Happy New Year!

Thanks Cherry for getting us back on track with this blog. 

2008 will be an exciting year for all of us at Glenbow – a new director at Glenbow, a new focus on our art collections and Honouring Tradition is the start to it all. We are wrapped up in final details about the exhibit – I did my final audio recording today, and am busy proofing labels and sorting through tiny details. The book is at the printer and it is going to be gorgeous!

Let the countdown begin to February 16th!


new exhibition title = new blog url

Hi everyone!

When we started this curatorial blog in Feb 2007 the exhibition was in its infancy and was titled “A Breath of Fresh Air”. A lot has happened in 10 months and now the show is titled “Honouring Traditions: Reframing Native Art”

I’ve decided to change the url of blog to reflect this new title (plus I found this black and red theme which happened to be close to the exhibition colours and I just plain like it better).The old blog a breath of fresh will soon be deleted. Please update your bookmarks!

We only have a few months before the exhibition open so blog away 🙂

Cherry (New Media Coordinator at Glenbow)

Let’s all take a deep breath…

As we continue to refine our storyline, I keep coming back to the working title of our exhibit – “A Breath of Fresh Air” – to help define our overarching theme. It’s finally starting to feel like spring in Calgary, and it feels like we are all emerging from our winter hibernation. I have the same feeling about the exhibit. It’s a slow process to bring together our different voices, thoughts and opinions and to also narrow our focus. It feels like we keep adding things in, rather than refining our ideas down. We also love the art we are looking at, and our artifact list is growing too large. However, I’m an optimist, and I think we are slowly and surely moving forward.

Our marketing people aren’t too keen on the title, since it is not immediately self explanatory. But to me, it explains many things. We are literally bringing many traditional art items out of the storage cupboards to be viewed for the first time in years. We are also featuring the art made by the Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Plains and the Subarctic regions – these areas are not often featured in art exhibits, so we are asking our audience to consider a new and fresh style of art. Many of these art pieces were made for daily use in the outdoors. Rather than a static display, we also hope to incorporate some movement within the exhibit, so the spirit of the artifact will be reawakened and its history renewed.

So I am taking a deep breath – enjoying the fresh air of spring, feeling the wind on my face, taking pleasure in our ongoing curatorial discussions, learning something new every day and loving looking at lots of art.

Storyline – draft copy….

Well, we are continually working towards February 2008, when this exhibit will open. Our team of 4 individuals has been both rewarding and interesting and I am sure that we will have an extremely wonderful exhibit. Our process has been very lengthy and there has been many meetings, with discussions and viewings. The amount and quality of ‘Art’-ifacts in the collection is both overwhelming and simply marvellous. I’ve had many reactions to things that we’ve already viewed and can’t help but feel lucky to be a part of this team. I done a lot of research of the art of the First Nations Peoples and to my amazement I’ve come across designs and art that I’ve never seen before. I guess, for the most part, you the viewer will have to wait for the exhibit to see these things.

At this time we’ve also been working on where we would like to take this exhibit. The following is another draft on where we would like to take this exhibit. Read on and remember to follow this blog to keep abreast of where we are in the process of putting this exhibit together.

“A Breath of Fresh Air”
Aboriginal Art from Canada’s Prairie Provinces and the Western sub-Arctic
(Note: This storyline is a work in draft)

“Art” has always been a part of the daily lives of First Nations people. They wore art; they lived with it; and they used it to explore the world of the ancestors and the spiritual realm to which they belonged. Through art they connected with Source of All Life in many different and distinct ways.

Art continues to be an important part of people’s lives. Although people wear decorated clothing less often, they are an important part of traditional celebrations. Today, most people use mass-produced items and live in western-style houses. The art that was embedded in handcrafted tools and hand-made homes have all but disappeared. It does remain important in ceremonial items that call on the Source of All Life and the Ancestors for their help and guidance.

Contemporary artists, both established and emerging, continue the tradition of using art to reflect their experiences and to comment on their situation in society and in the world. Their art is an important in reminder to Canadian society of the unique relationship that First Nations have with this country and with the newcomers who now inhabit it.

