Local Indigenous art isn’t all craft and legend paintings. A new exhibit at the Khyber Institute of Contemporary Art aims to broaden the often-narrow perception of work produced by Mi’kmaq and Maliseet artists.
“This is a good opportunity to see where Aboriginal art is at the moment, and you’ll be able to see something you’ve probably never seen before,” says Alan Syliboy, curator of Snapshot: East Coast Contemporary Aboriginal Art and a well-established Mi’kmaq artist in his own right.
Coming up the Khyber’s first flight of steps, visitors are met with a large tire suspended by the ceiling by two metal chains. It sports a dull, metal hubcap intricately carved with circling fish.
Charles Doucette’s work continues at the front of the main exhibition room, with tiers of bread slices (J-Loaf) and a pile of jet-black 3D letters on the ground (The Poem).
“I think the storytelling tradition is there and the symbolism,” says Syliboy. “You can see the symbolism travel through all the artists, but they all have different ways of working with those symbols and different approaches, different mediums.”
Frannie Francis’s jeweled-toned mixed media canvases are adorned with beads and feathers; her paint is used to mimic the texture of porcupine needles.
Gerald Gloade has recreated traditional images of portaging, eagles and fiddleheads in fiery digital prints.
With the Khyber’s blanch white walls and bare décor as its backdrop, Snapshot could be a contemporary exhibit in any modern art museum — save for the fact that you don’t get to see these artists elsewhere, often, says Syliboy. He describes a “lack of opportunity” for such expositions in Halifax.
The Khyber has been advertising Snapshot as “one of the first major exhibitions of contemporary Aboriginal art in Halifax since Re-claiming History opened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in June 2000.”
Why has over a decade past without such a show?
“Because, first of all, the art galleries hardly ever show their [Indigenous peoples’] work and, secondly, they [Indigenous peoples] don't feel comfortable in those situations, because they're all run by white people and there's no representation,” says Alan Collins.
A member of the Khyber board, Collins was the catalyst for the exhibit.
“Although the Khyber has some very good exhibitions,” he says, “they don't have very much diversity. I mean, they tend to be mostly by white artists from NSCAD. So we're trying to reach out to the other artists in the community.”
Collins approached Syliboy with the idea for the exhibit about a year ago. The institute then sought out the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre as a partner for an Indigenous cultural programming series. Other events in the works include a retrospective of Catherine Martin’s films at the Khyber, and workshops by Ursula Johnson and Bernie Francis at the friendship centre about storytelling and Mi’kmaq language, respectively.
“We wanted that the art exhibition would be in partnership to kind of create a bridge with the native community rather than just having a bunch of white people coming to look at work by native artists,” says Collins.
It is a sentiment Syliboy shares: “I hope that even Aboriginal people, our own people, come to see the show, too.”
His hope was fulfilled on Friday when Snapshot opened to a packed reception of Indigenous and non-Indigenous patrons, and everyone in between.
Aside from taking in the artwork, the visitors were treated to a ceremony by Indigenous elder Billy Lewis, and a traditional song and drumming by Catherine Martin.
The evening was rounded out with a performance by Syliboy’s band Lone Cloud. The group was premiering three new songs, including two set to animations of Syliboy’s own artwork.
“For Aboriginal artists,” says Syliboy, “it's a big day.”
Please enjoy the above audio, with sounds from the Friday, July 6 opening reception of the exhibit.
Snapshot: East Coast Contemporary Aboriginal Art is on at the Khyber Institute of Contemporary Art (1588 Barrington Street) until Aug. 17.