C Magazine


Issue 144

Turning the Page on the Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion, 30 Years On
by Rachelle Dickenson and Lee-Ann Martin

When Lee-Ann Martin and I met to discuss how we would address this issue’s “Déjà Vu” thematic, we were on my balcony in Ottawa’s Centretown for a long overdue visit. I can’t remember exactly how I met Lee-Ann,1 but I do know when I was first influenced by her critical writing on Indigenous art and curatorial practice. I was in my third or fourth year of undergrad at Western University in London, Ont., at least 20 years ago; since then, her work has been a sort of compass, informing my academic and curatorial journey. Lee-Ann is one of the few curators who did not have an artistic practice in the 1980s and 1990s, which is when she first started working and when she was one of only a few Indigenous women curators. She was committed to professionalizing Indigenous curatorial practice and invested in curation as a tool to promote Indigenous art and self-determination in an art milieu that was not interested in the complexity and sophistication of contemporary Indigenous art, nor in the role it played in art history in Canada.

  • Rebecca Belmore, performance still from Artifact #671B, 1988, Thunder Bay Art Gallery photo: bill lindsay, j. david galway; courtesy of thunder bay art gallery and the chronicle journal, thunder bay

Lee-Ann was, as we’ll discuss, at the vanguard of shifts in gallery and museum policies advocating for the inclusion of contemporary Indigenous art. Her experiences with the development of two instrumental documents—“Turning the Page: Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples,” published in 1992, and “The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion: Contemporary Native Art and Public Art Museums in Canada,” a report published by the Canada Council for the Arts in 1991—continued to inform her curatorial practice over the years.

“Turning the Page” was a response by both Indigenous communities and the museums community to the overwhelming reaction against the Glenbow Museum’s 1988 exhibition The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples. It became one of the first publicly debated intersections of land claim dispute, museum sponsorship and Indigenous self-determination. With The Spirit Sings, the Glenbow became a venue for the ongoing fight of the Lubicon Cree to rid their territory of Shell Oil drilling, and the exhibition became an important example of the instrumentalization of Indigenous historical art as evidence of terra nullius, to be used to justify the ongoing and illegal occupation of Indigenous territories. The resistance of Indigenous communities, alongside allies, against The Spirit Sings galvanized critical debate about the ethics of museum practices and federal responsibility to Indigenous rights through a letterwriting campaign by the Lubicon to regional, national and international museums who had lent artworks to the exhibition.

Following that reaction, the museums community in Canada organized Preserving Our Heritage: A Working Conference Between Museums and First Peoples at Ottawa’s Carleton University, in 1988.2 This conference resulted in the development of the Task Force on Museums and First Peoples. The task force consisted of people involved in museums, cultural organizations and art galleries (settler and Indigenous) from across the country. The task force was to conduct a nation-wide assessment of relationships between museums and First Nations, with the objective of providing recommendations for building new or improving existing relationships with First Nations in Canada.3 Lee-Ann was the coordinator for the task force, responsible for organizing meetings across the country.

In 1989, Canada’s then Secretary of State convened a conference called Bringing Canadians Together to plan how best to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Confederation and the 300th birthday of the founding of Montreal. At this conference, George Erasmus, then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, gave an impassioned and unscripted speech [4] in which he demanded to know what Canada as a nation had to celebrate. In the summer of 1990, while the research by the task force and the planning of the celebrations of Canadian Confederation were underway, the Oka Crisis forever changed the relationship between Indigenous people, the state and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

Around the same time, after stepping away from her role as coordinator for the task force, Lee-Ann began working on a report for the Canada Council for the Arts. “The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion” was intended to assess the general state of collecting of Indigenous contemporary art by art galleries in Canada, to better understand how to build funding models and sources at the Canada Council that would address the under-representation of Indigenous arts that had come to light over the previous years.

Both “The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion” and the Task Force on Museums and First Peoples’ report, “Turning the Page,” are documents of larger movements in Indigenous art and history in Canada that contributed to—if not entirely resulted in—significant change in representation of Indigenous arts and museum engagement with Indigenous people and collections in Canada. Knowledge about the lived experiences that contributed to change are shared intergenerationally, most often informally—during long-overdue visits, between panels at conferences, over dinners and at openings. These exchanges are the conduits of intergenerational knowledge-sharing, unexpected opportunities to talk with change makers from many generations, past and future.

Over the years, Lee-Ann and I have discussed Indigenous curatorial practice as an ethic—a much larger relationship between makers, curators, academics and critics—that entails a responsibility for supporting community. In part, I learned about the value and necessity of such relationships and their responsibilities in curatorial practice from LeeAnn. Our conversation about intergenerational shifts in curatorial practice and art-making, here, was necessarily meandering and thoroughly enjoyable.

