After Essay (2002)

2002. In Lynda Jessup with Shannon Bagg (Eds.), On Aboriginal Representation in the Gallery, pp. 37—42. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

After Essay—Questioning History, Questioning Art by Richard Fung

I immigrated to Canada from Trinidad with my family in the early seventies. To qualify on the point system, my parents had to show they could support their dependent children and that they could speak one of the two official languages, English or French. When I disembarked at the airport in Toronto, I received a pink form—a Canadian Immigration Identification Record—that detailed my immigration status. Stapled to my passport, this slip entitled me to re-enter Canada legally and to visit the United States without a visa, something I could not do with my Trinidad and Tobago citizenship documents. My volunteer work as a translator for Latin American immigrants and refugees in the mid—1980s instilled a paranoia (or perhaps a sober realization) that my political activism might one day jeopardize my immigration status. This, coupled with a growing recognition that I had set real roots in Toronto, drove me to apply for Canadian citizenship. I remember a shaky moment in the qualifying interview when the citizenship judge asked who the head of state was. I answered confidently, "the Queen of England." I was, after all, born and raised in a British colony. But she looked sternly at me and solemnly pronounced, "No, the Queen of Canada." I now carry a Canadian passport.

At the start of the Vancouver session of "A Working Discussion on Aboriginal Representation in the Art Gallery," the delegates were welcomed to Musqueam territory by Debra Sparrow. I had undergone no official process to come in to her territory—no interviews, no language tests, no pink forms, no border guards, no customs. I could enter and leave Vancouver without even being aware of whose land
I was visiting. During the discussions that followed, other Aboriginal speakers outlined a political geography not illustrated in any widely available contemporary world atlas. It is precisely this parallel cartography that dramatizes a defining fact of Canada, its colonial character. The fact that Canada—like all the states of the so-called Americas—is an actively colonizing nation built on and thriving at the expense of other living nations is seldom acknowledged or appreciated in its full magnitude. The implications of this geopolitics puts Canadian nationalist fears about American encroachment in another perspective and renders surreal the smug sanctimoniousness with which official Canadian discourse pronounces on the Balkans or other situations of territorial dispute.

Colonization in Canada no longer demands a literal war. Paraphrasing Michel Foucault, the tanks at Kahnesata:ke represent only the failure of state power (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983). Canadian legitimacy is accomplished hegemonically through a social consensus that saturates our institutions of governance, law, information, education—and our institutions of culture and art. The large institutional gallery is historically one of the places where we learn narratives about civilization and cultural superiority. In this sense, the gallery can rationalize the colonial project as a civilizing mission. This is what is at stake in any discussion of the relationship of Aboriginal historical art to the historical time lines of Canadian art in the public gallery. The placement of objects—their contextualization, juxtaposition, and institutional housing, whether in an ethnographic museum or an art gallery—both reflects and constructs competing claims of legitimacy.

At the conceptual core of the issue is the double-sided truth that, as Gerald McMaster pointed out, Canadian history and Aboriginal histories have been intertwined for
many years, and, as Lee Ann Martin appended, this relationship is defined by unequal power. Such a situation produces a series of dilemmas. Ignoring Aboriginal work in the historical time line of Canadian art misrepresents the history of artistic production in this land, but including Aboriginal works within an already established and legitimated Euro-Canadian framework can reinscribe the processes of colonization and subjugation. As Audra Simpson asked. "What does it mean to name us (Mohawks) as Canadians?"

Yet it is Canadian, not Aboriginal, institutions that are generally in a position to frame these works for the public, because they have the resources, the status, and in most cases the collections, as well. This forum is not set up to discuss the question. "How can we include Euro-Canadian objects in Aboriginal aesthetics or art history?" Tom Hill described the inclusion of works on Native spirituality by non-First Nations artists in exhibitions at the Woodland Cultural Centre, but he also used the metaphor of being invited to play on a rink where some players have skates and others do not, to illustrate the difference between his institution and the large urban public museums and galleries. Taking this question even further, Jolene Rickard asked whether either the museum or the gallery constituted "neutral legal space" when "Native history is not acknowledged within governmentally-empowered space within our homelands."

The historic split between institutions of art and those of ethnography relates to divergent meanings of the word "culture." In the past, this division was reflected in what I have referred to as an apartheid in cultural funding. The Canada Council for the Arts and other arts councils based their decisions on Eurocentric narratives of high art that start with the Greeks and develop dynamically toward modernism and beyond to postmodernism. The "other" cultures were seen as frozen in time and delegated to the purview of the various departments of multiculturalism or Indian Affairs. Though formally banished, traces of these assumptions still linger within the institutional divide. Regarding institutions of exhibition and display, Ruth Phillips noted that an art gallery carries more "symbolic capital" than an ethnographic museum. Thus to recognize historical Aboriginal pieces as art serves to legitimize their worth. Many historical pieces in collections were made specifically for non—Native trade, but in what ways does the foregrounding of aesthetic qualities detract from the significance, spiritual or otherwise, of other works? As writers such as Gayatri Spivak and Clyde Taylor remind us, art is not an innocent category. The development of the philosophical ideas of aesthetics and art which inform the practices of art galleries are intricately intertwined with histories of colonialism, racism, and Eurocentrism (Spivak 1999, Taylor 1998). Morgan Wood raised the issue of repatriating spiritual items. Can Aboriginal historical pieces find an appropriate home in an institutional site that does not recognize all aspects of their value? This is a challenging question. "Objects speak, but objects are also silenced," noted Dot Tuer.

