Detail from Rebecca Belmore’s “Tower,” of clay and shopping carts, created on site at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. TORONTO — A group of visitors young and old gathered at the Art Gallery of Ontario in front of a well-known Canadian painting the docent called “Church in Yuquot Village.”
It was a peaceful 1929 image by a national figure, Emily Carr, showing a Mowachaht/Muchalaht settlement she had visited on Vancouver Island. The docent was careful to talk about Carr’s close relationship with “the First Nations,” the popular term in Canada for indigenous people.
What she didn’t mention was the fact that the Art Gallery of Ontario — one of Canada’s most distinguished art museums — had recently renamed Carr’s painting, originally titled “Indian Church,” saying that the old terminology ‘‘denigrates and discriminates.’’
The action was lauded by some — the art critic for The Toronto Star said the change “pays respect both to the artist and the people she so admired” — and attacked by others as unnecessary political correctness. “I got a lot of angry emails,” Georgiana Uhlyarik, the museum’s curator of Canadian art, said. “People felt they were losing something.” Ms. Belmore, left, and Wanda Nanibush, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario who helped drive the museum’s decision to remove the word “Indian” from artworks and devote nearly one third of the museum space to indigenous artists. Both are members of the Anishinaabe people. The docent had been coached on her language by Wanda Nanibush, the museum’s curator of indigenous art, who, along with Ms. Uhlyarik, drove the decision to change the painting’s title. “That woman did a course with me,” Ms. Nanibush said. Nodding in approval, she added, “She got it.”
In her two years as a full-time curator at the museum, Ms. Nanibush has become one of the most powerful voices for indigenous culture in the North American art world — a realm in which Canada has carved a distinct, and influential, approach. Partly because of her efforts, nearly one-third of the Art Gallery of Ontario is now devoted to indigenous artists, including a show by the multimedia artist Rebecca Belmore, “Facing the Monumental,” which opened Thursday, July 12.
“Canada is way ahead when it comes to indigenous topics,” said Kathleen Ash-Milby, a member of the Navajo Nation and a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian , in Lower Manhattan.
While native and indigenous artists remain underrepresented in mainstream institutions, academia, and museums in the United States, Canada’s efforts may be inspiring greater social awareness and responsibility from Denver to Montclair, N.J., and New York, according to arts leaders.
John Lukavic, the curator of Native arts at the Denver Art Museum, said Canadian institutions were shifting the discussion in his field. “This art has been overlooked,” Mr. Lukavic said. “I very much appreciate what they are doing.”
IN TORONTO, Ms. Nanibush and Ms. Uhlyarik have gone well beyond renaming one painting. At the Art Gallery of Ontario’s J.S. McLean Center for Indigenous and Canadian Art, which they program, they have rendered wall texts for all the works first in the language of the Anishinaabe, one of the oldest North American languages. (Anishinaabe is a collective term for related peoples including the Ojibwe and the Algonquin.) English is the second language, followed by French. The action recognizes that people with First Nation heritage — who number more than 1.5 million currently throughout Canada — were the original occupiers of the land here.
The moves are part of resisting “the inclusion model, which is where we’re just kind of shoved in there with something that already exists,” […]
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