Winnipeg Art Gallery
Opens Friday until Spring 2018
Free public opening: Friday, Sept. 22, 7-10 p.m.
Free Family Gathering event: Saturday, Sept. 23, 1-4 p.m. with guided tours at 1:30 and 3 p.m.
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/9/2017 (1408 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s Thursday afternoon, and a cacophony of hammers and power tools reverberates through the Winnipeg Art Gallery. There’s a hum of anticipatory excitement amid the organized chaos of a gallery changeover.
Pablo Picasso exhibits are coming down, and Insurgence/Resurgence is going up.
The significance of that imagery is not lost on Jaimie Isaac and Julie Nagam, the co-curators of what will be the WAG’s largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art ever. Nor was it lost on Kenneth Lavallee, one of the 29 Indigenous artists who will be featured in the show. His stunning 10-metre-by-12.5-metre work Creation Story adorns the outside of the building, taking the place of the gallery’s usual promotional banner.
"When he found out he was going on the outside of the building, his reaction was, ‘I can’t wait to take Picasso down and put me up,’" Nagam says. "The shift of power of that, and what that means for a local, Indigenous, contemporary artist to be on the front facade of the WAG."
Indeed, the exhibit, which opens tonight and runs through spring 2018, is a momentous, precedent-setting one. Covering more than 10,000 square feet, Insurgence/Resurgence is physically large. As Nagam says, the exhibit marks a radical shift and reclamation of space. Emerging-to-established contemporary Indigenous artists will show their boundary-pushing work in Western Canada’s oldest civic art gallery, in spaces usually dedicated to the Picassos of the world.
Excuse the pun, but that’s a big deal.
Over many late-night conversations, Isaac and Nagam — who have the easy shorthand of life-long best friends — thought hard about the imbalance of representation in solo and group shows in institutions across Canada. Whose voices aren’t being heard? They selected works from artists across nations, and were struck by how rich the contemporary Indigenous art scene is. "We selected until two weeks ago and we just really had to stop," Isaac says with a laugh.
But Insurgence/Resurgence also represents a sea change when it comes to who is making those curatorial decisions. In addition to co-curating this show, both Isaac and Nagam have ascended to influential roles within the organization; Isaac is the newly appointed curator of Indigenous and contemporary art at the WAG, while Nagam is the chair in the History of Indigenous Art in North America, a joint appointment with the University of Winnipeg and the WAG.
"We’re two female Indigenous curators/artists who have been given a lot of power, which doesn’t always happen," Nagam says. They’re also young; both women are in their 30s. "That’s radical in another aspect, in terms of thinking about the glass ceiling and where women get to take up space."
A few days after I met with Isaac and Nagam, the 2017 Emmy Awards were televised. Various wins by people of colour — Lena Waithe, Donald Glover and Riz Ahmed, to name a few — made history Sunday night. Those victories brought into sharp relief how the cultural landscape is changing. The voices that are being heard on Netflix, on the big screen, on stage, in books and, yes, in art galleries are finally becoming more diverse. So, too, are the gatekeepers — the curators, the editors, the show creators — who, come to think of it, don’t act much like gatekeepers at all.
To that end, it was important for Isaac and Nagam to include emerging artists in Insurgence/Resurgence. Artists such as Dee Barsy, whose vivid abstract My Four Grandmothers is featured prominently in the exhibition’s promotional materials.
"I feel honoured to be involved in the show," Barsy says. "I feel excitement for the future of Indigenous art, and that I get to be an emerging artist in this show."
The soft-spoken 30-year-old Winnipegger was thinking about grandmothers when she put brush to birch panel. One of her grandmothers died on Mother’s Day this year, and Barsy, who was adopted, met one of her birth grandmothers for the first time the year before. "When I met her, it was hugs and, ‘I love you.’ I wasn’t expecting that. I was thinking about my birth grandmothers and my adoptive grandmothers and how I’m so lucky to have so much love in my life, and the fact this person has remembered me for 30 years and has always loved me."
The powerful, and political, works in the exhibition span media, including beading, tufting, tattooing, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, sound and performance. Isaac says the lines between traditional and contemporary are blurred, and the show will challenge assumptions about what Indigenous art is.
Isaac and Nagam are also interested in public art, which is a big reason why Insurgence/Resurgence is not confined to any one gallery in the building.
"You can’t avoid the engagement," Isaac says. "It surprises you, which is really beautiful about public art."
Similarly, you can’t avoid Insurgence/Resurgence. "It was really effective in taking up space, holding space and making space for Indigenous artists who have, for so long, been denied access to contemporary art contexts," she says
In many ways, this exhibition will set the tone for the future.
"I think there’s only room to explore and experiment more," Isaac says. "Personally, in my role as Indigenous and contemporary art curator, I’m really wanting to reflect the voices in our community, which is diverse. I want to think about imbalance in institutions and representation of who they’re showing in solo shows and group shows. I want to support artists of colour in the community, support members of the LGBTQ2S community, and support more women’s shows."
Nagam, meanwhile, would love to see the creation of an Indigenous research centre and media lab, so that people are given the space and opportunity to explore different kinds of work.
"I’d like to see Winnipeg become the hub for contemporary Indigenous art," she says. "That means in all institutions. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s what I want to see happen."