While it is necessary to develop well-funded Aboriginal-specific spaces, the large public art galleries are important for their symbolic and pedagogical functions—and these institutions are neither static nor unchangeable. What they show, how they show it, and to whom they show it—not divorced, of course, from whom they address as their audience—has evolved over time. Under current financial pressures, for example, we are seeing a return to more popular, and populist directions as they attempt to increase audiences. Understanding that shifts have taken place allows us to imagine the institution differently. But before art and audiences, or rather, in tandem with art and audiences, there must be a shift in who makes the decisions and who defines the terms of inclusion. Jamelie Hassan raised the crucial (and for most institutions presumably embarrassing) question of how many galleries have Aboriginal members on their boards of directors and, for those that do, whether these members sit on committees that exercise power to affect the acquisition and exhibition of artworks? Richard W. Hill raised the question of institutional change at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Will the gallery hire First Nation curators and institute comprehensive equity programmes for Aboriginal people? Chief Curator Dennis Reid responded that the AGO was "willing to be pursued." Hill sought assurances that if Aboriginal people engaged in a process of negotiation or collaboration with the institution their recommendations would be enacted.

I started my introduction to the Toronto session by lauding the courage of participants in undertaking this conversation. I was thinking back to my tenure on the first Canada Council Advisory Committee for Racial Equality in the Arts (an initiative of then-director Joyce Zemans, convened by Chris Creighton-Kelly). The Committee brought together a cross-disciplinary selection of First Nations, people of colour, and white artists, as well as academics from different regions of Canada to study how the Council functioned to support or pass over the work of non-white artists. We made recommendations to reaffirm the existing strengths of the Council, to begin the process of systemic change, and to guide the implementation of those recommendations. One of the members, Margo Kane. also sat on the Aboriginal Committee which met simultaneously with a complementary mandate.

Although there is still work to be done at the Canada Council. I remain pleased with our efforts. Yet I suspect I was not the only participant for whom the experience involved stress and anxiety. Many of us from outside of the Council were worried about maintaining our integrity and our reputations among those we regarded as our home communities. We did not want to be co-opted by the institution. On the other hand, we could detect fear on the part of some Council employees (at that time the Council had an all-white staff except for Creighton-Kelly who was hired on contract) that work might be disrupted, that art might be overpoliticized, or that the process might engender a political backlash (Fung 1993).

In the end, the Committee made a thorough analysis of not only how and why First Nations artists and artists from minoritized racial and ethnic communities were handicapped at Council, but also the ways in which they were enabled. We devised recommendations to eradicate and redress the effects of systemic racism in twelve areas, including communications, human resources, juries and advisory committees, board appointments, designated funding, and definitions of professionalism. Although it is important to open up jobs, equity does not begin or stop at a hiring process, nor are internships a substitute for real jobs. The Committee structure was continued to support the work of the equity officer employed to implement the changes. Finally we set a time line to achieve these goals.

The racial logic that drives settler states such as Canada overlaps with racial ideologies connected to other instances of colonialism. These in turn manifest themselves in Canada against the presence of diasporic communities of colour. Wendy Brady has described the unwillingness of dominant institutions in Australia to absorb and respect Aboriginal protocols. Culture and colour are issues for Aboriginal peoples. Yet Aboriginal sovereignty differs importantly from racial equity in its relationship to the land. It contests the master narratives of the nation.

The answer to this central question posed for the session on history and art is neither simple nor straightforward. There can be no single answer. What is required is a strategic decision based on an assessment of political and practical gains and liabilities for each instance in which the issue arises. I suggest that the location of who is answering the question also guides, if not determines, the response. On this question, for example, the tone and direction of the discussion in Toronto was quite different from that in Vancouver. The Toronto discussion focused on the broader political and conceptual questions at stake, while the Vancouver discussion focused on more pragmatic concerns of implementation and experience. This no doubt derived from the selection of individual participants, the order in which the consultations took place, the artistic and demographic economies within the two cities, and the differing histories of community relationships forged by the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario. But it also reflects the diversity in culture and in the political strategies adopted by Aboriginal artists and nations in the centre-east and on the west coast in response to varying contexts.

The working discussion was an important forum for sharing ideas and opening up questions regarding the relationship of historical Aboriginal works to the space of the Canadian historical gallery. Yet there is an impatience with too much talk. Both the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Vancouver Art Gallery must be congratulated on their willingness to participate in these exploratory conversations, but if the good will is to last, those with power in the galleries must demonstrate their commitment to further decolonize their institutions through an ongoing formal process of power-sharing, collaboration and change.


Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. 1983. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fung, Richard. 1993. Working through Cultural Appropriation. FUSE 16: 16—24.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Taylor. Clyde R. 1998. The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract — Film and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.