Sakahàn, currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada is comprised of works by over seventy-five international indigenous artists. It is the largest exhibition of its kind mounted anywhere, ever. And it not only occupies much of the NGC, but in one instance it literally covers it (in addition to also involving other venues around Ottawa). If there was ever a case for long, slow, and repeated visits, followed by careful and ongoing reflection, this is it. I've been twice and am still astounded by, and still looking for ways to cope with, its breadth and depth.
So, allow me to indulge in an anecdote as a coping strategy. In 1995 I had the unexpected privilege of being a guest of the University of Auckland's Maori Studies degree program at the religious, administrative, and social centre of the campus' indigenous population: the Marae. The one-room building was warm and dark, ornately decorated, and the periphery lined with solemnly seated and elaborately dressed people. I was seated among them. Our task, I quickly found out, was to greet the incoming first-year students by performing the 'Hongi' with each and every one. You say, 'tena koe' (literally, 'here you are'), lean towards one another, gently and firmly press nose, bridge, and forehead together and linger for a moment in a gesture that welcomes and simultaneously acknowledges exchange and personhood. It took a long time. Once each person's face had touched every other, various rituals and rites took place (all in Maori) and then, as I recall, Marae business was conducted.
Long, slow, deliberate, monotone speeches were made. I passed the time looking around the sanctuary, soaking in the intricacies of the carving and the other art on display. I assumed that many people had fallen asleep when every so often someone would offer a close-eyed rejoinder, having been intently following all along. The experience demanded sustained, thoughtful engagement and was both utterly foreign and richly surprising.
And so it is with Sakahàn. It is not only big; it is complex, sprawling, varied, and replete with overt and latent political and aesthetic content.
Brett Graham and Rachel Rakena's Aniwaniwa, which represented New Zealand in the 52nd Venice Biennial in 2007, encourages people to lounge on their backs. Overhead are large round oculi or screens housed in giant tire-like forms that variably read as fungi. Moving images appear of Maori underwater, dressed in period clothing and performing domestic or perfunctory tasks. At times they simply move through the water, apparently unaffected by the inability to breathe nor the impediment to mobility. The temptation to drift off to sleep oneself is strong and the soporific effect both opens the possibility for half-conscious insights and argues for modes of thinking that are perhaps less strictly rational, less Western. The work references the deliberate flooding of a New Zealand town in order to create a hydroelectric dam and emphasizes the all too familiar history of Western exploitation of natural resources that many global indigenous populations continue to share.
Perhaps the most overt gesture of resistance is expressed by Jimmie Durham's full-sized single-person airplane crushed by a massive fallen boulder Encore Tranquilité. The event long since having happened, the work is silent now. The loud shock that would have woken us exists only in our imaginations, particularly when you realize that the boulder is now replaced by a fiberglass replica that clings desperately to any notions of verisimilitude. We are left with an irreparably damaged, permanently grounded, and inauthentic symbol of the triumph of Western ingenuity and invention.
Sakahàn is meant to be the first of three large-scale surveys of international indigenous art that will occur every five years at the National Gallery (and an opportunity to expand our art vocabulary: quinquennial). This is a commitment that is grand and auspicious, and makes much progress towards reifying indigenous culture as present, relevant, and contingent, as opposed to exclusively historical and ethnographic.
National Gallery of Canada: http://www.gallery.ca/en/
Sakahàn continues until September 2.
Andrew Wright is an artist and an assistant professor of visual art at the University of Ottawa. His mid-career survey exhibition Penumbra is currently on view at the University of Toronto Art Centre until June 29 as a primary exhibition of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. He is Akimblog's Ottawa correspondent and can be followed @AndrewWrightArt on Twitter.