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
After 1992, the presence of Indigenous artists in museums became rarer. Some artists continued working on short-term, smaller exhibitions, but demand for their works decreased.
Even today there is no institution solely dedicated to disseminating contemporary Indigenous art in Québec. That’s why Indigenous artists and devotees have gotten together to create a parallel circuit based on their own networking.
As Durand explains: “It’s when you get together that you see the grandeur. I’ve noticed this in artists’ centres, self-administering centres that subsidize events. We’ve seen some institutions spring up on reserves, so it’s being built up. There are things being done, but slowly.”
The artists get their works seen where they can. Sonia Robertson, an artist, organized presentations at the Mashteuiatsh (a First Nations reserve in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region) campground; the film works of Rebecca Belmore could be found in the McCord Museum’s anthropology exhibit Porter son identité (wear your identity); other artists’ works have been exhibited at the Musée de la civilisation de Québec, at the Maison de la Culture Frontenac…
In 1992, Gerald MacMaster (a Cree artist and curator) evoked “the constant struggle you have to wage to get Indigenous art out from the backrooms of Canadian cultural institutions.” It seems as if this struggle is still ongoing.
Bringing People Together
Today a new problem is affecting the entire world: the environmental crisis. It’s a major worry that brings people together. Indigenous peoples are directly concerned by this evil. They actively fight pollution, the exhaustion of our resources, as well as intensive hunting and fishing.
Guy Sioui Durand explains: “Protecting the environment is a real fight for us. We defend the earth because it’s our first survival mode. Young people are interested in Indigenous persons because of this.”
To environmental problems we can add concerns about globalization, and identity crises around the world. Struggles have already begun to protect local and regional identities by battling cultural uniformity. After decades of fighting to retain their culture, Indigenous people know these causes well.
“It’s the environmental crisis and the societal crisis that are really interesting to Indigenous people and their art,” the sociologist explains.
Some Indigenous persons are embarrassed by how they’re drawn into these struggles. Durand expresses his frustration in being considered a “noble savage” at meetings and seminars. “Wherever the Indian goes, they want invented Indians, imaginary Indians, the noble savage who defends nature. They want the drumming, the spiritual and sacred side, that’s what we’re famous for.”
However, the numerous adherents to these causes allow for artists to be seen and heard more often. They fight for noble causes that concern us all.