Situating Great Ocean Art in Canadian Museums

"Transits and Returns," exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, September 2019 to February 2020. Photo: Maegan Hill-Carroll, Vancouver Art Gallery.

I come from the villages of Leulumoega, Siʻumu, Salelologa and Āpia in the western islands of the Sāmoan archipelago. My family also comes from Najafābād village outside Esfāhān (Ispāhān), and we have ties to other lands, as well. I wrote these words from Mparntwe/Tyuritye in the occupied lands of the Arrernte Nation. I ask questions that I have mulled over for some time, even before I moved to Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyang in early 2019 to undertake postdoctoral research with the Initiative for Indigenous Futures at Concordia University – though it was then that I first searched online to see what kinds of exhibitions from or about the Great Ocean had taken place across Canada. Then, and still now, I want to know: What are the conditions of display of art of or about the Great Ocean? Why are Europeans’ projections, which take precedence over insider perspectives, still celebrated and canonized in art museums in the territories currently known as Canada?

By Great Ocean, I mean the archipelagos and rim coasts of the largest body of water on this Planet. Garrigarrang to the Eora Nation of Sydney, Lul to the Hakö Nation of northern Bougainville, na Ta to the Gunantuna Nation of eastern New Britain, Moananuiākea to the Lāhui Hawaiʻi Nation, łpasini to the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Nation of central California, Vasa Loloa or Moana to the Sāmoan Nation – these are some of our names for this deeply respected Ocean Ancestor. Its colonial moniker, Pacific, is due to Fernão de Magalhães’s imposition of Pacífico (placid, passive, peaceful, pacified) in 1520, when he went through the southernmost inhabited archipelago on this Planet, which the Selk’nam Nation call Karukynka. Indigenous and racialized artists and art histories still contend with this Eurocentric appellation and the associated illiteracies in the Great Ocean’s thousands of aesthetic and intellectual histories.

I come to art history and curatorial practice in different roles: as a consultant for art museums, as a visiting curator working on global Indigenous and diasporic racialized artists’ exhibitions, as a scholar affirming the complexity and wonderment in these practices, and as an artist activating galleries and archives for queer, faʻafafine, and faʻatane ancestors and kin alike. From 2016-17, I made multiple trips from occupied Kulin Nation lands to visit the Great Ocean collections at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia. At MOA, where I moved through these collections with the curators, I learned about the large Indo-Fijian diaspora which began to immigrate following the 1987 coup d’état in Viti Levu, to the occupied territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Səl̓ílwətaʔ Nations. MOA’s transparent storage display set a global standard, doing away with the metal cabinets and fluoro-lit corridors far from public view. Many institutions have since followed MOA’s example, most recently Qaumajuq at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. During my visits to that coast, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm curator Jordan Wilson introduced me to his term Ancestral Belongings, used instead of colder terms “object” and “artefact,” each imbued with false distanciation. The political and epistemological implications of this term Ancestral Belongings affirm contemporary efforts to preference relationality, ceremonial forms of conservation, and justice for Ancestral Remains.

Natalie Ball, “Bang Bang,” 2019.

As a visiting scholar engaged in my doctoral research, I met with curatorial leadership to learn more about the extent to which MOA had learned from and listened to so-called “source communities” in planning its exhibitions of Ancestral Belongings. How was the display of Indigenous art and life from across the Great Ocean led or devised by the communities from which MOA derived its collection? There were some interlocutors on specific exhibitions, but overall MOA appeared to lack the will to support museum professionals who come from these communities, unless they were physically present. I proposed setting up a Great Ocean emerging Indigenous curators’ fellowship at MOA. Perhaps if the peoples of the wider region were more visible locally, and our perspectives more valued institutionally – at MOA and elsewhere in the colonized world – more opportunities for succession would come to exist. Currently, there are a precious few: a Mellon Foundation project at Bishop Museum, and the recently completed Pacific Collections Access Project at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The erasure exemplified by the curatorial and collection stewardship at institutions with Great Ocean collections signaled a problem larger than demography. There are still few museum professionals from First Nations of the Great Ocean rim shores at MOA and similar ethnographic/social history/world cultures museums. Yet First Nations on these coasts recognize and honor their Kanaka Maoli Ancestors who came seeking work and, in those earlier colonial times, came into Indigenous relationalities.

