Inspired Gathering: the International Indigenous Art of Àbadakone
When asked why, in the fall of 2013, I decided to relocate to Ottawa I would say “I came for Sakahàn, but I stayed for the after party.” I sensed something significant was happening here on the ancestral and unceded land of the Algonquin. Indigenous presence, as revealed through art, was everywhere you looked. The strength of the National Gallery of Canada's Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art exhibition was how it connected across many venues. On both sides of the river, one could encounter incredible and compelling contemporary Indigenous art, from the Canadian Museum of History (then the Museum of Civilization) and the Carleton University Art Gallery to Ottawa’s artist-run-centres, such as Gallery 101 and Galerie SAW Gallery (now the SAW Centre). These auxiliary locations provided the opportunity to meet both local and international artists circulating that summer, with friendships being formed that then extended and were nurtured over digital networks. Posting their experiences online, the artists created a digital archive of a critical moment of cultural transformation, one building on the momentum of the winter of #IdleNoMore. With Sakahàn – meaning “to light [a fire]” in Algonquin – a precedent was set with an exhibition format that brings more voices into the expanding circle of contemporary Indigenous art. Social media has been the accelerant.
The sparks spreading the algorithm of an international Indigenous arts community, and the collaborations produced since, are a powerful part of the ongoing legacy of an exhibition that gathered cultural provocateurs to the area. Now Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel, at the National Gallery of Canada, builds on the changes of the past six years – Àbadakone is Algonquin for “continuous fire.” There has been an increasing awareness around social justice movements, many ignited by hashtags such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, and this awareness has been facilitated by cultural institutions invested in the changing times and the publics they serve. Locally, Ottawa's physical cultural infrastructure has expanded providing the capacity for the National Capital Region to position itself as a cultural hub. And so, for all these reasons, the timing is good for another gathering.
In this exhibition, African artists join the expanding dialogue on Indigeneity as related to “ideas about identity and history.” As curator Greg Hill states, “Indigeneity has to be problematized wherever you are” and by entering into conversations with established as well as emerging artists from the African continent, the arts community at large will be enriched by what they offer.
Hill points out the intriguing work of emerging Nigerian artist Taiye Idahor, the way she has played with “presence and absence of the body.” Her lush collages of women’s wedding accoutrements swathed around faces strategically represented as voids are about “expressing identity both female and African within the broader contexts of history, tradition, memory and globalization,” she explains.
This theme of absence and presence is also evident in the work of Ottawa-based Anishinaabe artist Barry Ace. Nigik Makizinan – Otter Moccasins, the work selected for Àbadakone, are his 21st-century version of ones he saw in a 19th-century aquatint engraving by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer. This style of footwear, called trail dusters, often incorporated hide fringe or animal fur attached to the heel as a way to blur evidence of the wearer’s footprints. In Bodmer’s print, the trail dusters depicted were of those worn by the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Plains and upper Missouri River. In speaking with Ace, he commented, “I am referencing the impact of colonization, cultural change and erasure.”
The otter tail “moccasins”, however, are not without optimism for the future. They are embellished with electronic capacitors and resistors, a simile for energy that is released through the use of traditional medicines or during traditional dance, as reflected in the floral beadwork seen in regalia. They look to the past but also imply a future moment where an individual may step into the work to inhabit the space as an activating presence. The designer Fluevog “Swordfish” footwear was gifted to Ace by Anishinaabe artist Michael Belmore. This exchange, along with the decision to alter contemporary shoes, “demonstrates cultural continuity and a resistance to cultural stasis or erasure,” Ace shared. Nigik Makizinan – Otter Moccasins leaves an indelible imprint on the present.
South African artist Siwa Mgoboza also draws on tradition as a way to point forward. Building from the Renaissance’s notion of the Arcadia as a utopian space where the dichotomy between humans and the natural world falls away, Mgoboza inserts an Afrofuturist twist. Working with Hlubi mythologies he says “I reference the past and known iconography to imagine a future” which he names Africadia. He uses isiShweshwe fabric that, like the well-known Dutch wax cloth, has become a signifier of African-ness but is also leftover material culture that represents the entanglement of colonization. In his tableaus he cuts, stitches then joins together disparate pieces to bring into being “cosmological spaces,” as Hill refers to them. His work offers a portal where Mgoboza invites us to interface with a different, more just world where the heirarchies and priviledging of one gender, sex, race, religion and class are dissolved – a “neutral” space by which to encounter each other.
Revealing the creative process is a major focus in the exhibition. During Àbadakone, visitors will be able to view performances and artwork created in situ. Also, in the lead up to the opening, some of the participating artists have utilized the online space to provide a preview to their work as it is being created. Hill, along with fellow curator Rachelle Dickenson, have followed Sámi artist Fredrik Prost’s new work, Govadas, Shaman’s drum, unfolding on videos posted to his Instagram @fredrikprost. As with so much of the work featured in Àbadakone, Prost’s drum, constructed from pine burl, alder bark, soot and reindeer parts, is about cultural continuance in the face of colonial erasure. Conflating time and space, the digital platform brings the artist and audience into close proximity, providing us with an even deeper experience with the materials and tools.
Indigenous art has always been contemporary and in conversation with the current times and technology. Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel demonstrates this, as well as the diversity of Indigenous cultures with works by more than 70 artists identifying with almost 40 Indigenous Nations, ethnicities and tribal affiliations from 16 countries for this gathering curated by Hill, Dickenson and Christine Lalonde, with consulting curators Candice Hopkins, Ariel Smith and Carla Taunton and an international team of advisors.
Through unique programming, leveraging of digital spaces and the continuation of conversations started during Sakahàn, Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel once again brings the global to the local, showcasing the critical contribution of Indigenous artists and the potential of this area as a centre where art thrives and culture shifts.
Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from November 8, 2019 to April 5, 2020. Consult the Gallery's events listing for details of performances, conferences, lectures and events. The Gallery's programming also connects to other local venues and institutions, including the Ottawa Art Gallery and the Carleton University Centre for Transnational Cultural Analysis. See also the CBC Arts documentary In the Making featuring Inuk performance artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. 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.