RACHELLE DICKENSON: One of my questions comes out of both of these [reports]. Was the understanding, at the time, that the intention of curating Indigenous art, which was activist and community-based, had a different objective than curating non-Indigenous art?

LEE-ANN MARTIN: I wanted to be a curator because I didn’t feel that non-Indigenous curators were giving Indigenous artists the understanding that comes from the community that they needed. It came from a place of incredible anger, of not being able to understand why Indigenous artists were being excluded. It was all about [pushing for] inclusion at that time. 

RD: I think it’s important to [acknowledge that] we do have an intergenerational difference. I’m working [on the foundations] of your research from the last 30 years, and [the work of] Gerald McMaster and Tom Hill and Deborah Doxtator— all of these great people who were working really hard. At that time, and retrospectively, the reasons given for the marginalization of Indigenous art in art galleries are dense and complex. [Was] it settler-colonial ideology that marginalized Indigenous aesthetics because they were perceived as ethnographic? And then, on top of that, is it possible, too, that there was person-to-person racism? Why was Native art not considered “art”?

LM: In the data I collected when I worked on that report in 1989–91—and I would say this again now—the reason Indigenous art was excluded was because the institutions’ curators, directors and decision-makers would have to admit that they were wrong, that they were racist, that they were exclusionary. And they weren’t going to do that.  

RD: This is with the understanding that there was enough Indigenous arts activism that artists were known about, and [those institutions] couldn’t say they didn’t know that this inequity existed in the late ’80s, early ’90s. They probably couldn’t say they didn’t know since Expo 1967.

LM: The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec had an exhibition of [Norval] Morrisseau in either the late ’60s or the early ’70s.4 So, they knew. And another curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with whom I spoke told me that “yes,” she knew about contemporary Native art at the time, but it was far too political, and the politics subverted the quality. When I was in Montreal, visiting the art institutions for that report, I happened to meet a man from the States who was in Montreal on business and when I told him what I was doing, he said, “You Canadians. In the States, we just would have passed a law [stating], ‘You have to include Native art.’ That’s it. We wouldn’t go around finding out why it’s excluded in all the institutions.” He said, “you’re far too polite.” And I laugh now, but there was truth to that. After this report, the Canada Council did a number of things. This report was submitted in 1991 and I didn’t start there until 1994 as the First Peoples Equity Coordinator. But prior to working there, the Canada Council started an incentive to purchase contemporary Native art through their acquisitions money. [But] it was a three-year term.

RD: I remember hearing that when they cut that program, there was a dearth—a serious gap—in collections. And, the same with the curator in residence program at Canada Council—[although,] even with that funding structure, art galleries and museums weren’t hiring Indigenous curators into permanent positions.

Within the first couple of minutes of our conversation, we’ve already identified that there still exists [a divide] between ethnography and contemporary art practice. It brings me back to the seeming dichotomy between “Turning the Page” and “The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion,” which you were working on almost simultaneously. I’m trying to imagine what it was like for you to work on coordinating and wrapping up your work on the task force and then working on this report for Canada Council. And then a decade later, you call for “art galleries [to] engage in a self-critical process that recognizes the historical reasons for the under-representation, misrepresentation and exclusion of Aboriginal art”5 in order to stop this shit—the strategic exclusion of Indigenous art from Canadian art history—from happening all over again.

LM: [ sighs ] I was curator in residence at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from ’89 to ’90, working on INDIGENA [with Gerald McMaster] there. I’m thinking out loud because it was crazy. Because on top of that, I was also working on research for the Canada Council report. Amazing what you can do when you’re young, eh?  

RD: Or when you’re one of the few.

LM: Or when you’re one of the few. Exactly. It’s interesting that you ask that question about those two reports, because I didn’t really see them linked at all at the time. I think that’s part of the way things were—that dichotomy—absolutely. Because the task force was more about ethnography, archaeology, repatriation. But you have to look at those silos, because in the art silo, there were no Native artists across Canada. And that’s why I didn’t see them [as] linked— because there was a whole silo to fill. And when I was at the Museum of Civilization, it was really the only game in town. There were a couple of other art museums across the country who were doing things [for Indigenous representation], like Thunder Bay Art Gallery, for instance, the MacKenzie Art Gallery and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. It was mostly because of the people who were in there who understood, who got it, who were our allies—and those people were few and far between. I was at the Museum of Civilization—which was ironic—so those two silos melded around the time that INDIGENA and Land, Spirit, Power happened because they did overlap for several months. And I remember talking to a number of artists about their work in the museum and how they felt about that and several of them said that they were fine with it because their history was there, their cultural heritage was in the museum. So, they saw it like a continuum to have contemporary art. That made me feel a lot better about what we were doing because, at the time when INDIGENA opened, in April of ’92, the National Gallery was getting ready for Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada to open. And so that’s when the whole thing about, “What do you call it?” and, “Where do you put it?” [with regards to] Indigenous art [came up]. Then, “What more do they want?”

