Ursula Johnson, Museological Grand Hall, 2014. Hand-cut and sandblasted images; 8 hand-assembled acrylic vitrines of various sizes with custom-made birch face plinths. Installation dimensions variable. Collection of the Artist. © Ursula Johnson Photo: NGC.

Art, Language and Self-Determination in Àbadakone

Artists have an astounding ability to make the intangible visible. The title of the National Gallery of Canada’s current exhibition Àbadakone translates to “continuous fire.” This phrase can take on several meanings, but it is intended to refer symbolically to a ceremonial fire, or the concept of Indigenous peoples’ persistence and survival; it also refers to the individual creative fires burning inside each artist in the exhibition. One of the themes of the exhibition is Art as Self-determination: art is being used as a tool in the revival and resurgence of cultural traditions and knowledge, despite our cultures being threatened. For Indigenous peoples, our languages are especially at risk of disappearing. Due to generations of spiritual, educational, social and cultural interference and oppression, we have a gap in first-language speakers in our communities. In my own community, Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, for example, there is an urgency to learn all we can from our first-language speakers, as most are elderly and once they have passed on, the knowledge they hold will disappear.

Our languages mean more to us than speech; contained within our words is encoded knowledge relating to ways of seeing and understanding the universe. There is a need for higher visibility of Indigenous languages, including resources for language reception and availability. In Canada, this is finally being recognized at a policy level: Heritage Canada has also implemented a new program to help revive Indigenous languages, part of the Indigenous Languages Act, which received Royal Assent on June 21, 2019. Also, the year 2019 was declared by the United Nations to be the Year of Indigenous Languages.  Only time will tell if these actions will evoke real change.

Installation view, Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2019–20, showing Joi T. Arcand, ᐆᑌᓃᑳᓅᕁ (ōtē nīkānōhk), 2018 © Joi T. Arcand and Jordan Bennett, Tepkik, 2018–19, commissioned by Brookfield Place, Toronto, produced by Pearl Wagner Media & Art Consultants. © Jordon Bennett. Photo: NGC

Upon entering the Gallery, Joi T. Arcand’s piece ōtē nīkānōhk welcomes the viewer with words in nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree [y-dialect]) printed in fluorescent-coloured vinyl and applied directly to the surface of the ramp leading up the colonnade. According to Statistics Canada, Cree is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada. Knowing this, it makes sense to have Cree words as the first visible language welcoming visitors. Arcand makes a point of highlighting her language in this way, and it has double-meaning: for Indigenous visitors to feel encouraged by seeing an Indigenous language in a public space, giving hope to reclaiming our languages; and for settlers and newcomers, it challenges them to recognize Indigenous languages as a part of their place, in this case, Canada.

Sayo Ogasawara, Aynu-go Karuta (detail), 2010. 43 cards; wood, textile, thread, 7.6 × 12.7 cm each. Collection of the National Museum of Japanese History, Sakura, Chiba, Japan. © Sayo Ogasawara. Photo: NGC

Exhibited in Àbadakone, Sayo Ogasawara’s Aynu-go Karuta (Ainu language playing cards) demonstrates the artist’s ongoing efforts to revive Ainu cultural practices and language. Originating from parts of Japan, including Hokkaido, the Ainu were only formally recognized as an Indigenous group by the Japanese government in 2008. Despite this, there has been a movement over the last few decades to revive Ainu language and cultural practices, with Ogasawara playing an active part in revitalizing traditional dance and folk tales. Aynu-go Karuta is one such project: the 43 cards feature embroidered and appliquéd motifs traditional to Ainu designs as well as figurative images, each with the corresponding word in Ainu.

Ursula Johnson, Small Sideways Jikiji’j : from the series Museological Grand Hall (detail), 2014. Hand cut and sandblasted images; 8 hand-assembled acrylic vitrines of various sizes with custom-made birch face plinths. Installation dimensions variable. Collection of the Artist. © Ursula Johnson. Photo: NGC

Memory and encoded knowledge are subjects that are explored in Ursula Johnson’s abridged version of her Museological Grand Hall series – eight vitrines with diagrams of baskets and descriptive words in Mi’kmaq, hand cut and sandblasted onto the four sides of each hand-assembled case. This piece was originally part of a larger installation, Mi’kwite’tmn (Do you Remember?). The baskets she has chosen to represent are ones made by her great-grandmother, Caroline Gould. Johnson subverts traditional static museological displays by presenting object-less vitrines. Here, there is knowledge contained in the words, in the process of making and in the absent baskets themselves. The act of basket-weaving is related to meditation and repetition, from the harvesting of the ash trees, to cutting the splints, to dyeing and weaving. The endangered knowledge is related not to the form of the baskets but to the materials, whose sources lie in nature – the lack here is knowledge of nature, something that was once essential in Mi’kmaq culture.

In the final room, the viewer encounters the work of Ngai Tahu artist Peter Robinson. Defunct Mnemonics references a set of Maõri spirit sticks in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. 126 individual pieces made from coloured felt wrapped around wooden dowels. The sticks are different lengths, with designs arranged in varying patterns and colour blocks in red, white, black, and grey. Set around the walls of the room, some are standing, others are arranged on the floor. The designs and the positions of the sticks themselves allude to Maõri visual language as well as binary and genetic code, blending cultural, scientific and aesthetic concepts into the highly materialized work. The origins of spirit or memory sticks are related to ritual/ceremonial practices in Maori cultures and used as a mnemonic aid in recounting tribal genealogies and histories, and ceremonial speeches.

What is demonstrated through these works is the idea that art can be used to reclaim and revitalize cultural knowledge and language. Art is creating for us the space to safely rediscover who we are and re-learn the teachings that were denied to previous generations. Many of the atrocities carried out against Indigenous peoples were centered around language and traditional knowledge: remove the words, and the concepts and practices behind them will disappear as well. There is hope that through reviving our languages we could regain much more than vocabulary – here’s to stoking that fire towards a future that burns bright with Indigenous knowledge.


Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel is scheduled at the National Gallery of Canada until August 23, 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

Jordan Bennett – Under the Stars

About the Author