This exhibit brings “A Breath of Fresh Air” to both the items in the exhibit and to the people who experience them. Many of these items have been in storage for decades. As they move from the cabinets to the exhibit space, they are given a breath of fresh air. Their spirit is reawakened and their history is renewed. Once more, they can communicate with human beings and tell us their stories.

For those who experience these items, “A Breath of Fresh Air” brings them the messages from the works of art. We can understand and appreciate the variety and the depth of the traditional art and the social commentary of the contemporary art. We will be shown the place Native people once held in the world and the roles they have been relegated in our society. We will recognize and be reawakened to the spirituality infuses everything. This “Breath of Fresh Air” brings an appreciation for the past, present and continuing contributions of Native people to our world.

The exhibit team includes a Cree artist, two Euro-Canadian ethnology curators, a Vietnamese-Canadian art curator, and a graduate student from France. This eclectic mix brings complex and sometimes contradictory perspectives to the exhibit process. Through our discussions and our intense workshops viewing the collections, four themes have emerged:

• Honour and Respect
o Art used to honour all people
o Art used to honour the plants, animals and all the other beings with whom humans co-exist
• Stories
o There are many different types of storytelling: winter counts; pictographs; ledger art; motifs and clothing styles
o Objects speak on behalf of the past, through the art that is part of them
o Sometimes specific stories are recounted through hide paintings or drawings done in ledgers
o “Legends” are the ancient history of a people; these stories can be embedded in motifs used in decoration and in the styles of clothing.
• Everyday Life
o The art work on everyday clothing reminds us of the loving hands of our ancestors and the strong relationships among every family member
o This art work reminds us that everything is interconnected. Art is not separate from our daily lives. Work is not separate from art.
o Our modern life focuses more on disconnection than it does on interconnection. Contemporary art that comments on this can help us to refocus our lives and redefine our priorities.
• Spirituality
o Spirituality includes more than the sacred material
o Spirituality is to be found embedded in all experiences
o Spirituality is reflected in everything made by human hands and in all forms of art.
Glenbow’s ethnology collection includes material from First Nations throughout Canada and the western United States. In order to make this exhibit manageable we must limit our scope and, by doing so, pass up a few First Nations. This is not to say that we negate their importance. But we must give the First Nations appropriate space and exposure – and opportunity to catch their Breath of Fresh Air. Therefore, we intend to focus on:
• Dene, Cree and Anishinabe people of the Subarctic
• Cree, Anishinabe, Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Nakoda, Dakota, and Tsuu T’ina people of the Plains
• Metis people

These are the people who lived, worked, hunted, played and died here in western Canada – including Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

“A Breath of Fresh Air” reflects the complexity of First Nations art – the variety of expression and the variety of meanings. The curatorial team reflects the complexity of contemporary Canadian society. The dialogue that will emerge will bring a “Breath of Fresh Air” to the representation of First Nations in museums and to the discussion of the role of their arts and cultures in Canadian society.

What’s our Story?

The curatorial team is made up of a diverse group of individuals: a Native artist, two Ethnology curators, me – the art curator – and an intern from France who is researching on the representation of Native art in museums and galleries. We have spent a couple sessions now going over different ideas for the exhibition and we are finding that we all have very different visions of how this exhibition should look.

My role on this curatorial team has yet to be defined. I struggle constantly between excitement and fear. There seems to be a tremendous amount of engaging and experimental Native art in contemporary practice which I would love to explore for this exhibition. Yet, I struggle with my role as a non-Native museum professional taking up issues that are not my own. I’m a Vietnamese immigrant. I have my own cultural and political issues…

I hope to provide a critical perspective and consider the social and political implications of our role as a museum in the way Native art and cultures will be viewed and understood.

At this point, we want to combine Glenbow’s ethnographic material and its art collection by First Nations cultures and look at the tenuous relationship between notions of art and artifact. It has been a long-standing point of contention that Native art has been defined as craft, tourist trinket or anthropological documentation as opposed to art. But is it enough for us to merely illustrate that this material is art?  And whose definition would we be using to frame these objects as art?

