Installation shot, Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967, 2017, National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Christina Williamson.
Inuit Art in Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967
National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa)
As part of the Canada 150 celebrations taking place across the country, several national museums in Ottawa have overhauled their permanent exhibitions. For its part, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) has rehung the Canadian Galleries, now known as the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, as part of a show of support for the reconciliation movement sparked by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). NGC touts the new permanent exhibitions--Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967, which encompasses art made in Canada from 5,000 years ago to today, and Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present—as a significant shift for the institution.
First Nations and Métis art were introduced into the Canadian Galleries in 2003 as part of the permanent exhibition Art of this Land, but Inuit works remained in NGC’s basement in the Prints and Drawings Gallery, where the Curator of Inuit Art was also assigned. Historically, NGC resisted collecting Indigenous art, because it considered it craft and therefore the purview of the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History). In the 1980s, however, NGC began to systematically collect Inuit works of art, thanks to the active lobbying of the Canadian Eskimo Art Council (CEAC).
For Canadians and visitors alike, NGC plays a role in defining the officially embraced national story of Canada. Bringing Inuit art out of the basement thus represents a step towards challenging settler notions of what constitutes art within this narrative. Yet, as Steven Loft notes, “Although there is a growing recognition of Indigenous artistic practices within Canadian museums […] this inclusion continues to be contingent upon a relationship with the ultimately unshaken art-historical hegemony.” Nearly thirty years earlier, Lee-Ann Martin similarly described this process as “soft-inclusion,” whereby settler museums and galleries merely incorporate Indigenous artworks into mainstream exhibitions. The result of soft-inclusion is a “settler move to innocence” in which settlers feel gratified by the work they have done while failing to dismantle or critically consider the colonial structures that perpetuate and maintain the oppression of Indigenous peoples. To get beyond this, NGC must not merely absorb Inuit art into the existing national story, but create a dialogue between Inuit and non-Inuit works. In this regard, From Time Immemorial to 1967 is, at times, a success, as it occasionally creates a vibrant dialogue between Inuit and other works. At other times, it isolates Inuit art, even when it is displayed in the middle of the room—an irony, indeed.
The most successful aspect of the exhibition is the stunning opening room. Here, Inuit art is placed in conversation with ancient, pre-contact, and contemporary artworks from different Indigenous nations. The works are curated in a way that declares the unequivocal reality of both persistence and change in Indigenous art practices across Canada. For example, Dorset and Thule carvings are juxtaposed with Tim Pitsiulak’s drawing Armoured Whale (2014), while ancient ivory hair combs are mounted beside Germaine Arnaktauyok’s large-scale textile work Combs of our Ancestors (2009). The Inuit works border the opening room, which is organized around an Anishinaabe drum (1950) by Daniel Smith of Kitigan Zibii, whose work serves to remind—or inform—visitors that NGC occupies unceded Algonquin territory. Behind the drum sits Luke Parnell’s A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design (2007), a large formline panel that is painted over or exposed to varying degrees, thus bringing the colonial history of Canada into sharp relief. Together, the works speak to each other across time and national difference, and the room offers a clear message about what Indigenous art in Canada was, is, and can be.
The presence of Inuit art is extensive in the second half of the exhibition, although there are some notable gaps. For example, the works of marginalized Inuit artists from Nunatsiavut are not as well represented as those from Nunavut, Nunavik, and Inuvialuit; this is largely due to the historic neglect of Nunatisavummiut artists by both CEAC and NGC. Traditional Indigenous women’s work, such as beading, sewing, and quillwork, is represented, although NGC’s spotty collecting history means that much of this is necessarily on loan from other collections. The mounting of the one Inuit atigi (parka)—a replica of shaman Qingailisaq’s atigi—fails to acknowledge the historical and cultural significance of this particular piece. This is a good example of how the exhibition isolates some Inuit works: the parka provides an opportunity to discuss Inuit relationships with the land and animals, or Inuit conceptualizations of gender identity (the parka’s design is remarkable for blending male and female aspects together), but this has been entirely missed. Instead, the parka has been placed in a corner as a prelude to a discussion of Euro-Canadian depictions of winter.
