|Iluliaq by Silis Høegh|
Last week I went to see the international exhibition of indigenous art at the National Gallery, entitled Sakahán, which is an Algonquin word, apparently, meaning "light a fire." It is meant to challenge our preconceptions, and does that to a troubling extent.
The exhibition has little to do with decorated wampums or dot paintings from Australia depicting lizards. This was thoroughly modern art, served with a twist of anger. Not only are the aboriginal artists saying to us how dare you treat our people like this? but also, how dare you see us like this? One abstract painting by Richard Bell had bold words emblazoned over it: I AM NOT A NOBLE SAVAGE! Unsurprisingly, a recent exhibition of his art in Australia was called Uz Vs. Them.
I found many of the exhibits upsetting and alien. This is difficult art, although the message often comes across quite clearly. Here's a video of an interview with the Australian artist Vernon Ah-Kee about his work, "Cant Chant".
There were several other video installations. One was a surrealistic sequence of images relating the story of people who were taken to dance their native dances at the French king's court and who succumbed to smallpox, whose souls make a journey home after their death (the lower part of the frames could be seen either as prone bodies covered with a deadly rash or waves or hills at sunset––my interpretation). In another part of the gallery, bubble screens were installed overhead in a dark room where viewers could lie down on dark mattresses to watch images of people going about their traditional occupations underwater, amongst the water weeds... their homes having been flooded to make a reservoir.
Beside a large number of Canadians, indigenous artists from the USA, Mexico, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Colombia, Taiwan, Japan, Norway, the Dominican Republic, Denmark and Greenland are featured. Interestingly a large percentage of them live and work in cities, these days, not the remote wilds.
I must admit that after an hour of exposure to this kind of art, leaving the gallery via the British neo-romantics and the German/Flemish renaissance paintings felt to me like returning home. But it is no bad thing to be disturbed. I must pay Sakahán another visit.
The cover placed over the National Gallery tower this summer, by the way, not only conceals the scaffolding while repair work is being done; it is also a work of art that's part of this exhibition. It is by the Inuk artist Silis Høegh, from Greenland, and represents a melting iceberg.