Ryan Rice, curator of raise the flag, an exhibition at OCAD University’s Onsite Gallery, Toronto, September 2017.

By Barb Nahwegahbow

TORONTO – You have until December 10 to see raise a flag, the inaugural exhibition at OCAD University’s new Onsite Gallery. The show is curated by Ryan Rice, a citizen of Kahnawá:ke and the Chair in Indigenous Visual Culture at OCAD U. Onsite Gallery is located at 199 Richmond Street West in Toronto’s Entertainment District.

President and Vice-Chancellor of OCAD U, Dr. Sara Diamond said at the opening last month, “it is very fitting that our first exhibition showcases work representing First Nations, Inuit and Metis art.” Diamond said, “the university recognizes and deeply values the importance of providing a learning environment that celebrates and values Indigenous cultural knowledge and fosters inclusivity, diversity and the recognition of First Nation, Metis and Inuit history and their significant contemporary art, design and culture.”

The exhibition is a disruption, not a celebration, of Canada 150, said Rice, and presents the work of 33 Indigenous artists with 49 pieces from the Indigenous Art Collection held by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The collection with over 4,000 works, “is the most comprehensive collection of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada and probably the world. It’s our art history,” Rice said.

Rice worked with the INAC collection from 1998 to 2002. When OCAD U started discussions about a Canada 150 project, Rice offered to curate an exhibition with works from the Collection.

He proposed a show that would include pieces acquired between 2000 and 2015. That involved looking at 622 works. “I wanted works that would provoke the idea, raise a flag – identity, representation, the issues that we’re dealing with [like] residential schools, water, land, reclamation, reconciliation.” These are long-standing issues, Rice said and these works prove it.

Rice was careful to include a good representation of Inuit, First Nations and Metis, men, women, and emerging, established and mid-career artists. “It was like pulling a community together and gathering them around and looking at, how do these works speak to each other,” said Rice. The exhibition was two years in the making. A major challenge for Rice was working from blueprints because the gallery didn’t exist. “My curatorial eye is all about space and that didn’t exist,” he said. He followed ceremonial protocols when the works were brought into the gallery and invited an elder to welcome and bless the pieces.

Carl Beam, Christi Belcourt, Rebecca Belmore, Alex Janvier, Rachelle Lafond, Faye HeavyShield and Annie Pootoogook are among the 33 artists whose work is in raise a flag. The works tell the story of Indigenous culture, the devastation of colonization, and the beauty of resistance and resilience.

“It is an exhibition that contains many of the truths that this country is seeking in a time of reconciliation,” said Rice in his remarks. “Truth embedded in this national Indigenous art collection contain narratives, dreams, magic, medicine, sorrow, maps, philosophies and it perhaps may contain many answers.”

Photographic works by Inuk artist Barry Pottle are stark reminders of the government’s attempts to erase Indigenous identity through erasure of names and cultural practices. Titled Awareness, the works show the Eskimo Identification Tag system implemented by the federal government between 1944 to 1969. Every Inuk was issued an identification tag with a number and no name (because the names were deemed too complicated for bureaucrats), and required to have this on their person. One is struck by the fact that this practice ended less than 50 years ago. The photo of the tag shows resistance through a name penciled on the tag in English and Inuktitut.

The mixed media installation, slivers, by Faye HeavyShield, a member of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta celebrates the Indigenous relationship with water. To create her piece, HeavyShield photographed rivers and made a rippling curtain of water from hundreds of digital images, individually folded to create arrowheads. The love that went into the creation of the work is palpable.

An Education Guide for raise the flag is available on-line, free of charge at www.ocadu.ca/onsite. Onsite Gallery is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday.