 1989 the federal government discontinued its Inuit exhibits program and transferred its Inuit art collection to various institutions across northern and southern Canada. The current Indigenous Art Collection does contain work by Inuit artists, however, and Inuit art continues to be purchased for the collection.

Annie Pootoogook, Watching the Simpsons, 2006. Coloured pencil on paper, overall 33.5 x 45 cm. Collection of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. © Dorset Fine Arts. Photo Lawrence Cook


The Indigenous Art Collection is unique in that, since its origins in the 1960s it has always been “created for, and managed by, Indigenous art professionals”. Over the years, this has caused varying levels of consternation among the federal government bureaucrats obliged to oversee and support it. Considering it was the federal Department of Indian Affairs (now Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and Indigenous Services Canada) that was the government’s key tool of colonialism and of assimilation, responsible for “Indians and land set aside for Indians”, it is quite remarkable that the Indigenous Art Collection, with works that often and clearly challenge this very colonialism, exists at all and this makes the collection so interesting. 

The selection of the 150 works of art for this book was through an Indigenous-led process. Paring down the final choice from more than 4000 works was the task of a ten-member selection committee, chaired by Mohawk curator Lee-Ann Martin. The committee assessed the works based on criteria such as artistic merit, relevance to the Indigenous Art Collection, significance to contemporary Indigenous art history, gender and representation of the diverse mediums, techniques and practices. As a result, the book contains a rich diversity of works – from carved masks such as Henry Hunt’s Kingfisher Mask (1980) to Eric Robertson’s mixed media Bearings and Demeanors (1990) to Raven Steals the Light, a graphite on paper work by Bill Reid and Moosehair Tufting with Floral Design (1988) by Métis artist Sarah Carr.

Henry Hunt, Kingfisher Mask, 1980. Acrylic on cedar, 55 x 48 x 43 cm. Collection of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. Estate of Henry Hunt. Photo Lawrence Cook


Every significant Indigenous contemporary artist is represented in this book. There is Norval Morrisseau’s Androgyny (1989), a massive masterpiece that depicts the Anishinaabe worldview with water, earth and sky worlds along with the underworld. Annie Pootoogook’s Watching the Simpsons (2006) captures a unique contemporary view on Inuit life, and Christi Belcourt’s iconic flower beadwork painting style is evident in This Painting is a Mirror (2012).There are dozens of other diverse art forms representing all regions of Canada.

The Indigenous Art Collection; Selected Works 1967–2017 allows the artwork to speak for itself. Works are arranged alphabetically by artist, but no artist biographies or critiques or analyses of the works have been added. Each work is given its own page, allowing readers to linger over the details and the vibrant colours and stories. The book chronicles the history of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada and, in the words of Viviane Gray, “the Indigenous Art Collection is a powerhouse of important objects that is a legacy for future generations … and a positive example of Indigenous public arts administration in the Canadian public service.”


The Indigenous Art Collection: Selected works 1967–2017, published by the Indigenous Art Centre, is available at the NGC Boutique of the National Gallery of Canada. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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