“My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” – Louis Riel, Métis leader, 1885
After a period of resistance and survival during which it was illegal – among other things – for Indigenous persons to practice their traditions, the artists awoke. Their works began to appear in museums for the first time in the mid-20th century. The expertise of Wendat sociologist, art historian, art curator and activist Guy Sioui Durand opens the door for us to better understand the singular dissemination of their distinctive and astonishing art.
By Flora Lassalle
What is Indigenous Art?
Indigenous art is characterized by the artists’ consciousness of their heritage and by their drive to make it known to a wider audience. It’s impossible to talk about a single type of Indigenous art, because of the great diversity among Indigenous nations and peoples. This enormous diversity is reflected in their works and practices. For example, Inuit sculpture isn’t found among the Métis or the First Nations. Indigenous art is therefore a generic term that covers a multitude of creations.
Contrary to western contemporary art, there is no gap between crafts and contemporary (modern) art among the Indigenous. Their wisdom and know-how is integrated into their works, often as symbolic elements that can be interpreted by those who know Indigenous culture and esthetic principles. Connections with animal spirits, nature, crafts and ancestral techniques can be found throughout Indigenous artworks.
In the musical sphere, it could be the use of drumbeats to represent the beating heart and the pulsations of Mother Earth. In the plastic and the visual arts, we note the frequent use of the circle (symbol of the four cardinal points, the seasons, life…), feathers, traditional embroidery, dreamcatchers, etc.
Despite these deep roots in their culture, artists often transmit universal messages concerning our way of living collectively, the environment, representations of history…
Dissemination in a Time of Crisis
The summer of 1990 was marked by the Oka Crisis, during which the Mohawk people, joined by other Amerindian communities, rebelled against the Mayor of Oka (a town in Québec) who decided to expand a golf course onto their ancestral burial ground.
During this crisis, violent armed conflicts pitted the S.Q. and the Canadian Army against the Mohawk Warrior Society from Kanesatake and Kahnawake.
The exhibit “Art contemporain 90 : savoir-vivre, savoir-faire, savoir-être” part of “Les Cent jours de l’art contemporain” (the hundred days of modern art) of the CIAC (Centre International d’art contemporain, meaning the international modern art centre) was underway as the conflict erupted. The Métis artist Domingo Cisneros, who participated in the exhibition, barricaded his installation as a sign of support for the Mohawks.
The Oka Crisis created a huge rift between Indigenous Quebecers and the rest of the population. The federal government tried to heal the wounds by setting up museum exhibits and events promoting Indigenous art. That effort produced exhibitions such as L’Oeil Amérendien: Regards sur l’animal (The Amerindian eye: a look at the animal) at Québec City’s Museum of Civilization; Solidarity: Art after Oka at Ottawa’s SAW Gallery in May of 1991; and Art Mohawk 92 at Montreal’s Strathearn Centre in January of 1992.
These events permitted Indigenous artists affected by the Oka Crisis to express themselves, to popularize their art, and to be seen by a wider public by being exhibited in well-recognized venues.
Indigenous arts are more prominent during crises and conflicts opposing indigenous peoples and other Canadians. Guy Sioui Durand says: “When there is a crisis, when people don’t understand each other, artists have a lot of work, because art explains the world, it is peaceful.”