“ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home”
When I go to see an exhibition and it is particularly good, I feel a sense of urgency to sit down and describe why this is. It happens whether I am on assignment or not, and I am unsure if I am more motivated by the act of reconstructing the experience or sharing it. “ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) was one such example, and, to be declarative about a show that was anything but, I found it to be groundbreaking. Maybe “groundbreaking” is not quite the right expression, since an Indigenousled exhibition that asks questions about the notion of home without the obligation to answer does not break ground so much as it reclaims it. “Ground” is central to the collection’s delicate interrogation of home, which is more of a paradigm than a location, as much invested with landscape and memory as it is with architecture.
The success of the show—beyond the many interesting items, images, practices and people within it—lies in its intent, which by extension includes practices of curation and exhibition. Co-curator Rafico Ruiz explained, as he walked me through the show that occupied six rooms plus a porch (more on this in a minute), that the exhibition’s intended audience is Northern Indigenous peoples. Imagine reciprocity honoured in a European tradition of cultural institutions that are notoriously extractive, particularly when it comes to Indigenous art, artifacts and customs. Imagine, too, that you could enter a space and feel encouraged to ask questions. Imagine feeling welcomed. Already that is something unique in an institutional space, many of which can feel hostile or clinical. This welcoming is partly achieved by the remarkable lack of didactic wall text—those insistent agglomerations of cards, panels, or vinyl letters without borders that so often lurk on the edge of image or artifact, whose purpose is to “tell.” These texts are often performing discreet but important work delivering an extended imperial narrative, which generally depends on using European custom as a comparative baseline for understanding. Here, there is no gratuitous text, there is no “this means that.” Rather, words are applied practically to help visitors situate themselves in the separate rooms that do not pronounce distinct compartmentalizations. Wall text is also used to prompt questioning and to share perspectives. I see this lack of didacticism as one of the more sincere gestures towards decolonizing the institution, and it buttresses the CCA’s “Living Lands” initiative, whose working group, formed in 2021, aims to support projects “fostering affirmative relationships with Indigenous and other peoples across Tiohtià:ke/ Mooniyang/Montréal.”
In the case of “Towards Home,” the collaborators seem to insist that the space be made hospitable, in the way that home, in its ideal sense, should be welcoming. The invitation begins architecturally, with a replica of a porch such as would be found in a Northern home. Designed by Métis architect Tiffany Shaw in conversation with Inuit artist, poet and curator Taqralik Partridge, the porch serves as a liminal zone between the rest of the institution and an entryway to the galleries that comprise the show. The porch, Shaw explains in an interview with Rafico Ruiz and Ella den Elzen (available on the CCA website), can have a contracting (on entrance) or expanding (on exit) quality; it is fettered with necessities for daily life, and holds traces of the outdoors, such as soil, stones and water that once was snow. It is a distinct architectural atmosphere filled with air of a different temperature from the rest of the house and carries the scent of outside brought in as molecules clinging to the bodies that enter the space.
In the context of the exhibition, the porch prepares visitors for the ground they will cover and prompts them to consider what is atmospheric, as they receive cues about the environment, thanks to the parkas and toques hung on hooks, shoes and winter boots dynamically assembled along the wall, headlamps, a thermometer, a kettle arranged in a manner that suggests an intimate relationship between people and things. There is a wonderful architecture-object narrative here. I am not prepared for the way in which the humble materials—the particle board and exposed frame of two-by-fours and the fact that the freezer is here and not elsewhere in the house—reignite the memory of similar pragmatic architectures from my childhood in rural Manitoba. It is important to say that I am not Indigenous and am writing on the show from a limited knowledge of Northern Indigenous practices. However, I am struck by how familiar many aspects of it are, and this familiarity is largely conveyed through the idiom of landscape and materials. Familiarity is also a key characteristic of “home,” and if I am moved by the invitation made by this space, I imagine this exhibition would be very powerful to its designated Northern audience.
