Indigenous creative culture: Gerald McMaster on Indigenous art past and present, worlds seen and beyond sight

Gerald McMaster

Since the dawn of history, art has enabled people the world over to understand themselves, their environments and their relations with others. That “ethical” dimension of art as it is brought into being by Indigenous artists is at the heart of Dr. Gerald McMaster’s current research and exhibition.

McMaster is a Plains Cree and a member of the Siksika First Nation. Since February 2016, he’s also been OCAD University’s Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Indigenous Visual Culture and Curatorial Practice (the first researcher at an art and design university to be awarded a prestigious Tier-1 CRC appointment). To this position, McMaster brings decades of experience as a writer, artist and curator who has worked at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Indigenous creative culture

While his official CRC title references “visual culture,” McMaster’s research in fact challenges Western society’s longstanding privileging of sight over other senses, perhaps especially in the study of art.

“The term Indigenous creative culture suits my interests far better,” says McMaster. “When we replace ‘visual’ with ‘creative,’ we open up to a much broader spectrum of perception and expression. I have been struck, for instance, by the limitations of sight when trying to understand how past Indigenous artists took into consideration not just their material surroundings but also the unseen world. And, among contemporary Indigenous artists, I’m detecting a powerful movement to explore a wider range of sensorial experiences.”



Making contact



Vision, nevertheless, is an important metaphor in several of McMaster’s CRC research projects, notably one focusing on the reverse gaze. “For most of colonial and post-colonial history, it’s been a scholarly one-way street,” McMaster notes. “We’ve primarily concerned ourselves with how Europeans and their descendants saw and represented Indigenous peoples. But what happens when we turn the gaze around? How did Indigenous peoples see and depict newcomers?”

McMaster was first drawn to this question by the discovery on Baffin Island, in the early 1970s, of a small wooden sculpture of a Nordic traveller made by an Inuit carver ca. 1250. More recently, his interest was galvanized through involvement with the AGO’s acquisition of a rare Haida sculpture from the 1860s of a European sea captain. Since then, McMaster has broadened his scope to understand and document further examples of the reverse gaze across North America and beyond.






“I’m fascinated by phenomenology,” McMaster reveals, “and by the lens it offers for understanding the interconnections among people, land, religion, other animals, art.”

On this topic, McMaster recommends David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (1996).

Could there be two more different regions than the Arctic and Amazonia? Separated by vast distances and subject to utterly different climate conditions, have the original peoples of those two zones anything in common?

As McMaster and his collaborator — Dr. Iris Edenheiser of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museen in Mannheim, Germany — endeavour to tackle these and other questions, one of the issues that fascinates them is the history of European representation of both the Arctic and Amazonia as “fantastical, mysterious” places. In addition, McMaster and Edenheiser are seeking to document the material technology Indigenous peoples used to survive in those challenging environments.

And that topic brings up a major thrust of their Arctic–Amazonia research project: “How are Indigenous artists in those regions representing one of humanity’s fiercest, most widespread threats: global climate change?”

Cape Dorset and Papunya

Image of African inspired mask projecting from third eye
Geronimo Inutiq, ULU (woman’s knife), digital print on linen, 32” x 32”, edition of 7

“The contemporary rise of ‘indigeneity’,” McMaster explains, “concerns the maintenance and expression of an Indigenous sensibility in a globalized world.” McMaster’s third CRC project — examining Indigenous artists communities at Cape Dorset (on Baffin Island) and Papunya (in Australia’s Northern Territory) — cracks open that subject by exploring the history, present and future of those “isolated” (a “southern projection”) places.

Working with Steven Gilchrist, an Indigenous scholar from Australia, McMaster hopes to illuminate the cultural, social and political forces at play in both communities. How, in Papunya and Cape Dorset, did artists who had never been trained in conventional art schools produce works that have gained such international acclaim? And how are changing economic circumstances — regionally and in the international art market — affecting Indigenous artists and their communities?



Indian Acts



Image of African inspired mask projecting from third eye
Sonny Assu, #photobomb, acrylic on panel, 40” x 84”

Many threads of McMaster’s Indigenous creative culture research are woven into Indian Acts: Truths in the Age of Reconciliation, an exhibition he has curated at Toronto’s Katzman Contemporary gallery. Indian Acts draws together the works of three young Indigenous artists: Sonny Assu, Nicholas Galanin and Geronimo Inutiq (madeskimo).

For McMaster, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports “made it clear that Canadian society remained surprisingly oblivious when it came to the nihilistic authority enshrined in the Indian Act.” Through the artists and works he selected for presentation at the Katzman, McMaster explores “a legacy that continues to reverberate among Indigenous peoples, both individually and collectively.”



With thanks to Marianne Katzmann and Dario Del Degan for generously sharing the Indian Acts exhibition images used in this article.



The art that appears at the top of this feature is Nicholas Galanin's S'igeika'awu: Ghost #002.

Morgan Holmes
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