In stark contrast to the isolation of Qingailisaq’s parka, the section devoted to Inuit sculpture and abstract painting creates a memorable dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous art. This is an innovative choice for NGC, as the section shows that Inuit sculptors were modernist artists like their nouveau-plasticien and automatiste contemporaries. They are celebrated in this section as modern artists with a distinctly Inuk worldview. The nine Inuit sculptures arranged in threes echo the aesthetic of the modernist paintings, particularly those of Claude Tousignant. This section was especially intriguing, because it relates to a time-period—the 1960s—when Inuit and non-Inuit modernists were frequently displayed and collected together. Nods to some unsuccessful federal art programmes are included, such as Seated Man and Woman (1960s), a Rankin Inlet ceramic by Eli Tikeayak, and a stone totem pole from Inukjuak.
The Inuit prints in a nearby side gallery provide a brief overview of Inuit print and drawing history, and include the monumental works of Parr, the bold colour-work of Jessie Oonark, and the historically precise work of Helen Kalvak, among others. Moreover, the work of Peter Pitseolak represents the beginnings of the Inuit photography tradition, one that continues today. Though issues around conservation may explain why these two-dimensional works were separated from those in the main gallery, it nonetheless means that they say little in relation to other artistic traditions. This, together with the other sections, frames Inuit art as an aside to Canada’s story, rather than an equal part or challenger of it.
NGC’s decision to include labels in each artist’s Inuktut dialect is a sign of an institution willing to make changes. In the final analysis, however, the exhibition merely underscores that the gallery still has work to do in addressing what Dale Turner and Audra Simpson call the “interpretive gap” between Indigenous and settler understandings of their distinct histories and responsibilities to this land. While NGC has taken its first steps towards curating Inuit art in a way that acknowledges the agency, skill, and artistry of the artists on display, greater attempts must be made in the future to generate new methods of consultation and curatorial collaboration—methods that are decolonizing, respectful, and open-hearted—so that the work of Inuit as well as Indigenous and Métis artists can engage with the national narrative on its own terms.
Christina Williamson is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Mediations at Carleton University.
 Richard C. Crandall, Inuit Art: A History (Jefferson: McFarland, 2005), 301; Marie Routledge, “The Development of an Inuit Art Collection at the National Gallery of Canada,” American Review of Canadian Studies 17, 1 (March 1987): 73–78.
 Steven Loft, “Who Me? Decolonization as Control in ‘Decolonize Me,’” in Decolonize Me/ Decolonizer-Moi, ed. Heather Igloliorte, exh. cat., Ottawa Art Gallery (Ottawa: OAG, 2012), 77.
 Lee-Ann Martin, “The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion: Contemporary Native Art and Public Art Museums in Canada” (report prepared for the Canada Council for the Arts, Ottawa, 1991).
 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, 1 (2012): 1–40; Ossie Michelin, “The Hard Truth about Reconciliation,” Canadian Art (Summer 2017), 70–75; Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).
 A quote on one wall of this room by David Ruben Piqtoukun eloquently centres the theme: “We have to grasp the wisdom of the old and introduce it to our present way of seeing.”
 Heather Igloliorte, SakKijâJuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut (Fredericton & St. John’s: Goose Lane Editions, 2017).
 Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, “Troisième sexe social, atome familial et médiations chamaniques: pour une anthropologie holiste: entretien avec Bernard Saladin d’Anglure,” Anthropologie et Sociétés 31, 3 (2007): 165; Bernadette Driscoll-Engelstad, “Pretending to Be Caribou: The Inuit Parka as an Artistic Tradition,” in The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples, exh. cat., Glenbow Museum (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1987).
 Joe Baker and Gerald McMaster, eds., Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World, exh. cat., National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC: NMAI Editions and Heard Museum, 2007).
 Katherine Stauble, “Ten Things to Know About the New Canadian and Indigenous Galleries,” National Gallery of Canada, June 14, 2017, https://www.gallery.ca/magazine/exhibitions/ngc/ten-things-to-know-about-the-new-canadian-and-indigenous-galleries.
 For the most in-depth look at these histories, see Heather Igloliorte, “Influence and Instruction: James Houston, Sunnuyuksuk: Eskimo Handicrafts, and the Formatives Years of Contemporary Inuit Art,” MA thesis, Carleton University, 2006; Stacey Neale, “The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project: A Study in Development and Influence,” MA thesis, Concordia University, 1997.
 Dale Turner and Audra Simpson, “Indigenous Leadership in a Flat World” (research paper for the National Centre for First Nations Governance, May 2008), 5, http://fngovernance.org/ncfng_research/turner_and_simpson.pdf.