In 2019, as part of a collective of artists and curators working to generate more recognition of Indigenous relationalities, I felt we were on the cusp of wider changes. These complex ties are customary, evidenced by oratures, languages, ceremonial regalia, and cherished foods. They are also contemporary, made through residencies, symposia, exhibitions, and learning programs. A case in point: two artists whose trajectories have evolved in tandem – Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin, and Modoc, Klamath, and Black artist Natalie Ball – both obtained their Master’s degrees focusing on Indigenous contemporary art through the renowned Māori Visual Arts | Toioho ki Āpiti program at Massey University in Aotearoa.

These were the types of relationalities that myself and a group of fellow curators were responding to when we curated a series of three exhibitions across three institutions between 2018 and 2020, an initiative that expanded from the initial one quite quickly, given the receptive nature of affiliated institutions. Referred to in press releases and display didactics as the Visiting Curators, a term we chose for ourselves, the group included Freja Carmichael (Quandamooka), Dr. Lana Lopesi (Sāmoan), Sarah Biscarra Dilley (yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini), Tarah Hogue (Métis), and myself (Sāmoan). We began the series with The Commute. This Great Ocean-centered exhibition was staged at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), with eight Indigenous artists including Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Stó:lō, and Kanaka Maoli artist and community organizer T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss. Wyss’s weaving of relationships and cherished materials back and forth – most notably, through the VR performance videos, apothecary installation, and woven cedar commissions – were realized with kin between Hawaiʻi, Vancouver, and Brisbane for The Commute. These honestly charted the many returns Wyss made to connect with kin knowledge-keepers on multiple islands, develop tinctures based on medicinal plants in all three territories occupied by Vancouver, Brisbane, and Honolulu metropolises, and witness the beyond-human kin, notably honu, turtles, who live and share the shorelines.

Cob building workshop for “x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》,” led by T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss and Mudgirls Collective, April 2019. Courtesy the artists and 221A, Vancouver, unceded territories. Photo: Damaris Riedinger.

The exhibition Layover (2019) at Artspace Aotearoa followed as a midway moment for further artist commissions to be premiered locally, and for an experimental anti-symposium to take place, before expanding into the larger Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) presentation later that year. A curatorial text on a gallery wall also offered an invitational ethics of gathering. Then, from March to September 2019, our drive as Visiting Curators to either recreate or devise strong international Indigenous exchanges today through a panoply of artists’ practices and positions, was cemented in the major exhibition Transits and Returns (2019-20) presented at the VAG with IMA support. Conceived as an homage to the deep-time trade and ceremonial-political ties criss-crossing the Indigenous highway that is the Great Ocean, this exhibition brought together the prior 10 commissions with further works by Indigenous artists which hadn’t yet visited those shores.

Many of the artists traveled to the opening celebrations and joined host-nation artists for the Great Ocean Dialogues in September 2019. This was, to my knowledge, only the second public-facing gathering on Great Ocean visual arts after the 2013 Pacific Arts Association (PAA) Symposium – though a number of exhibitions realized in Vancouver over the years had, of course, included Indigenous artists of the Great Ocean [e.g., The Pacific (2017) curated by Cate Rimmer at the Libby Leshgold Gallery at Emily Carr University; Gordon Bennett | Be Polite (2017) curated by Aileen Burns and Johan Lundt at Contemporary Art Gallery]. The Great Ocean Dialogues were presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery in partnership with the Indigenous Curatorial Collectif (ICCA), on whose board I have served since 2016. These Dialogues enabled Indigenous artists to speak on their own terms with kin and new relations in the specific context of the Eurocentric art museum and art ecology of settler colonial Vancouver, a feat unimaginable for most of the artists who work beyond the purview of commercial dealers.

