At the entrance to Art Toronto is a land acknowledgment: the fair, it says, takes place on treaty land of the Mississauga of the Credit First Nation, “an area on which the Haudenosaunee, the Wendat and the Anishinaabe have thrived through time.” In Canada, which has over 630 First Nation communities and more than 50 Indigenous languages, such a recognition is essential. But it has a special significance for this year’s edition of the country’s largest art fair, where a third of the more than 60 participating galleries are showing works by First Nations artists.
Indigenous artists have been represented at the fair before — Montreal dealer and longtime participant of Art Toronto Pierre-François Ouellette, for instance, has brought works by Cree artists Kent Monkman and Meryl McMaster to the show for years. But the impressive turnout of First Nations artwork in the 2021 edition is likely due to an increase in the number of galleries exhibiting and representing Indigenous artists both in Canada and abroad, says Mia Nielsen, director of Art Toronto.
“There was no call out to galleries to submit any specific work, only to submit their best work,” Nielsen told Hyperallergic.
The physical show opened to the public today at the Metro Toronto Convention Center and runs through the weekend, but a parallel virtual version of the fair, which includes viewing rooms and virtual reality exhibitions, is accessible until November 7.
“As Canada’s international art fair, we have an opportunity to connect with a wide and diverse audience to share the story of Canadian art,” Nielsen said. “The First Nations perspective is essential to that narrative.”
Also worth noting is the presence of galleries that specialize in the work of First Nations artists, more than ever before at the fair. Five of them — K Art in Buffalo, New York; Feheley Fine Art in Toronto; and Fazakas Gallery, Ceremonial / Art, and Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver — show exclusively Indigenous artists. K Art, which opened its 2,000-square-foot space last year, is also Indigenous-owned, founded by Dave Kimelberg of the Seneca Nation of Indians (Bear Clan).
“Indigenous art has so much to offer and I think sharing and amplifying Indigenous voices within the contemporary art world is a huge asset to the conversation,” Fazakas Gallery director and curator LaTiesha Fazakas told Hyperallergic. “Showing Indigenous artwork at art fairs really helps to advance those voices and create an opportunity to deepen and enrich the dialogue.” The gallery has two presentations at Art Toronto, a group booth as well as a site-specific installation of laser-cut painting and assemblage works by Cree Métis artist Jason Baerg that reflect on the original Mohawk word for the city, “Tkaronto,” meaning “where there are trees standing in the water.”
Devan Patel, co-owner and director of Patel Brown Gallery, believes “a real conversation about Canadian art can’t take place without a presence of Indigenous voices.”
Patel Brown’s booth at Art Toronto features Indigenous works alongside pieces by creators from different backgrounds. Japanese-Canadian artist Alexa Hatanaka’s meticulous linocuts on handmade washi paper join stunning colored pencil drawings by the late Inuk artist Tim Pitsiulak. Sleek patinated bronze sculptures by Oluyese, whose work is often informed by his Yoruba heritage, meet vibrant acrylics by Native Art Department International, the collaborative project of Indigenous Toronto-based artists Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan.
Art Toronto is also hosting conversations and programs both in-person and online during the run of the show, some of which can be watched on-demand, such as a panel with Patricia Marroquin Norby, hired as the first full-time Native American art curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last September. Norby joined a discussion about “decolonizing museums and collections” with curator John G. Hampton and Indigenous artists Jason Baerg and Julia Rose Sutherlan, moderated by Greg Hill, senior curator of Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada.
Expanding the visibility of Native American, First Nation, and other Indigenous artists at fairs like Art Toronto, which draw collectors and curators from around the world, is an important step in redressing their marginalization in both the institutional and commercial mainstream. Still, work remains to be done, not just in terms of representation by the numbers but to complicate perceptions of what art by this large and diverse community can look like. That range and breadth is on display at the fair, from Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s wall-mounted sculpture “Falling Tide” (2020), rendered in copper leaf on a metal car hood, to Sonny Assu’s “Breakfast Series” (2006), cereal boxes with a Pop Art edge that subversively raise issues faced by First Nations peoples, with names like “Treaty Flakes” and “Lucky Beads.”
“It’s important to showcase contemporary Indigenous art to challenge and expand the reductive and expected aesthetics of Indigenous art in the art world, and allow the work to be appreciated beyond its cultural identifiers,” Patel said. “Most importantly we have to cultivate and champion underrepresented voices to empower and support the next generation of Indigenous and BIPOC leaders.”