Picturing the Americas at the AGO

Originally published on Torontoist on June 17, 2015.

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Wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase.

The press kit for “Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic” is filled with numbers. In the 118 works on display, created by 85 artists and collected from 51 institutions in 11 countries, sharp-eyed viewers will note 116 birds and 105 horses lurking within the frames.

Scheduled to coincide with the Pan American and Parapan American Games, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest major exhibition spotlights painted interpretations of the landscapes of the Americas, covering a timeline from the dawn of the United States in the late 18th century through the Second World War. These pieces show, according to the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art Georgiana Uhlyarik, how the artists were “trying to understand how the environment shapes them, how they find themselves in this new place, and how ultimately they end up shaping the environment and understanding that they have to find a new way of belonging to this place.” Or, as Uruguayan artist Pedro Figari put it in 1924, “until we have shaken off the stupor that befogs us, we will not be able to perceive the beauties of our own earth and sky, nor the poetry of our own traditions, nor the greatness of our mission…[to] create the work of America.”

The exhibition’s 13 themes touch on topics ranging from landscape-painting techniques developed to capture landscapes unknown to those of European origin, to the depiction of railways as part of the environment. There’s an underlying narrative about how these works were used for deceptive or exploitative purposes, such as romanticizing the land to promote immigration or depicting the wealth of natural resources ready for investors to capitalize on.

That sense of exploitation carries over into the last, Toronto-centric portion of the exhibition: a wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase, the treaty where the Mississaugas signed over much of the land the city currently sits on. There are no paintings of landscapes accompanying the deal, just cold hard maps and signatures. The Toronto Purchase can stand in for the many treaties (or outright land grabs) made with indigenous cultures by colonial officials across the Americas over the period covered by the exhibition.

Of the artists represented, the most familiar will be those from North America. Canadians on display include Emily Carr, Cornelius Krieghoff, Paul Kane, and members of the Group of Seven, while from south of the border come pieces by Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keefe, and Grant Wood. Works from Latin America provide some of the exhibition’s most revelatory works, from José María Velasco’s depiction of indigenous Mexicans walking in front of ruins in Oaxaca, to Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral’s playful postcard-style depiction of monkeys in a tree.

Following its Toronto engagement, the exhibition will continue to follow major sporting events in the Americas. After a stop at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, these works will be displayed at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo on the eve of Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The AGO Expands Its Horizons With New First Nations Exhibit

Originally published on Torontoist on July 23, 2014.

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Patrick DesJarlait, Maple Sugar Time, 1946. Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Toronto has increasingly strived to honour the region’s First Nations—whether by acknowledging the historical presence of the Mississaugas of the New Credit on current City land or commemorating pre-European communities and trade routes. Now the Art Gallery of Ontario is following suit, staging an exhibition that highlights Anishinaabe artists from the Great Lakes region and making a greater effort to include indigenous art in its Canadian galleries.

“Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes” is a collaborative effort of the AGO and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in New York City, where the exhibition recently wrapped up after a one-year run. The displays are organized by themes relating to Anishinaabe concepts of place and spirituality, and how they interact with the outside world. One of the most intriguing themes is “cottager colonialism,” which suggests that the colonization of indigenous land continues by way of vacationing tourists. Political statements are scattered throughout the exhibition, from Nadia Myre’s bead-covered pages of the Indian Act to the use of historical indigenous status documents in Robert Houle’s “Premises” series. Floral beaded bags and leggings, meanwhile, provide inspiration for the contemporary paintings of Christi Belcourt, an Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award recipient.

For AGO curator Andrew Hunter, “Before and After the Horizon” serves as a “bold catalyst for rethinking parts of our permanent collection space.” The gallery is focused on acquiring and commissioning more First Nations art, contextualizing that art with displays of First Nations artifacts, and labelling Anishinaabe works throughout the institution with a thunderbird symbol. Hunter says these moves will encourage “thinking about how a certain history is represented, how certain communities are present within an institution whose history is largely a Western European model.”

Regular visitors can see the effects of these changes in the Canadian galleries. In the 19th-century salon room, a display of bandolier bags and a Chester Brown drawing of Louis Riel are nods to First Nations history. Norval Morrisseau’s six-piece Man Changing into Thunderbird has moved from a hallway to a prominent space across from Group of Seven works. Another Morrisseau work, the colourful Psychic Space, may be the first to catch your eye when walking into “Before and After the Horizon”—or perhaps it will be Michael Belmore’s Shorelines, a map of North America hammered out in copper, a metal sacred to the Anishinaabe.

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Robert Houle, Parfleche for Norval Morrisseau, 1999. National Museum of the American Indian. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

The Toronto incarnation of “Before and After the Horizon” features artists active in the city. Among them is photographer Keesic Douglas, who contributed his work Lifestyles, a quartet of photos depicting a contemporary urban First Nations couple living in a hipsterish apartment filled with stereotypical cultural artifacts. Interested in concepts of indigenous identity and representation, Douglas used historical paintings for reference when composing the shots.

Douglas was on hand for yesterday’s press preview, as was Bonnie Devine, who contributed two works to the exhibition. Inspired by the Canadian Shield landscape where she grew up as part of the Serpent River First Nation near Blind River, Devine’s contributions mix photos of rocks with “letters” drawing on the era of the Robinson Treaties of 1850, documents that turned her ancestors’ land over to the British.

Devine also contributed a piece installed in a regular gallery—one of several First Nations works that will continue to be displayed after the exhibition closes. For this piece, she took a wall map of Upper and Lower Canada, and transformed it into Battle for the Woodlands, where the Great Lakes are represented by animals, the St. Lawrence River runs red, and treaty boundaries are outlined. Accompanying the map is Treaty Robe for Tecumseh, a tribute to the War of 1812 hero.

Meanwhile, in the Walker Court, Robert Houle’s Seven Grandfathers transforms the roundels that encircle the space into ceremonial drums. This installation will provide the backdrop for the exhibition’s official public opening on July 30.