Sakahàn: Lighting the Fire


Brian Jungen, Nicotine (2007), carved gallon gasoline jug. Private collection, London © Brian Jungen Studio. Photo courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, NY

Opening on 17 May, Sakahàn will feature more than 150 works by over 80 contemporary artists from around the world, making it the largest-ever global survey of contemporary Indigenous art. The varied media include painting, photography, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, video, performance art and outdoor installations.

The exhibition will fill a good portion of the Gallery with eye-catching and sometimes massive works, such as the giant “surprise tarp” that will envelop the exterior of the Great Hall, and the 50-metre-long banner, Earth and Sky (2013), by Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden, which hangs above the colonnade ramp.

Sakahàn will even pop up in other parts of the city. In the Byward Market a billboard will display Terrance Houle’s Urban Indian (2006), a series of photographs depicting the artist dressed in powwow regalia and going about his daily, very metropolitan life.

Co-curator Candice Hopkins explains the unusual scale: “Some of the works in the exhibition are the largest in the NGC collection, or the largest ever commissioned by the Gallery. And that was one of our intentions from the outset: to show works that would challenge viewers’ expectations, because of their scale and their deep social narrative and meaning.”

Many of the works in the show bear visible traces of  craftsmanship. Identity 1 (2011) by Toru Kaizawa is a wooden sculpture representing a zippered jacket lined with Ainu motifs. Artists such as Venkat Raman Singh Shyam display an economy of means, but not of drama: his precise drawing of the 2008 terrorist attack at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai renders the horror in stylized billows of smoke. Still other works are highly elaborate, such as Aniwaniwa (2007) by Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena, which consists of five videos projected from large ceiling-mounted vessels recalling carved wakahuia, or Māori treasure boxes.

Marja Helander, Kärsämäki  (2010) from the series Dark, pigment print on aluminum, in frame with glass. Collection of the artist © Marja Helander. Photo: Courtesy the artist 

Graham and Rakena are among the many artists in Sakahàn who make reference to deeply rooted beliefs while exploring contemporary ideas. Marja Helander’s Kärsämäki (2010) is an eerie nighttime image of a deserted gas station. The illuminated structure of the gas bar resembles a space ship preparing to launch, while a globe light could be a distant star. Helander has based her photograph on the Sámi conception of Nature as sacred, and as bound to place, such as a mountain or prominent stone in the landscape. With Kärsämäki, the artist proposes that even a decidedly spiritless structure can be transformed into a mysterious ceremonial site. At the same time, the absence of any human figures, the suggestion of ecological destruction, and the sci-fi atmosphere warn of post-apocalyptic ruin.

Among the other artists featured in the exhibition are such well-known names as Rebecca Belmore, Brian Jungen, Annie Pootoogook and Tim Pitsiulak (Canada); Jimmie Durham and Marie Watt (U.S.); Teresa Margolles (Mexico); and Michael Parekowhai and Fiona Pardington (New Zealand). Also included are a number of artists who have not yet received widespread exposure in North America, such as Kaizawa (Japan), Shyam (India), and Outi Pieski (Finland).

Sakahàn  means “to light [a fire]” in the language of the Algonquin peoples. As Elder Albert Dumont tells us, the lighting of a fire at the beginning of a ceremony “brings greater sacredness to a place.” Such a rich and dynamic exhibition will certainly ignite visitor interest in what promises to be one of the highlights of this year’s international exhibition calendar.

Sakahàn is co-curated by Greg Hill, the NGC’s Audain Curator of Indigenous Art, Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Indigenous Art, and Candice Hopkins, the Elizabeth Simonfay Guest Curator, with the support of an international team of curatorial advisors. The exhibition is on view at the National Gallery from 17 May to 2 September 2013.

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