Two Indigenous artists are amongst those being recognized by this year’s Governor General Awards in Media and Visual Arts.
Inuit artist David Ruben Piqtoukun is being recognized for his work in sculpting and Cree artist Gerald McMaster for his contributions in curation.
Both have their work currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
“This particular one, she finally learned how, with the help of other shamen that coached her and taught her you have to behave this way, you have to be open-minded and you have to know the rituals,” said Piqtoukun describing his bronze sculpture Dancing on the Moon II.
“So, she followed all the rituals and she was able to dance on the moon.”
Shamen are often featured prominently in the works of Piqtoukun and he credits a Saskatchewan doctor for giving him the focus and vision to create such art in the early 1970s.
“He told me that I should collect stories from my people,” he said. “Collect the stories, collect the legends and when you come back to the studio, just utilize these stories and when you read them images will start appearing.”
In another part of the gallery, McMaster’s curatorial work is on display.
A large part of it examines the silver trade between settlers and First Nations people from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century.
“It quickly dawned on me that this notion of the trade silver really represented early relationships, early contact relationships,” he said. “And the trade silver was one that was specifically geared toward peace and friendship.
“As we know, contact entails a lot of wars and skirmishes, maybe intermarriages but a lot of trade for sure. And so, this collection represents that moment of early contact.”
McMaster said it has taken a long time for Indigenous artists to get the recognition they deserve from art galleries like the one in Ottawa but it finally appears things are changing.
“I think to be recognized by your peers, by the Canadian art community is significant. Because for so many years, I and other Indigenous curators and artists had been working to bring Indigenous artists out of the museum and into the art gallery,” he said.
“Almost like taking them out of the dead spaces and into a more living space.”
Piqtoukun agreed Indigenous artists now have the ability to present their work in the way they want.
“It gives us artists that extra freedom to be creative. You can choose your own material, the scale of your work and where you display. And everything else comes together slowly but surely.”
McMaster added this all makes it an exciting time to be an Indigenous artist.
“I think they’re (Indigenous artists) thinking differently. They’re borrowing on traditional knowledge, they’re looking at elders. They’re trying to develop that really deep thinking that was part of our ancestral ways of being, ways of knowing and bringing that into the present.”
Each Governor General’s award recipient gets $25,000 and a medallion.
Piqtoukun, McMaster and other award recipients’ work will be on display at the National Gallery of Canada until Jan. 29 of next year.