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Sakahan exhibit aims to ‘explode the box’ of aboriginal art in Canada

Detail of Rebecca Belmore Fringe, 2008 Cibachrome transparency in fluorescent lightbox (ed. 2/3). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo

The knock on Sakahan – Algonquin for "to light a fire" – will be, of course, that it ghettoizes "aboriginal" or "native" or, as the National Gallery of Canada prefers, "indigenous art."

If so, it's a mighty capacious ghetto, not just for Sakahan's stature as the biggest single exhibition in the NGC's 130-year history (more than 150 works! 80-plus artists!) but for its scope (art from 16 countries on six continents, including India, Taiwan, Brazil and Mexico) and, most importantly, the astonishing variety of art presented, most of it made in the past 10 years.

This isn't to say Sakahan stints on depictions of the myriad, often cruel legacies of the heritage that has shaped most indigenous societies since their initial contact with European colonizers.

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For that, look no further than Nadia Myre's interpretation, in beads of bloody red and white, of the first five chapters of Canada's Indian Act. Or Edward Poitras's installation, 2,000 Pounds of Rope, commenting on the 1885 hanging of Louis Riel, or the 300-plus blankets Portland's Marie Watts has piled into a towering column that echoes both the construction of a totem pole and the Mohawks who helped erect Manhattan's skyline.

But it's decidedly neither a one-note show nor a cross-cultural, quasi-ethnographic demonstration of tradition maintenance. In fact, there's much sass and wit and agency here. "This is first and foremost contemporary art," notes Candice Hopkins, one of the show's three NGC curators (the others are Greg Hill, head of the gallery's indigenous art department since 2007, and Christine Lalonde), with all the eclecticism of medium, method and content that implies.

"The hope is that it will reframe the understanding of contemporary art by taking up the claims of inclusivity that contemporary art says it has," she said. At the same time, "by making it as global as we could," there's the intent of "exploding the box that aboriginal art in Canada can be placed in." Forget, in other words, Norval Morrisseau, Allen Sapp, Kenojuak Ashevak.

Sakahan announces its ambition (and distills many of its themes and challenges) in the very first piece in its opening salon. Called My Sister, My Self, it's a 2007 sculpture/installation work by the 45-year-old Maori artist Michael Parekowhai, purchased only last year by the NGC. It's of a seal, made from black fibreglass, balancing a white wooden stool on its nose. Atop the stool is a bicycle wheel. The stool and wheel are, of course, an art historical reference to Marcel Duchamp's famous 1913 "readymade," one of the ur-texts of Western modernism and conceptual art – except here Parekowhai has embraced the Maori craft tradition by making the stool and wheel rather than purchasing them, as Duchamp did.

Seals were once plentiful in New Zealand, venerated and hunted by the precontact Maoris (as the Inuit and Sami did in their respective indigenous climes), yet commercial exploitation of their fur and oil was the first European industry on the country's shores, setting in motion the mammals' virtual extinction by the early 20th century. Now they're more likely the stuff of concrete lawn ornaments.

For Greg Hill, the poise and complexity of My Sister, My Self is a "powerful and succinct illustration that indigenous artists don't work in a vacuum restricted to their own cultures. They're part of the modern world, too." And to insist that the most authentic indigenous art is (or has to be) traditional art "rooted in customary practice" is itself a kind of ghettoization. The creators in Sakahan aren't indigenous peoples aping the techniques and themes of contemporary art, but contemporary artists working out the ramifications of their indigineity. Indeed, one of the exhibition's most salutary effects likely will be the way it alerts the non-indigenous Western visitor to just how long he or she's been residing in the ghetto of Eurocentrism.

The NGC has big plans for Sakahan, not least its intention to mount an exhibition under its banner every five years from hereon. "This year we wanted to set the poles as wide as possible, change people's expectations of what indigenous art is," said Hopkins, "so that perhaps future exhibitions might focus on a specific area or region." For NGC CEO/director Marc Mayer, it's also about "giving the National Gallery a role in the pantheon of quinquennials. So you could call it the indigenous dOCUMENTA, if you want" – a reference to the now-famous international art fair, started in 1955, which runs every five years in Kassel, Germany.

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He added: "It's an exercise of empowerment [for artists] as well. You can't do that once; you have to do it repeatedly so that there's something to aspire to, to work toward, to be included in the pantheon of indigenous art every five years. I think we're the right country to play host to that exercise, the ideal country, in fact."

Sakahan: International Indigenous Art is at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa through Sept. 2. Other art institutions in the Ottawa-Gatineau region are mounting complementary exhibitions during its run. Visit gallery.ca/sakahan.

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