Ahzhekewada (Let us look back)

Revisioning the Indians of Canada Pavilion: Ahzhekewada (Let us look back)

Reviewed by cheyanne turions

OCAD University, Toronto
15 – 16 October 2011
Co-produced by the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and OCAD University’s Aboriginal Visual Culture Program.


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The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective is Canada’s only national service organization focused on curatorial practices, and its mission is to “support, promote and advocate on behalf of First Nations (Indian, Inuit and Métis) art, artists, curators, and representatives of arts and cultural organizations in Canada and internationally.” [1] The organization concerns itself with the examination of the weight of history through specific imaginations of how to move deliberately into the future. Their 2011 colloquium, Revisioning the Indians of Canada Pavilion: Ahzhekewada (Let us look back), co-produced with OCAD University’s Aboriginal Visual Culture Program, traced a history of decisive moments for Aboriginal art and curatorial practice. Taken as a whole, it offered an interpretation of art history that acknowledges the mutual implication of Indigenous and Western worldviews with an eye toward the critical evolution of aesthetic theory in response. Taking place in Toronto, which is where I, too, conjure these words, I would like to acknowledge the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation on whose land these actions have taken place.

Held 15 to 16 October 2011, the colloquium was fortuitously timed: this weekend marked the beginning of a global action around the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose basic aims might be said to challenge the root assumptions of capitalism, globalization and democracy in the service of economic and political revolution. Emerging from the presentations at Ahzhekewada was a narrative that charted the development of critical and aesthetic theory in contemporary Aboriginal art, acknowledged seminal moments in the presentation and contextualization of Aboriginal artists, and encouraged the development of curatorial practices in response. These are not stories that can easily be found in art-historical discourse, and the activist intentions of the colloquium can be read as an attempt to make history by making history. [2] The coincidence of the weekend’s happenings with the Occupy actions seemed to demonstrate precisely why such articulations and critical reflections are important: inherited historical narratives are places ripe for revisioning.

The colloquium’s point of departure was a panel entitled “Indians of Canada Pavilion, Expo 67,” which traced “the origins of contemporary Aboriginal art and curatorial practice from the emergence of a group of iconic Aboriginal artists” who participated in the design, construction and presentation of the pavilion at the fair. [3] Alex Janvier, a cultural advisor at the Department of Indian Affairs in 1967 and a well-respected senior artist today, and Duke Redbird, a poet then and now, in conversation with the pavilion’s curator Tom Hill, contextualized the creative and political motivation of the pavilion’s construction for the colloquium audience, which comprised an international mix of curators, artists and academics, some of whom had been at the fair, and younger practitioners (like myself) who had little knowledge of the site’s political relationship to the larger exposition. In recalling the spirit of the time, Redbird pointed out that Expo 67—coinciding as it did with Canada’s Centennial—was designed as the fulcrum point for a new Canada. The Indians of Canada pavilion intended to directly address the complex realities of the relationships between Aboriginals and Western settlers—both historical and contemporary—in a way that would prepare the country for a utopic future relationship. Unfortunately, much of the critical energy of this moment dissipated along with the dismantling of the pavilion at the end of the fair. But, critical groundwork had been laid for recognizing and valuing Canadian Aboriginal culture in a national and international context.

The late 1980s and early 90s represented another significant turning point in Canadian art history, this time around mainstream acknowledgement of Aboriginal artistic practices as particularly contemporary and distinct from the all-too-prevalent lens of primitivism often used to contextualize work by non-white or non-Western artists. Along with the rigorous discourse around identity politics of the day, a number of significant exhibitions contributed to this shift. Among those discussed as part of a panel called “25 Years After” was Land, Spirit, Power, which was presented at the National Gallery of Canada, in 1992. [4] Diana Nemiroff, one of the exhibition’s curators, highlighted the liminal position of many Aboriginal artists at that time, not exactly practicing cultural production in terms of tradition, nor willing to assimilate fully into Western culture. This was a generation of artists that, “while their relationship to Indian traditions and history may be more abstract and intellectual, their experience of Indian-ness forms an important part of the content of their work. Typically, this experience is seen not in isolation but rather in relation to the larger social and cultural context.” [5] Here, culture was used to explore identity, taking firm root in a modern context of production and with the explicit aim of presenting self-articulations of Aboriginal experience from a non-ethnographic perspective. Robert Houle, another of the exhibition’s curators, noted that storytelling allows a person to place oneself in a grander scheme of things. Land, Spirit, Power presented work that needed the presentation context of a white-cube gallery, thereby effecting transformation within the institution itself by challenging Western notions of Aboriginal art production.

Though many challenges remain for the institutional presentation of Aboriginal art and artists, it is fair to say that, in Canada, much progress has been made since 1992. The colloquium’s accompanying slate of exhibitions, collectively named Mzinkojige Waabang (He/She is Carving Tomorrow), stand as a powerful case in point. [6]

Over the course of the colloquium, much effort was put into mapping the effects of these watershed moments and recognizing the potentiality of the present as another such juncture. The weekend’s coincidence with the Occupy movement’s global actions was an obvious opportunity to contribute Aboriginal perspectives to a critical imagination of what else Canada can be. The intergenerational perspective represented at Ahzhekewada gave an invaluable perspective on how zeitgeists can play out, and the need for histories not only to be made but also to be kept alive. Moving beyond these inheritances, the colloquium also evinced a generosity of spirit in encountering new ideas and emerging practices. Also palpable was an inwardly directed criticality that recognizes exhibitions as a public form of discourse and the accompanying responsibilities of curators to engage the difficult conversations of their work. The revisioning necessary for the future takes place both within communities and between them, creating new spaces of collaboration, conflict and imagination.



[1] Taken from the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective’s mission statement.

[2] As part of the “Indigenous Cosmopolitanism” panel, David Garneau drew attention to the importance of taking responsibility for carrying forward the stories or lessons of the past by making a vehicle by which they can travel. The phrase, to “make history by making history” comes from the paper he presented entitled “Indian to Indigenous: Temporary Pavilions to Sovereign Display Territories.”

[3] “Revisioning the Indians of Canada Pavilion”: Ahzhekewada (Let us look back) Colloquium program, 3.

[4] Other exhibitions included: The Spirit Sings at the Glenbow Museum (1988); Indigena at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (1991); and New Territories: 350/500 Years After at Les Maisons de la Culture (1992).

[5] This quote is taken from the unpublished initial proposal that Diana Nemiroff submitted to the National Gallery of Canada for the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition.

[6] Concurrent to the colloquium, six exhibitions were presented in Toronto: M: Stories of Women at Gallery 44, drift at the Toronto Free Gallery, Vital to the General Public Welfare at the Edward Day Gallery, Big Eye at VTape, Signs of Sorrow at the VMAC Gallery, and S-O-S3 (signals of survival) at ASpace.


Image credit: Participants, Revisioning the Indians of Canada Pavilion: Ahzhekewada (Let us look back), 2011.

cheyanne turions is a Toronto-based writer and curator. Most recently, she curated the exhibition The Normal Condition of Any Communication at Gallery TPW (2011), and participated in the Banff Centre residency From the Toolbox of a Serving Library led by Dexter Sinister (2011). She is the director of No Reading After the Internet (Toronto), sits on the board of directors for Fillip magazine and the editorial committee of FUSE, and is currently working as Assistant Editor on the publication Explosions in the Movie Machine.


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