Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists

Dana Claxton, Daddy's Gotta New Ride (2008), dye coupler print, 127 x 157.7 x 5.3 cm framed. NGC

Aboriginal artist Rosalie Favell says finding her place behind the camera—instead of in front of it—has “felt right” to her for a long time. But she says it was particularly gratifying as one of the 12 artists showcased in Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists, on display at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon until March 10. The 51 portraits, including two video installations, combine to make an exhibition that sends a powerful message about cultural survival, sovereignty and control.

There’s such a long history of Aboriginal people being photographed by non-Aboriginal people, and it’s often been used as a tool against them,” Favell says. “It has documented very sad things. One example is the residential school before-and-after photos, where they’d photograph a young person before they came in to the school, and then again afterwards when they had become assimilated.”

Favell says she began snapping pictures of her family at a very young age, while growing up in Winnipeg. She then branched out into other kinds of photography, including self-portraits, as a way of learning about her Métis heritage.

“It’s important that we show our own communities, because there are so many stereotypes that exist of what Native people are,” Favell says. “This way I get a little closer to the truth. You get depictions of real life, as opposed to fantasy.”

The show was co-curated by Steven Loft, the National Gallery of Canada’s first Curator-in-Residence, Indigenous Art; and Andrea Kunard, Assistant Curator at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. Both agree that Steeling the Gaze is about using portraiture—a European convention that controls the subject—to explode Aboriginal stereotypes and clichés.

“Some artists in the exhibition, like Arthur Renwick, are deliberately using the camera as a way to confront stereotypes rather aggressively,” Kunard says. “There are the big photographs of faces, where he asked the subjects to think of a stereotype and make a face at it, as a way to confront it and not be a victim of it.”

Other Aboriginal artists in Steeling the Gaze whose work was chosen from the National Gallery’s collection are: KC Adams, Carl Beam, Dana Claxton, Thirza Cuthand, Kent Monkman, David Neel, Shelley Niro, Greg Staats, Jeff Thomas, and Bear Witness.

Co-curator Stephen Loft, a Mohawk with Jewish ancestry, is now the Trudeau National Visiting Fellow at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“The history of Aboriginal people and photography in general is a very problematic relationship from very early on,” he says. “In the early twentieth century, there was this feeling that the Indian races were going to disappear because of their primitivism and inability to ‘civilize’ . . . of course we don’t go away, we don’t die, and Aboriginal people and artists take the camera into their own hands. Then the gaze shifts.”

Loft says Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal gallery-goers can expect to be challenged, surprised and amused by Steeling the Gaze.

“Art can be a real access point to examine and re-examine how we view each other. This show is about that.”



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