Indigenous exhibition about sharing knowledge, artists say

The artists behind a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada say it’s about more than highlighting Indigenous art from around the world — it’s about spreading knowledge of their diverse cultures.

The exhibition is called Àbadakone, which means “continuous fire” in Algonquin. It will feature 70 artists from 40 Indigenous nations and 16 different countries, including artist and architect Joar Nango, a member of Norway’s Sámi community.

Sasha Suda, executive director of the National Gallery of Canada, says the exhibit ‘Àbadakone’ brings a new kind of energy to the gallery’s public spaces.  0:42

“During my education back home in Norway I very [quickly] realized that there was a rather big lack of discourse and knowledge about architecture seen from a sort of de-colonial perspective,” he told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning.

We focus on Sami Joar Nango from Norway, who is creating a library of books covered by hides including skunk, porcupine, and yes, reindeer. 8:28

“Issues dealing with my people’s architecture, they were hidden and hard to find, and also hard to even create discourse around.”

As part of the exhibition, Nango will construct a small library stocked with books on Sámi architecture and culture.

“The last 10 years as an architect, I guess that’s what I’ve been doing … trying to create conversations and trying to develop a broader sense of knowledge dealing with Indigenous architecture and our colonial history,” Nango said. “What better way to do that than making a library?”

Joar Nango’s contribution to the Àbadakone exhibition is a library, where he hopes to share traditional Sámi knowledge. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Nango has also recruited three traditional tanners — one Sámi and two from Canada — to create leather covers for his books using various animal hides.

“On one hand you have all the books and the books as knowledge holders,” he said. “[But] craft and material, technology in an Indigenous perspective, are also carriers of knowledge.”

Yvonne Imam’s art display is also a carrier of knowledge. Imam is part of a group of artists known as the Tribal Women Artists Cooperative from the North Karanpura valley in eastern India.

The group carries on the ancient tradition of rock art, usually depicting the stories, mythology and history of that region.

Speaking with CBC Radio’s All In A Day, Imam said it can be intimidating trying to recreate the art of her ancestors.

If you’ve been to the National Gallery recently, you may have seen the construction crews working in the front entrance, elaborate sculptures being drawn up the cords hanging from the ceiling of the Great Hall, and painters working on walls and floors. 12:10

“It is something that is symbolizing ancestral art,” she said. “These are things our ancestors made, and they had a message. So it is something very unique.”

The depictions are all drawn freehand, using traditional materials such as mud for red and cow dung for green, rather than chemical-based paints.

“[Using traditional material] denotes something. It connects us to our ancestors,” Imam said.

Nango said he hopes visitors come for the art, but leave having learned something new about an Indigenous culture.

“Unfortunately there is not enough discourse or knowledge shared about our colonial lives,” he said.

The exhibition starts Thursday night with a free public opening and will be on until April.