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NG Canada creates Dept of Indigenous Ways

From the left to right: Steven Loft, new Vice President, and Michelle LaVallee, new Director of the newly created Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization at the National Gallery of Canada. Photos: S. Loft and M. LaVallee.

Tessa Solomon, National Gallery of Canada Creates Department Dedicated to Decolonization, ARTnews, February 2022

Amid a push to better represent Indigenous culture in art institutions worldwide, the National Gallery of Canada has committed to reimagining its collections and programs from a decolonial perspective. Today the museum announced the creation of the Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization, to be led by Michelle LaVallee as director and Steven Loft as vice president. The two will begin their tenures March 21 and February 7, respectively.

“Steven and Michelle will guide the Gallery’s work to deepen its relationship with Indigenous communities and Nations, locally, nationally, and internationally, and lead the work of decolonization and reconciliation through all the Gallery does,” museum director and CEO Sasha Suda said in a statement.

Loft (Kanien’kehá: ka, commonly known as Mohawk) most recently served as director of strategic initiatives for Indigenous Arts and Culture and director of Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, a program run by the Canada Council for the Arts. A curator, writer, and mixed media artist, he co-edited the books Transference, Technology, Tradition: Aboriginal Media and New Media Art (Banff Centre Press, 2005) and Coded Territories: Indigenous Pathways in New Media (University of Calgary Press, 2014), and has been a Curator-in-Residence, Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada.

LaVallee (Ojibway) is currently the director of the Indigenous Art Centre at Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, the country’s oldest and only federal heritage collection devoted to Indigenous art. Previously, she was a curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, where she curated “Moving Forward, Never Forgetting” (2015). That show engaged “the personal, intergenerational, and intercultural effects of the aggressive assimilation of Indigenous peoples in Canada,” including the traumatic legacy of residential schools, out-of-culture-adoption, and the loss of ancestral land rights.

“My career is dedicated to championing Indigenous art and artists within institutions,” LaVallee said in a statement, adding, “I am invested in change, and work to challenge historical relationships with art and history museums towards respect, trust, reciprocity and accountability towards a new way of engaging with people, space, and the land.

Canada’s Indigenous artists and curators have been at the forefront of efforts to reckon with colonial legacies in museums. For example, Wanda Nanibush, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, has helped the museum significantly bulk up its Indigenous art holdings. In a move to recognize First Nations people as the original occupiers of Canada, the gallery’s J.S. McLean Center for Indigenous and Canadian Art added translations of each wall text into the language into Anishinaabe, one of the oldest North American languages. Anishinaabe is also used as a collective term for related groups, including the Ojibwe and the Algonquin.

In 2008, the Canadian government commissioned a report on the long-term effects of the state-sponsored residential school system, which isolated more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and forcibly enrolled them in an attempt to make them assimilate. The schools were established in the 1880s, with the last one closed in late 1990s. The commission report that was issued in 2015 found that the system amounted to “cultural genocide.