Ming Wu
Photo: Ming Wu

by Gowlene Selvavijayan

With Canada’s 150th celebrations underway, one Ottawa exhibit featuring seven Indigenous artists reminded Canadians of certain colonial realities. These realities extend far beyond Canadian Confederation’s 150-year history. They go hand-in-hand with the history our sesquicentennial celebrations do so little to acknowledge.

The KANATA 150? exhibit, a nod to the origin of the country’s name, was on display at Studio Sixty Six in the Glebe from January 12 to February 18. The exhibit explored a counter-narrative of Canadian Confederation by giving Indigenous artists a platform to reflect upon the festivities.

As Rose Ekins, gallery manager and curator at the emerging artist’s studio, mentioned on the Studio Sixty Six website, “Canada is a country built from settler colonialism, which leaves the question of how the Indigenous peoples of this land are meant to participate in these celebrations.”  This question inspired Ekins to organize the group show and reach out to emerging Indigenous artists of various backgrounds to share their thoughts on the celebrations.

“From what I can see, a lot of the events and celebrations do not include the entire history of Canada,” Ekins told the Leveller.

Ekins felt that the celebrations were simplistic — especially when colonization of the land began long before 1867 and the timeline of Indigenous people in Canada extends even further. “This is why the exhibit is so important,” she said.

Ekins said it was the best attended opening of the season, welcoming about 300 to 400 people, and resulted in early sales of four works of art by Indigenous artists.

Shelby Lisk, a Haudenosaunee artist who contributed to the exhibit, said she appreciates how the show questioned the way stories are told and histories are portrayed in Canada.

“I have always felt strange about patriotism as an Indigenous person living in a colonized nation,” Lisk said.

“I never want to make people feel bad and I realize that people will continue to celebrate Canada Day,” she added, “but even if they can take a few minutes out of their parties to think about how Indigenous people fit into the representations and celebrations of Canada, we can start to broaden the perspective and dialogue.”

Alexandre Aimée, a Métis Franco-Ontarian artist also involved in the exhibit, described art as a tool of communication that makes difficult subjects easier to express and vocalize through imagery.

“The exhibit started dialogue, which is important especially starting off this year,” she said.

According to Aimée, the opening night of the show welcomed an interesting medley of people — from government workers to artists, and lawyers to students.

“I think it is important to give platforms to the Indigenous artists of this land but also important that the other qualities they have to offer — like their wonderful artistic talent — should be made available much in the same way as are the talents of others,” said Ekins.

By adding these artists to the roster, Ekins said Studio Sixty Six intended to make artistic and cultural diversity the norm for the work shown and sold at the gallery and in Ottawa’s commercial art market as a whole.

Moving forward, however, amidst the upcoming official Canada 150 celebrations, Lisk urges Canadians to recognize the history they are celebrating.

“We need to make sure that we are not silencing the true history of the country and the Indigenous nations. We need to not use Indigenous imagery and traditions as tokens so that we can look like a ‘diverse and inclusive’ country with no race relation issues,” Lisk said.
“We need to ask Indigenous people how they want to be represented.”

This article first appeared in Vol. 9, No. 5 (February/March 2017).