There have been conflicting and irreconcilable opinions about Native art among Native writers. Gerald McMaster has suggested that we look at Native art as part of an “interrelated history.” According to McMaster, “Although Aboriginal history is many thousands of years older and far more complex, our interrelated history as Canadians is a thousand years old. During this time we have traded in materials and ideas, lived and struggled together, pictured each other differently, and contributed to this country.” Yet, Loretta Todd suggests that a separate art history is required to achieve self-determination for Aboriginal peoples. She asks: “Should we not seek a scholarship of our own, articulated not simply by placing us as new participants in their discourse on art, but instead by placing us on a path that moves on its own course, sometimes in their same direction, but just as often according to its own flux and flow?”

How do we negotiate these different viewpoints?…

The Laugh Track

We had our first real team meeting the other day – four curators (Quyen, Fred, Beth and Gerry) and an intern (Elise) sitting around the table trying to bring our diverse ideas and views together. We are four very different voices from different backgrounds. In fact, I think we are often thinking and feeling similar things, but we just state it in different ways.

What held us together was a healthy dose of laughter. As Fred said – humour in native societies has always balanced the basic instinct for survival. In our case, it helped us bond – it helped us get over our initial nerves – it helped us come up with some great ideas!  It also confirmed that what we are trying to do with this exhibit is fresh and fun. As we come up with our official storyline, I hope we can keep it that way.

First Nations ‘ART’-ifact….

Let us first consider this basic fact – ‘Art’ was a definite part of the daily lives of the First Nations people. This could be the heart of the exhibit and it could lead us on the path of what we are trying to do. I would like to have an exhibit with the idea that art was very important to the First Nations people; they wore art, they lived with it and they used it to explore the world of the ‘ancestors’ and the ‘spiritual realm’ they now belong to. With art they were able to connect with the ‘Great Spirit’ in many different and distinct ways. Art was a part of their everyday and there are many examples of it tucked away in the archives of the Glenbow Museum.

Where does a person who is asked to put on an exhibit with such a large collection of treasures from the past, start? There are many items, which cover a whole spectrum of daily life, and which look at special ceremonies with sacred connections to the other world. I find it unequivocally overwhelming that we have a short time to narrow down the vast variety of materials that has been collected. I am also amazed and wonder-filled that I am able to come into contact with so many special things that were made from ‘our’ collective past. When I refer to ‘our’ I mean those people of First Nations ancestry as I am from the Woodland Cree people in northern-Alberta – as I am a member of the Fort McKay First Nation.

As I began looking in the cabinets I began to think about what has transpired in the ‘Canadian Art Scene’ in the past while, especially since 1992. This was a very important year and time for First Nations all across this great land of ours as it was 500 years of contact with the ‘White’ race. I also had to consider that in order to break things down into a manageable exhibit that I have to drop a few Nations. This is not to say that I negate their importance, this is only to say that it is imperative that we give some other Nations exposure and bring a little light to other ways of life. I am basically saying that we need to look at the sub-Arctic peoples and to those First Nations who lived, worked, hunted, played and died here in Western Canada. These groups of First Nations peoples have generally been overlooked in their art, their literature, or lack there of, and as Nations which are distinct in their own rights.

So now that we’ve narrowed down where we need to look to explore the world of these marvelous First Nations people, it is now necessary to consider the things that brought something special to their lives. I have always considered that what First Nations people did to adorn their clothes, their hunting implements, their tools, their ceremonial items and regalia and their items of sacred occupation as a form of ‘fine art.’ As a child I was given many fine pieces of clothing made mostly by my Grandmother, Victoria McDonald, and though I did not understand their importance at that time; I really do now. I was wearing the love that my Grandmother had for me and for the spirit of her family that she put into each and every piece of clothing that she made for my brothers and sister, my mom and dad, and for myself. We didn’t just wear these pieces of fine art and clothing to special occasions; we wore them everyday, everywhere and whenever we needed to keep ourselves warm. The clothes were meant to be worn and that is all there is to that!

So where next do we go from here? As I look at all these pieces of fine art, made with the loving hands of someone’s Grandmother, wife, daughter, or sister, it is like walking through time and it is very important to tread lightly. I know one thing for sure that we need to respect the people and honour the community and the past. I also know that it is vitally important not to disrespect the First Nation people and the items that were made for each and every person who at one time or another wore them, no matter what they were doing.

