Lucius R. O'Brien, Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity, 1880, oil on canvas, 90 x 127 cm, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts diploma work, deposited by the artist, Toronto, 1880. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Ten Things to Know About the New Canadian and Indigenous Galleries

The doors to the National Gallery’s newly transformed Canadian and Indigenous Galleries are about to open upon a magnificent display of art. With almost 800 works dating from 5,000 years ago to 1967, Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967 presents a new way of viewing the cultural riches of this land: through the integration of Canadian and Indigenous art.

As they enter the first room, visitors will notice more open spaces, bold wall colours, and airy display cases showcasing exceptional works. In addition to art familiar to regular NGC visitors, the reconfigured galleries will feature a wide range of paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs and decorative art objects new to these spaces.

William Brymner, A Wreath of Flowers, 1884, oil on canvas, 122.5 x 142.7 cm, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts diploma work, deposited by the artist, Ottawa, 1886. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Here are 10 interesting facts about the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.

Smudging ceremonies were held in the new galleries. 

Before the art works were installed in the newly renovated galleries, the spaces were filled with the sweet smell of burning sage in several smudging ceremonies done by members of Kitigan Zibi First Nation, on whose traditional territory the Gallery is located. Smudging is an ancient tradition used to cleanse and purify a room, object or person. An Elder holds a bowl or shell of burning sacred medicine plants, using an eagle’s feather to waft the smoke in the surrounding space.

Because the National Gallery’s collection of historical Indigenous art is relatively small, curators reached out to other museums and collectors, across the country and around the world, for temporary loans. Marven Tallio’s striking Raven Sun Transformation Mask, for example, is on loan from the Canadian Museum of History.


Regional diversity is recognized and celebrated.

Canada is a vast country that includes hundreds of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, two early settler cultures, and a rich history of immigration from around the world. Add highly variable geography, and you get diverse artistic output. From the Beothuk of Newfoundland to the West Coast Haida and Inuit sculptors across the Arctic, from Nova Scotia’s marine painters to Upper Canada’s landscape artists, and from Quebec’s Automatistes to the Regionalists of London, Ontario, broad cultural distinctions are reflected in the works on view.

Unknown (Inuit Artist), Man in Kayak, (c. 1900-1960)


In the Canadian Salon, paintings are hung almost floor to ceiling.

The introduction of the Salon style of display dates back to the 1670s, when the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris began mounting exhibitions at the Louvre of works by its students. In order to fit all of the paintings into the designated room, organizers had to fill the walls. Over the years, the Salon became a place where artists and their varied audiences mingled.

A display of paintings in a central room in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries is installed in Salon format. It celebrates the diversity of styles and subject matter of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Canadian painters such as William Brymner, Ozias Leduc, James Wilson Morrice and Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté.

In the centre of the Canadian Salon is an early twentieth-century birchbark canoe, on loan from the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario. Reflecting the importance of the wilderness to art of this period, the canoe is also a reminder of the contributions of Indigenous peoples to European exploration of this vast land.


The Koerner Atrium has been turned into a sculpture court.

One of the Gallery’s most beautiful spaces is the Michael and Sonja Koerner Family Atrium, which features a glass-bottomed pool and soaring skylights. Previously, only a few sculptures were dotted around the room. Now, a new floating wall on one side allows for a much larger display of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century bronze sculptures by Louis-Philippe Hébert and Alfred Laliberté, as well as Michael Belmore’s 2015 installation, Lost Bridal Veil. It is a perfect place to contemplate art in the round.


Women artists are given their due.

In his book accompanying the opening of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, National Gallery Director and CEO Marc Mayer laments the neglect of Canada’s first women artists in its history books. He writes, “The canonical version usually ignores the astonishing work of the highly skilled nuns who also decorated Canada’s early colonial churches. They were clearly more competent in their artistry than their brethren priests who, for the most part, improvised as painters and sculptors.” Mayer traces this segregationist tendency to the Renaissance, when painting and sculpture were promoted as the most serious art forms, at the expense of the decorative arts practised by women.