RD: It’s so funny—when I’ve worked in institutions, I got that question: “What more do you want?” It’s a very strategic question, and it’s not a question that’s changed. That is still the question. When I was asked that question, I would think about Loretta Todd’s INDIGENA essay, “What More Do They Want?” from 1992. I don’t know how to answer it because, from my perspective, that question had been asked since Expo 1967. So, I’m standing in front of somebody in an institution—that person is highly educated, I’m educated—and they’re asking me what is enough, and I’m thinking, “Well, if you have to ask…” And so what amounts to a form of traction for Indigenous art in contemporary institutions are documents such as these recommendations and instructions: “Turning the Page” and “The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion,” “The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples” and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. So, while it’s important that people understand this history, we’ve said before: it’s been written about a lot. You’ve written about it at least four times.

LM: I’m tired of it. 

RD: I know when we look back at these histories, Indigenous cultural activists are asking settler organizations to look and think forward. So, in the context of this conversation, where we’re at now, and what we’re trying to do, part of looking back requires that we look forward and look at what new projects can happen and look at the way that you have had these experiences. So often, it is non-Indigenous folks in nonIndigenous institutions who ask the question, “What is enough?” In part, I think it’s because they are looking for a benchmark that will tell them and stakeholders that they have done enough; on the other hand, some genuinely want to know how to redress these histories of exclusion and marginalization, without perhaps understanding how they came to be in the first place. That question ultimately points back to the fact that the legitimacy and validity of Indigneous knowledge and methodologies in art-making haven’t taken full root within art galleries. That’s why the that question is still asked.

LM: Very few non-Indigenous people in institutions know that history. Largely what’s happening now is [driven by] white guilt. It goes back to what I said I found with that report, that there are individuals who get it, who are our allies, who may not know that history but want to learn about the history and do. But there still are very few, because they don’t want to admit that they don’t know and they have to do a whole lot of work to get that level of understanding and knowledge—for whatever reason, whether it’s racism or laziness or disinterest. There are myriad reasons. I remember us talking about the question “What’s enough?” when I was at the Canada Council from ’94 to ’98, and we initiated a number of programs and workshops. The disciplines were still very much siloed—there is dance and theatre and music, etc.—and I would have workshops with representatives across the country from each of those areas. I hired Morgan Wood to help me work on a number of projects at one point and I wanted to hire another First Nations person to do something else, and I went to the director of the arts division at the time and made my case for hiring another person for another research position—I was the only one at the Canada Council at the time—and this director said, “We have the one and you want another?” I was gonna get us T-shirts— three matching T-shirts with “the one,” “the other” and then “another one.” It was the same thing. And that’s really very disheartening that you still heard that question just a few years ago. That’s something that still hasn’t changed for a whole variety of reasons. With the Canada Council, with the curatorial residency program, which I started—I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but I rarely get credit for that—

RD: Do it—

LM: What I wanted to happen before this recent reorganization was this: when an art gallery came in with their grant application for operating funds, if they had a curatorial resident in their past, I wanted them to be assessed on their ongoing commitment to Indigenous art in their current application for operating funds. It never was implemented, of course, because it was like, “Oh, then no one will get funding.” It was just totally dismissed. But I thought, you have to make them accountable in the long term for that [claim to] commitment.  

RD: How did you come to develop a curatorial practice that met your minimum standards for curating Indigenous art?

LM: Talking with the artists. This is still part of my practice. So, say you have a premise for your exhibition—it [involves] travelling to the studios and talking to the artists and having respect for the artists’ intentions. I’ve heard such horror stories about the maltreatment that artists have experienced. The artist, and their work, is first to me. And even if it’s a group show, I like to talk to each artist about the other artists in the show and get a sense of how they think their works will go together.

Care is central to the ethic of Indigenous curating and this has not changed over the last 30 years. Care is the root of historical and contemporary scholarship on Indigenous art and activism; it is the root of resistance. BIPOC intellectuals, artists, poets and journalists have critical practices sharpened by love, by a deep and urgent sense of caring about what’s happening with them and those around them. These relationships are key to understanding the importance of “Turning the Page” and the Canada Council report, and their importance persists in curatorial practice today simply because the participants in both documents demanded—and continue to demand—respectful relationships between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in museums and art galleries. We work together today and in future, in roles that curators like Lee-Ann have helped make possible and define. We share a responsibility to understand that curatorial practice is about the ways in which we are accountable to each other and to the shared histories of artmaking and human rights in Canada and internationally.