Why you should check out a modern Indigenous art exhibition the next time you travel
Indigenous peoples have been creating a wide variety of breathtaking visual arts worldwide since time immemorial. However, too often, it’s only these historical examples that non-Indigenous people get to see, perpetuating the idea that Indigenous art and Indigenous peoples are only in the past.
That’s why the new trend of Indigenous art exhibitions cropping up around the world is so important. These spaces give Indigenous communities an opportunity to showcase modern artworks that speak to culture, activism and the future, whether they’re from North Carolina or Australia.
“Forty percent of the United States literally doesn’t even know Natives exist anymore,” shared Jared Wheatley, founder of the Indigenous Walls Project in Asheville, North Carolina. “It’s not even erasure. It’s beyond erasure. It’s complete invisibility to 40% of the United States. That’s massive! So the big thing for us is: How do we get visible?”
For many Indigenous communities, art has been the answer to this gap in visibility.
In North Carolina, the Indigenous Walls Project helps Indigenous graffiti artists from around the country find wall space in and around Asheville for their murals.
A part art project, part community building tool, the group has twelve mural locations, in and around downtown Asheville all of which are free to view, with several located on and around Coxe and Biltmore Avenues.
Additionally, the organization hosted the first Urban Intertribal Graffiti Jam, which brought Indigenous graffiti artists from across the country to Asheville for live mural painting, conversation and an art market.
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For other Indigenous creatives, the modern art movement isn’t just about being seen by those outside of their community. It can also be about strengthening bonds within the community.
Also known as daphne, the Indigenous artist-run center is the first of its kind in Montreal. Founded in 2019 by four acclaimed Anishinaabe and Kanien’kehá:ka artists: Skawennati; Hannah Claus; Nadia Myre; and Caroline Monnet; the center is named after Anishinaabe artist Daphne Odjig.
It serves as a space in Quebec where Indigenous artists, especially those from French-speaking communities, can find programming, workshops, residencies and curatorial initiatives specifically created with them and their values in mind. The space also helps raise awareness and interest in modern Indigenous art and artists in the wider community.
“We intend for daphne to be a generative gathering space for our local Indigenous art community: a social space where we can come together and learn from each other or simply be with each other,” explained Lori Beavis, the executive director of Centre d’art daphne.
Visitors to the center can view exhibitions by Michelle Sound, Catherine Boivin and Suzanne Morrissette, among other artists. In the month of November, starting on the 1st, the center will also have its very first resident artist, Anishinaabe artist Christian Chapman.
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One of the reasons that alternative spaces like daphne are so important is that traditional art museums often have a complicated relationship with Indigenous communities.
Many museums, both past and present, have been called to task for displaying Indigenous artwork, artifacts and even sacred objects, without permission. However, many international museums are now striving to do better through the repatriation of culturally significant pieces and by showcasing modern examples of Indigenous art.
For example, the Sydney Modern Project, the newest expansion of Australia’s Art Gallery of New South Wales that’s opening in a separate structure across from the museum’s main building in December 2022, will highlight contemporary Indigenous artists in its exhibits. Focusing on present-day works instead of the nearly 2,000 pieces already in the museum’s collection was an intentional decision, made by Maud Page, the deputy director and director of collections at the museum.
“All the artwork is always going to tell a story,” said Phil Lockyer, head of Indigenous affairs at Tourism Australia, “but it also speaks to culture, to disposition, to power, to all of those other more contemporary challenges that minority people and people of color face.”
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By displaying modern art in as many spaces as possible around the world, Indigenous artists hope to create spaces where their artwork can help spark much-needed conversations about issues that affect their communities and how to move forward in a different, more equitable direction.
“There’s a thoughtful, considerate conversation that needs to last for generations now,” says Wheatley. “Because it’s lasted for generations going one-way, it needs to last for generations going the other way as well.”