“It’s artists who allow us to collectively imagine that we as Indigenous peoples can exist in a future that doesn’t include us yet.” - Heather Igliorte
Art has the ability to ignite thoughts that exist deep within us – ones we may have had trouble articulating before. Art gives a voice for those thoughts. Within contemporary Indigenous art, there lies an acknowledgment of histories ignored, a prioritization of Indigenous ways of knowing, and a push towards cultural sovereignty.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Igliorte, and we discussed the importance behind the actions and themes seen in contemporary Indigenous art. Heather is an Inuk academic and curator from Labrador whose work has influenced Indigenous persons and settlers alike. She has curated notable shows such as "We Were So Far Away": The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools (2009 – ongoing) and Decolonize Me (2011- 2015), which both provoke a new awareness of audience and artist/curatorial intention.
Concerning the oral history exhibition "We Were So Far Away", Heather and I discussed the issue of sensitive information and how it’s handled. Heather explained that for an Inuit/Indigenous audience, the exhibition is meant to encourage healing in the North. For other audiences, it’s meant to inspire awareness. As a curator, part of Igliorte’s work was to collect the stories of Inuit residential school Survivors. She told me:
“We were really conscious from the very beginning about trying not to reactivate someone’s trauma and leave them with it, because there are so few ongoing mental health supports in the North. The only thing we were looking for in a participant was someone who was already speaking out about residential school history and wanted to be doing this for their community.”
This exhibition of Inuit oral histories has forged a precedent of conscious healing through truth and agency in art and storytelling. The exhibition is still touring across Canada, and has visited many Inuit communities.
Igliorte’s other project, Decolonize Me, is an exhibition which features six Indigenous artists from Canada: Sonny Assu, Jordan Bennett, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Nigit’stil Norbert, Barry Pottle, and Bear Witness. The show interrogates colonial histories and voices, and gives space for recognizing the individual. The critiquing, however, is done in a way that invites all audiences to engage. It uses humour, juxtaposition, irony and music, drawing all visitors into a conversation about our shared history in Canada. It is with works such as these that we can see a platform emerging for unique Indigenous experiences – that there is no ‘one way’ to be Indigenous.
Igliorte’s curatorial work is fresh, and largely aims to grow space for Indigenous artists: “We are the first generation to not have been students in residential schools entirely, and so we are the first generation that has had a bit of freedom from this history. Maybe we are the first to have a different understanding of education and other opportunities, and we can engage with institutions meaningfully, by building on all the critical work that artists and elders and others have done before us. That’s why I’m so invested in curating emerging artists in the same shows as established artists, in the same shows as elders; because I see great value in keeping those intergenerational conversations alive in the exhibition space as well.” In her new exhibition, SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut (2016-2019), Igliorte has done just that – the show brings together four generations of Labrador Inuit and explores their arts and culture.
The arts provide a unique space to build a platform of individual presence, an expression of authentic Indigenous agency, and a projection of our best selves. Heather Igliorte is working on developing new pathways in Indigenous curatorial practice, by negotiating spaces, voices, histories and audiences. It allows us to imagine a future in the arts where we can collectively acknowledge our past, heal from colonial trauma, and cultivate the leaders of tomorrow. This generation sparks a new age – one in which we see ourselves thriving.
"We Were So Far Away": The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools has more information and content available online at http://weweresofaraway.ca/
The artists mentioned can be found online at: