“Looking the World in the Face”

“Looking the World in the Face” offered an overview of contemporary art in Canada from a specific time frame (1972 to 2022) and of specific communities historically overlooked, exemplifying what is possible when the distinctive cultural diversity of Canada is brought into dialogue. Aesthetically, a beautiful visual rhythm emerges. Pedagogically, precisely because of the curatorial choices, visitors are drawn into the many narratives that the works communicate: stories of diasporas and migrations but also of ancient engagement with the land here. Without being reduced to a settler/Indigenous binary or romanticized into some notion of universality, what comes through are the many ways to consider belonging, or not belonging, to a place and the emotional terrain that accompanies it: the ambivalence, the fraughtness, yet also the love.

Meryl McMaster, Becoming Laura, 2012, photograph, giclée on cotton rag, 114 × 167 centimetres. Collection of Canada Council Art Bank. Courtesy Meryl McMaster.

Numbers and what they represent factor into this exhibition that critiques the collecting practices of the Canada Council Art Bank as well as celebrates the artists from what is the largest public collection of contemporary Canadian art—over 17,000 works by more than 3,000 artists. At the exhibition vernissage in June 2022, it was announced that a $600,000 open call for new work would be forthcoming, the first since 2011, prioritizing artists from communities often excluded. In all, 1,748 artists applied, resulting in 72 more works being added, 56 of those artists being new to the collection. Also of note in 2022, the Art Bank initiated a direct purchase of 10 works by 10 Black artists, all artists’ work being acquired for the first time. As a working collection with a directive to be out in circulation, representation matters.

As anniversaries provide a mark by which to measure operations and achievements, the Art Bank saw their 50th (#ArtBank50) as an opportunity for such an assessment. A public call in December 2021 invited curators to propose an exhibition that would align with the priorities set forth in the Canada Council’s 2021–2026 Strategic Plan: Art, now more than ever, to create “a sector in which everyone recognizes themselves and feels welcome.” Amy Jenkins, head of the Canada Council Art Bank, “wanted a curator who could sensitively deal with the collection.” The proposal that was selected was “Looking the World in the Face” by Amin Alsaden. Originally from Iraq and having only recently immigrated to Canada, Alsaden was in the position to evaluate the collection from the perspective of both an outlier as well as someone whom, as a racialized person, the collection is mandated to reflect.

Installation view, “Looking the World in the Face,” 2022, Âjagemô, Ottawa. Foreground: Cécilia Bracmort, Peau nature morte, sans titre III, 2020. Collection of Canada Council Art Bank. Photo: Brandon Clarida Image Services.

As he states, the exhibition “highlights works by historically underrepresented Indigenous and racialized artists, drawn from the Canada Council Art Bank collection, who speak to a plurality often obscured.” He also shared that the unintended result of the final selection suggests that the purchasing priorities of the Art Bank focused on diversity early on. Rather, he had to “squeeze” the collection in order to pull together such a selection.

Arriving at the final number of works—39—was not random. Alsaden approached the data mathematically, using the racial population percentages of Canada to determine the number of selected works per group, with one exception. To reflect the “robust holdings of Indigenous works,” the number for First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists was tripled. “Representation by quota might seem like a clinical exercise, but I believe that it is a crucial litmus test at this moment of reckoning, especially within national institutions that have the responsibility for representing all Canadians,” he’d said.

The works are arranged chronologically, in the order they entered the collection, starting with Norval Morrisseau. In Ojibwa Medicine Woman, 1966–68, Morrisseau’s signature powerlines emanate from the figure, whose feet are covered by moccasins; her hands, bear-like claws, communicate her potency as a healer. The decision to arrange the works this way, Alsaden said, “rejects the usual curatorial impulse towards classification, grouping and interpretation, acknowledging the shortcomings of existing colonial museological methodologies.” Another detail rejecting convention was the decision to renounce the curator as the authoritative voice. As many of the living artists as possible wrote their own statements on their work; for some, it was a chance to revisit pieces that entered the collection a decade, or more, ago.

Anna Jane McIntyre, Thinking of all the famous people I know, 2008, monoprint on paper, 39 × 29 centimetres. Collection of Canada Council Art Bank. Courtesy Anna Jane McIntyre.

The exhibition was installed at Canada Council’s art space, Âjagemô. Meaning “crossroads” in Algonquin, the space is a street-level public corridor. To create a more intimate setting, a temporary wall provided an enclosure. A warm clay tone visually dened the exhibition area, the common denominator colour code derived from the sum palette of all the works. The vivid orange of the temporary wall and artists’ statement labels was “an homage” to the final piece that entered the collection, Cécilia Bracmort’s Peau nature morte, sans titre III, 2020. The work was part of the 2022 purchase of works by Black artists. In the photograph, a self-portrait, Bracmort conceals her hair with an orange wrap. One eye confronts the viewer directly while the rest of her face is obfuscated by the prickly rind of a pineapple. Bracmort’s statement: “Fruit skins take the form of masks that Western society forces me to wear because of a colonial heritage, rooted in the history of slavery, that still shapes the collective imagination.” The response to the exhibition has been that it is an example of “radical diversity” or “radical representation,” and, in a way, this is accurate. At the same time, if this is an exhibition reflecting the contemporary population of Canada, why then is such an exhibition seen as an exception?

Inserting the names into the collection database of another large public collection—the National Gallery of Canada—produced discouraging results. Although many of the Indigenous artists’ works are in their collection, their prioritization of acquiring contemporary Indigenous art was slow to start. There has been a precedent of purchasing racialized artists from outside of Canada while artists at home are less regarded. At times, acquisition decisions appear to be motivated by reactionary manoeuvres meant to appease underserved communities that have gone unnoticed until there is a social or political crisis. This is not exclusive to the National Gallery; it is endemic nationally.

Installation view, “Looking the World in the Face,” 2022, Âjagemô, Ottawa. Collection of Canada Council Art Bank. Photo: Brandon Clarida Image Services. Left to right: Norval Morrisseau, Ojibwa Medicine Woman, 1966–68, oil and ink on paper, 79 × 58.5 centimetres; Ranjan Sen, I would rather be a shepherd, 1977, etching on paper, 75 × 55.5 centimetres; Noboru Sawai, Portrait of an artist in his New Gold Vest, 1969, collagraph and intaglio on paper, 68.5 × 54 centimetres.

The title was both a nod to the exhibition’s capacity to show a “microcosm of the global majority” as well as an assertion to be seen. The Art Bank’s decision to open up their collection for assessment offers an occasion to advance the numerical data towards a more accurate reflection of the Canada we see today. For Alsaden, it has been “an opportunity to centre those of us who are routinely relegated to the periphery.”

The artists included in the exhibition are: Barry Ace, Shuvinai Ashoona, Shelly Bahl, Carl Beam, Rebecca Belmore, Raphael Bendahan, Cécilia Bracmort, Reg Davidson, Sarindar Dhaliwal, Sherry Farrell Racette, Sunil Gupta, Jamelie Hassan, Jérôme Havre, Joanne Hui, Emily Illuitok, Gloria Inugaq Putumiraqtuq, Pedro Isztin, Serapio Ittusardjuat, Erik Jerezano, Sanaz Mazinani, Anna Jane McIntyre, Meryl McMaster, Norval Morrisseau, Indira Nair, Louise Noguchi, Julie Oh, Abdi Osman, Christina Peters, Ed Pien, Ramona Ramlochand, Paul Robles, Noboru Sawai, Ranjan Sen, Skawennati, Sam Tata, Jeff Thomas, Howie Tsui, Qavaroak Tunnillie and Chih-Chien Wang. ❚

“Looking the World in the Face” was exhibited at Âjagemô, Ottawa, from June 16, 2022, to May 22, 2023.

Leah Snyder is a digital designer and writer with a focus on how artists and art institutions use virtual spaces and digital technology for cultural transformation. She is currently based in Ottawa.