All at once we begin to think in terms of what was and what is and that these pieces of fine art should still be held in highest of regards, just as the masters of art from Europe. I think this way because ‘my’ ancestors were masters in their own right and who should say, one way or another, that the European masters or the North-American masters were better than the other. If you consider them equal then you begin to look at nations of people who were not and are not primitive. Then, time and place have really no significance and all that is really left is to accept people just for who they are. I think that with this exhibit, though my thoughts are grand and perhaps a bit far fetched, wouldn’t it be great if the art, that we put on display, be considered ‘fine’ in their own terms. Maybe, just maybe, all ‘other’ people will see the First Nations people as people, with an equal share in the world and with a right to a distinct identity. But, then I am just dreaming!

Next I couldn’t help think about things that were made to honour those individuals who were held in high esteem in any community. And, let me tell you, there were many – all the way from the Elders, to the chiefs and warriors, to the patriarchs and matriarchs, to the great hunters and to the children. I can honestly say that the children were held in the highest regard; they were and still are considered a gift from the ‘Creator.’ I should know I have three special gifts myself. So we begin by seeing that without really trying, the ‘art’ifacts are beginning to narrow themselves down. And when I begin to see all the art that has been done I begin to see patterns in where the exhibit is leading us. This brings me around to where we are now – looking for art that is as special as each and every day. Isn’t this really all about life?

As hunting was very important to me as a young man I easily gravitated to the art that was portrayed on any item that had to do with hunting, trapping and fishing. Then there are the clothes, like jackets, shirts, leggings, vests, dresses and headgear, that people wore for doing those day-to-day tasks. Did I miss anything? To be adorned by art that was made specifically for you was a very special thing. I know because my grandmother made a vest and a pair of moccasins for me when I started university. What she was doing was giving me her blessing and also giving me a part of her spirit. So in this respect clothing was very important and any and all art carried a special importance for the wearer.

At this time in our search for just the right thing to put on display we have been in conversation with not only each other, but with the spirit of the ancestors. When we open up cabinets that have not been opened for either a very long or short time, we are giving these items that are hidden away, a chance to breathe. A chance to be seen and admired. Admired for the work, spirit and art that was put into them. In our day and age of mass production it is a very special treat to see things that were lovingly made, one little piece at a time. Things that were made specifically for one person. Symbols and art that were used to portray stories, thoughts, ideas, ceremonies, special moments and just about anything of importance to both the maker and the wearer. Art tells a story of the artist or of the artist’s community through the use of symbols. All these pieces tell a story and it is our duty as curators and keepers of the past to let the items tell their own story. We then are only a contemporary tool and the art – is the living past!

I know that I’ve not really made a case for all the artifacts bearing what I would consider a fine art, but as a viewer you have to let go of old, ingrained traditions of what is primitive and what is looked at as an ‘artifact.’ You have to look beyond and through the ‘stained’ glass of the old ways of the museum. The viewer has to understand that because the institutions house all these treasures that they belong to cultures and nations of people who come from another time and so they belong to an-‘other’ ideology and tradition. These people who collected these fine works of art and daily life thought that they were made by a people who were considered at one time in the history of north-America, as a ‘Vanishing Race.’ So what does this tell us other than the fact that what comes from a time of long ago or not so long ago, belongs to an era that believed in the Darwinian theory of ‘survival of the fittest.’ The collectors of these artifacts never thought that the ‘Indian’ people would survive the coming of the White man.

I can debate the notion of primitive and artifact, but I don’t think this is a necessary step at this time. What I will say is necessary is to have a discourse on the history of the First Nations people and if I am allowed to do so, then I must ask the Ancestors to give me a hand and allow me an opportunity to work on behalf of them and on behalf of the many Nations that have been forgotten – especially those who were considered primitive. If people can see that the art in the ‘art’ifact has been diligently and delicately beaded, weaved, embroidered, etched, carved, drawn and painted as a dedication of love for someone special, then perhaps the viewer will begin to understand that these First Nations people were just that – people! As the curators and protectors of all these fine pieces of art, it is our duty to the past, the present and the future, to make damn sure that we do the best job of sharing the thoughts, feelings, and stories of the First Nations people. It is up to us to allow a discourse on the traditional life of many First Nations, but doing so in a contemporary perspective.