Given growing sensitivity to such moments of exchange, it is even more noteworthy that three recent exhibitions at MOA failed to center global Indigenous relationalities, despite best intentions. These exhibitions include In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man: Contemporary Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea (2016-17), curated by Carol E. Mayer; Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia (2018-19), curated by William Fox and Henry Skerritt; and Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works from the Pacific (2013), also curated by Carol E. Mayer. Coinciding with the 2013 PAA Symposium, Paradise Lost? included performances by Sāmoan and Tuvaluan artist and scholar Rosanna Raymond, as well as iTaukei Viti artist and scholar Dr. Katrina Talei Igglesden, who grew up in the occupied territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Səl̓ílwətaʔ Nations. This exhibition, more of an encyclopaedic tour of the region through the practices of primarily Aotearoa-based artists (with a few exceptions from Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu), did not present a compelling argument on the complexity and multiplicity of the region. Rather, it confirmed the anthropological fallacy that the thousands of intellectual and aesthetic traditions in the Great Ocean can be divided neatly into a tripartite race hierarchy imposed by Dumont D’Urville.

Rebecca Belmore, “Body of Water,” 2019. Courtesy the artist and the Winnipeg Art Gallery

While Marking the Infinite, which opened at MOA five years later, included some of my all-time favorite makers on this Planet, it strikes me that the mostly senior artists in this exhibition were mostly unable to travel. Indeed, not physically present to speak to their work, the exhibition curated by Fox and Skerritt was predicated rather on a named collection held by the Nevada Museum of Art. It continued the ethnographic museological convention of focusing on a donor or collector rather than the artists and their communities. This exhibition did not live up to the potential of enabling these living artists to define the terms and conditions of discourse around their work, though there were blog posts cum interviews presented. I don’t mean to discount the very real curatorial labor and field-work undertaken by curators of Indigenous art of the Great Ocean and who developed these three exhibitions. But there are many Indigenous artists able to speak for themselves in unmediated English who are mobile and fluent in the formal gallery system. Had these artists been more explicitly consulted, the physical journey of moving through the exhibition itself may very well have felt more like an Indigenous learning and teaching space, rather than essentialist representation.

The shortcomings of these exhibitions remind us that the exhibition and collection priorities of the largest art museums remain a terrain for future enquiry and advocacy. Interestingly, only works by Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Tracey Moffat, and Mata Aho Collective have entered the National Gallery of Canada’s collection since 2013. Furthermore, only the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) holds a representative collection of First Nations art from across Australia, comprising more than 1,000 works which were donated in 2002.

I have purposefully avoided mentioning Paul Gauguin up to this point. Māʻohi writers Vehia Wheeler and Mareikura Whakataka-Brightwell recently wrote in The Pantograph Punch on a particular phenomenon, haʻavarevare, a false sense of entitlement to Tahitian narratives held by artists from other Great Ocean archipelagos. It is a particular curatorial exercise in reproducing what has already been canonized, or at least recognized as valid, by a colonial center of art production and dissemination. In the anglophone Great Ocean, artists from various diasporas based in Aotearoa often breach this cultural protocol and speak or make on behalf of specific situated histories that are not theirs alone to champion. In mid-2019, Leah Sandals wrote an essay in Canadian Art in relation to the major Gauguin portraiture survey at the National Gallery of Canada. Sandals included testimony from myself and other mostly Sāmoan artists and curators. I stand by my criticism: “It just really bothers me that in 2019 there are no Tahitian painters recognized anywhere near the level that Gauguin is.”