In an effort to set the record straight, the Gallery has put women artists at the centre of several displays. The exquisitely embroidered altar cloth by Marie Lemaire des Anges, on loan from the Musée des Ursulines in Quebec City, is a superb example, with its ornate swirls of gold and silver thread. In addition, an entire room has been largely dedicated to women artists of Montreal’s Beaver Hall Group — notably Prudence Heward, Anne Savage and Sarah Robertson — while also featuring a monographic presentation on Emily Carr. Nearby, a display of footwear on loan from the Bata Shoe Museum highlights the skilled beadwork of Indigenous women artists, including Dogrib artist Margaret Football, Joan Elise Tsetso of the Fort Simpson Band, and Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty of the Assiniboine Sioux.

Prudence Heward, Girl on a Hill, 1928, oil on canvas, 101.8 x 94.6 cm. Purchased 1929. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Indigenous languages are used in exhibition texts.

For many of the Indigenous works of art, labels appear not only in English and French, but also in the language of the artist’s community, be it Anishnaabe, Blackfoot, Gwich’in or many others.


Art objects representing the Potlatch are displayed alongside paintings from the Royal Canadian Academy.

Shortly after Confederation, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded as an official organization, designed to promote the highest level of artistic achievement in the country. Around the same time, the Canadian government introduced a ban on certain key Indigenous ceremonies, such as the Potlatch — traditionally an important platform for the creation and use of outstanding works of art. Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald viewed such ceremonies as hindrances to the “civilization” and assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous artists either went underground or found ways to produce art for growing tourist markets.

In the new galleries, works of art from the Potlatch are brought back into the story of late-nineteenth-century art, presented alongside work by the academicians.


Tom Thomson’s rich sky studies have a wall of their own.

Not only does 2017 mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, but it also marks 100 years since the death of Tom Thomson. A wall in one of the rooms is designed to commemorate the artist with a selection of his late work, including the iconic painting The Jack Pine (1916–1917). The opposite wall is filled entirely with Thomson’s beautiful sky studies: small oil paintings on Masonite that were done en plein air.

Tom Thomson, Sunset Sky, 1915, oil on grey wood pulp board, 21.6 x 26.7 cm. Purchased 1918. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC


Inuit sculptures and Borduas meet again.

Inuit art has been collected and exhibited at the National Gallery since the 1950s, when it first came onto the art market. Until now, however, the Gallery has presented it as separate from mainstream Canadian art. Now, Inuit sculptures, works on paper and videos are installed alongside the abstract works that other Canadian artists were producing at the same time. For Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Indigenous Art, the juxtaposition evokes a dynamic era in Canadian art: “We’re presenting the art work as it was at that time,” she told NGC Magazine. “Walking down the street in Montreal, you might have seen a Borduas in one gallery window, and a sculpture by Johnny Inukpuk in the next.”

Nearby are the intriguing Modernist photographs of Vancouver artist John Vanderpant and other mid-century practitioners. Indeed, works by some of this country’s most significant photographers are integrated throughout the galleries. From studio portraits by the prolific William Notman to early expedition photographs and works by the war photographer William Rider-Rider, the images help to provide a more complete narrative of art in Canada.  


Film-based works are shown in a black-box space.

In the 1960s, Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow and Norman McLaren experimented in various media, including film. Visitors can experience some of these works in a special screening room. A nearby space focuses on paintings and installations by Wieland and Snow — two of the most significant Canadian artists of the postwar period.



In an interview with NGC Magazine, Katerina Atanassova, the Gallery’s Senior Curator of Canadian Art spoke of the vision for this ambitious reinstallation project: “The goal was to make the national collection more relevant and accessible to 21st-century audiences, to allow for more open dialogue — not just about the works in our collection, but also about the history of the arts in Canada. If you’re a novice, if you come here for the first time, it’s important that you not feel intimidated, that you can appreciate the art even if you don’t read the labels, even if you just take it as a visual experience and just contemplate the art. It’s as simple as that.”

For Kitigan Zibi Elder Verna McGregor, the new galleries offer an opportunity for visitors to learn more about Indigenous culture. “Over the next 150 years,” she told the Magazine after a smudging ceremony, “hopefully, we can become better informed.”

Without a doubt, this re-visioning of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries is a powerful way to enrich visitors from around the world with a better understanding of the diverse cultural heritage of this land.


Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967 opens in the NGC’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries Thursday June 15 in a free all-day celebration, from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm.

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