At the entrance to Art Toronto, there is a recognition of the land: the fair, it says, takes place on treaty land of Mississauga by Credit First Nation, “an area where Haudenosaunee, Wendat and Anishinaabe have thrived through time.” In Canada, which has over 630 First Nation communities and more than 50 indigenous languages, such recognition is crucial. But it has a special significance for this year’s edition of the country’s largest art fair, where a third of the more than 60 participating galleries display works by First Nations artists.
Indigenous artists have been represented at the fair before – Montreal dealer and longtime participant in Art Toronto Pierre-François Ouellette, for example, has brought works by Cree artists Kent Monkman and Meryl McMaster to the show for years. But the impressive turnout from First Nations works of art in the 2021 edition are probably due to an increase in the number of galleries exhibiting and representing original artists both in Canada and abroad, says Mia Nelsen, director of Art Toronto.
“There was no call for galleries to submit any specific work, only to submit their best work,” Nelsen told Hyperallergic.
The physical show opened to the public today at the Metro Toronto Convention Center and runs through the weekend, but a parallel virtual version of the show, which includes showrooms and virtual reality exhibits, is available until November 7th.
“As Canada’s International Art Fair, we have the opportunity to connect with a wide and diverse audience to share the history of Canadian art,” said Nelsen. “The First Nations perspective is crucial to that narrative.”
Also worth noting is the presence of galleries specializing in the work of First Nations artists, more than ever before at the fair. Five of them – K Art in Buffalo, New York; Feheley Fine Art in Toronto; and Fazaka’s Gallery, Ceremonial / Art and Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver – show exclusively native artists. K Art, which opened its 2,000-square-foot area last year, is also native-owned, founded by Dave Kimelberg of the Seneca Nation of Indians (Bear Clan).
“Indian art has so much to offer, and I believe that sharing and reinforcing original voices within the modern art world is a great asset to the conversation,” Fazaka’s Gallery Director and curator LaTiesha Fazakas told Hyperallergic. “Showing original works of art at art fairs really helps promote those voices and create an opportunity to deepen and enrich the dialogue.” The gallery features two Art Toronto presentations, a group booth, and a site-specific installation of laser-cut paintings and assemblages by Cree Métis artist Jason Baerg, reflecting on the city’s original Mohawk word, “Tkaronto,” meaning “where there are trees.” the water.”
Devan Patel, co-owner and director of the Patel Brown Gallery, believes that “a genuine conversation about Canadian art cannot take place without the presence of original voices.”
Patel Brown’s booth at Art Toronto features native works along with works by creators with diverse backgrounds. The Japanese-Canadian artist Alexa Hatanaka’s meticulous linocut on handmade washi paper joins stunning crayon drawings by the late Inuk artist Tim Pitsiulak. Slim patinated bronze sculptures by Oluyese, whose work is often based on his Yoruba heritage, meet living acrylic by Native Art Department International, a collaborative project between native Toronto-based artists Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan.
Art Toronto also hosts conversations and programs both in person and online during the show, some of which can be seen on-demand, such as a panel with Patricia Marroquin Norby, hired as the first full-time Native American art curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last September year. Norby participated in a discussion on “decolonization of museums and collections” with curator John G. Hampton and original artists Jason Baerg and Julia Rose Sutherlan, moderated by Greg Hill, senior curator of native art at the National Gallery of Canada.
Expanding the visibility of Native Americans, First Nation, and other indigenous artists at fairs like Art Toronto, which attracts collectors and curators from around the world, is an important step in correcting their marginalization in both the institutional and commercial mainstream. Yet there is still work to be done, not only in terms of representing the numbers, but in order to complicate the perception of what art of this large and diverse society might look like. This range and width are on display at the fair, from Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas ‘wall-mounted sculpture “Falling Tide” (2020), reproduced in copper leaves on a metal car helmet, to Sonny Assus’ “Breakfast Series” (2006), grain boxes with a Pop Art- edge that subversively raises issues that First Nations people face, with names like “Treaty Flakes” and “Lucky Beads.”
“It is important to showcase modern indigenous art in order to challenge and expand the reductive and expected aesthetics of indigenous art in the art world and allow the work to be valued beyond its cultural identifiers,” Patel said. “Most importantly, we need to cultivate and advocate for under-represented voices to strengthen and support the next generation of indigenous and BIPOC leaders.”
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