Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Many-Sided Story

My article on "Our Masterpieces, Our Stories" at the National Gallery of Canada is on newsstands this winter, appearing in issue 144 of Border Crossings. The article gives an account of the gallery's most comprehensive attempt at telling the narrative of Canadian art: all of the Canadian art galleries, including the historical and the contemporary, as well as the temporary exhibition galleries and the Canadian Photography Institute were included. Extensive renovations to the Historical Canadian and Indigenous Galleries and other improvements throughout the building made it the biggest investment in the gallery since the new building opened in 1988. Any visitor to the National Gallery in the summer of 2017 then had the opportunity to get a crash course in Canadian Art and History from time immemorial to the present. There were many more opportunities for in-depth research, reflection and digression. One issue that is of crucial importance, and relevant to broader conversations happening in the country right now, is the display of Indigenous artworks in the gallery.

At the entrance to the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries: From Time Immemorial to 1967 the approach to the inclusion of work by Indigenous artists that will be taken throughout is established, and there are two main points that are reinforced: One, that there is a clear link or continuity of tradition between contemporary Indigenous artists and the Indigenous artists who have been practicing their art since time immemorial in this land; and two, there was a disruption in that continuity after the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries. The clearest representation of these two ideas is expressed in the painting/sculptural installation by Luke Parnell, A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design (2007). Parnell’s work comprises a series of eleven wooden planks that feature a formline design that would be continuous if it were not for the gaps between the planks. Reading the image from left to right offers an encapsulation of a turbulent history and registers the negative impact of colonization on First Nations in Canada. Clearly delineated in the first plank, the design becomes increasingly distressed until finally completely obscured with whitewash in the centre panel, representative of the forced assimilation of colonial rule. Slowly the whitewash fades and the formline design reemerges clearly delineated again in the last panel, as distinct as in the first. On a visit to the exhibition, the strongest impact is made by works such as Parnell's that disrupt the placid proceedings from gallery to gallery.

For the complete article, check out Border Crossings 144, available at the finest bookstores, newsstands, and libraries near you.

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