There is a visceral peripheral nostalgia that pulls me through the show, which is designed to evoke a journey or traverse, from the way the quality of light changes from room to room, and the paint on the walls, chosen to highlight the movement of sun through a day and maybe through seasons, to the facsimiles of landmarks by way of ravines represented by a snaking blue floor decal or glimpses of distant horizon lines in video projections. Nostalgia is a genre of memory laced with loss, and while the curatorial statement positions the interrogation as futurefacing, one cannot see a Northern landscape at this moment in time without feeling a pang of lament for what was and what will be, in the face of climate change. The first room designed by artist Geronimo Inutiq is redolent with domestic nostalgia as he recreates the sparse interior of a “matchbox” home of the Canadian government-subsidized Northern housing program. In Inutiq’s recreation, two wooden chairs face a table on which a radio sits as it plays a trilingual program, Uvatinni Uqaalajunga/J’appelle chez nous/I’m Calling Home. Above this is a facsimile of a window with a bright snowy landscape, and on the white panelled walls to the side hang framed faded Polaroids of Northern landscapes. This gallery has a colloquial cartographic feel, since not far from the house interior lies an abandoned child-sized pink bike next to the horizontal slat-walled exterior of a house, whose consistent presence would be a signal of home and a marker of community.
Nostalgia is of ten acutely rooted in places, and in the case of “Towards Home,” memory, landscape and loss intersect with “invisible or throw-away spaces,” as coined by Partridge in reference to Inuit or Sámi relationships to land. Shaw explains the significance of “throwaway spaces” as a conceptualization of the place that she feels many “Indigenous people occupy but that other people do not see.” Such spaces are featured in Partridge’s colour prints, Dorval Circle Stream, 2018, and Underpass, 2020. In the first, a small stream pushes towards the photo’s foreground, its progress frustrated by pooling; to the image’s left is a gated agglomeration of hydro cables. In the second image, a lone figure with a white plastic bag in hand in a nightscape exits from a brightly lit cement underpass. These are “other” Indigenous landscapes, as Dorval is home to Ullivik, a centre that serves as a temporary shelter for Inuit who need advanced medical treatment in Montreal. Situated between two major highways, the centre operates as a troubled porch to Montreal, offering more constriction than expansion for those who do not return home and struggle to adapt to the urban environment with limited social, financial, or infrastructural support. A series of these images face the wall opposite, which reflects images with vestiges of more traditional Inuit snowscapes—in one a tethered husky stands stoically at the frame’s edge. These photographs share the gallery with Inissaliortut/ Making Room, 2022, by Inuit artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Partridge—a 20-minute film that takes place on two vertical screens, the temporal and spatial distance allowing for two monologues to unite in a condemning conversation regarding the damage of colonialism on First Nations. I watch this twice.
The final gallery holds the Sámi Architectural Library, which serves as a kind of expansive exit porch to the show, conceptualized as a nomadic installation that grows with each iteration. In this case, selections from the CCA collection have been placed in conversation with Sámi understandings of space. Joar Nango, co-curator, describes the library more in terms of placemaking than architecture, in acknowledgement of the abstract processes involved in the paradigm of home. As a whole, “ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home” is an exemplary effort in placemaking while acknowledging the constrictions of existing within a larger colonial construct. I stayed here a long time, until, quite fittingly for a show about the North, the cool ambient temperature urged me to leave. Leaving the CCA, I observed that the weather had changed—the temperature had dropped significantly and the wind was up. As I headed towards home, I observed these meteorological attributes with a rekindled reverence; arriving there, I did not rush to translate the experience but rather found myself travelling those spaces again and again until the words arrived. ❚
“ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ/Ruovttu Guvlui/Towards Home” was exhibited at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, from June 11, 2022, to February 12, 2023.
Tracy Valcourt lives and writes in Montreal, where she recently completed her PhD in Humanities at Concordia University.