I remain perplexed by the perceived temporal distance and inability to contextualize the colonial actions to contain, romanticize, dehumanize, and eroticize Indigenous vahine and raerae, or Indigenous-gendered peoples, in French-settler Gauguin’s work. Why has no one wondered what Tahitian aesthetic and intellectual practices were up to for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, and still are, today, despite the heavy French colonial malaise across the five culturally distinct archipelagos grouped together by technocrats in Paris as “French Polynesia”? The museological obsession with canonized Europeans in the supposed Indigenous “wilderness,” who bring back tropes, tikis, and archetypes, is at best lazy, and at worst, colonial violence.

Marianne Nicolson, “Waterline,” 2014. Photo credit: Robert Foster.

In recent years, some of my curatorial consultant work has demonstrated to me that Eurocentric art museums in Australia are more comfortable with acquiring Emily Carr than working from my advice, which they paid for. The potential acquisition of works by living artists Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Marianne Nicolson, and T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss, amongst others, must balance the cult of the individual artist associated with European incursions into Indigenous territories, on all the coasts of the Great Ocean. Collections today are the physical repository of cultures in motion, and as such, must testify to much greater epistemic and aesthetic diversity.

In 2021, there are promising opportunities for institutions to remediate and deepen their collections, should they choose to shift their priorities. The current Winnipeg Indigenous Triennial, Naadohbii: To Draw Water (2021-22) curated by Jaimie Isaac (Anishinaabe), Kimberley Moulton (Yorta Yorta), Ioana Gordon Smith (Sāmoan, Pākehā), and Reuben Friend (Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā) is an opportunity for the Winnipeg Art Gallery collection to be enriched with work from the southwest shores of the Great Ocean. Pasapkedjinawong: La rivière qui passe entre les rochers – The river that passes through the rocks (2021), curated by John G. Hampton and myself at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, is another moment for potentially enriching collections with the new commissions by living artists from Aotearoa, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

The two sector-defining quinquennials of international Indigenous art presented so far at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) have offered intersectional complexity through the participation of artists, and collaboration of curatorial advisors, from many Indigenous nations throughout the Great Ocean and beyond. In this way, the in-house curators were protected from failing, and able to rely on these advisors to ensure planetary engagement with contemporary practices. Interestingly, both quinquennials are informed by extensive curatorial collaboration with external consultants, though the latter are only all named in the catalogues. Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art – Art autochtone international (2013) was curated by Christine Lalonde, Greg A. Hill (Kanien’keká:ka), and Candice Hopkins (Tlingit). Àbadakone/Continuous Fire/Feu continuel: Indigenous Contemporary International (2019-20) was curated by Hill, Lalonde, and Rachelle Dickenson (Métis), with consultant curators Hopkins, Ariel Smith (nêhiyaw), and Carla Taunton.

Qudus Onikeku, “Right Here, Right Now” (video still), 2017, video triptych. National Gallery of Canada. © Qudus Onikeku.

While punctual for these quinquennial engagements, I do wonder if the in-house curatorial teams at the NGC could be expanded to include positions centered on international Indigenous art histories and practices. The exhibitions presented deft new and existing work, grouped by material and thematic focus rather than by cultural affiliation or region. The material and thematic focus delineation was repeated in the second edition to lesser impact. Perhaps a stronger overarching narrative than the quinquennial mirroring of the lifecycle of fire would alleviate the ordering of works and artists from very distinct Indigenous contexts.

Informed by movements towards intersectional justice, restitution of Ancestral Remains and Belongings, and innovative curatorial practice and museology that serves Indigenous peoples of the Great Ocean as of elsewhere, I hope that the best practice models permeate more fully, beyond this closer reading of Canada’s contemporary exhibition histories. A fuller representation based in agency of Indigenous artists and communities on every coast of the Great Ocean can be demonstrated through exhibitions, acquisitions, composition of staff, boards, and audiences, as well as publications. Indigenous ways of relating, knowing, being but also of making memory will continue to broach the recent borders of settler colonial societies atop Indigenous situated histories and territories. Whether art museums wish to take the leap with us, rather than instead of us, is precisely the invitation that I leave you with.

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