'Art histories are being rewritten': Métis artist Jason Baerg brings his expansive work to Art Toronto

Canada's only international art fair has a major focus on Indigenous art this year, and Baerg is one of its stars.

Canada's only international art fair has a major focus on Indigenous art this year

Jason Baerg. (Kristy Boyce)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

This weekend, Art Toronto — Canada's only international art fair — will be returning to an in-person event after a year off, with over 60 galleries making their way to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in addition to several virtual events. And with it comes a very busy weekend for Toronto-based Jason Baerg. The Métis queer artist will be exhibiting with Vancouver's FAZAKAS GALLERY as well showcasing a solo exhibition Art Toronto preview with Soho House Toronto.

Baerg, who works with digital interventions in drawing, painting and new media installation (and notably also developed and implemented the national Métis arts program for the Vancouver Olympics), is part of a focus on Indigenous art at this year's Art Toronto, where over 10% of the exhibitors are Indigenous-led galleries and roughly 25% of the entire fair will showcase Indigenous artwork. We talked to Baerg about his work and what folks can anticipate seeing at the fair.

Congratulations on Art Toronto and all the work you'll have showcased there. Do you want to discuss a bit what people can expect at the fair from you?

Thank you Peter!

As an early adopter of utilizing fabrication technologies in my art studio, laser cutting has been a key aspect of my practice since 2012. I will be presenting some new works that exemplify my interests in advancing painting through digital interventions. Art Toronto receives a new large installation piece that pays homage to my Spirit Name as well as to the great Norval Morrisseau, which is a copper and red 9' Thunderbird.

I have also created a new series of paintings and prints activating the same iconography, which will be seen at both Art Toronto and the associated opening at Soho House in Toronto. Art Metropole will also be carrying my new catalog, Tawâskweyâw / A Path or Gap Among the Trees, at the Editions Fair, which will also be occurring at the Metro Convention Centre during Art Toronto.

Ispisîhêw ᐃᐢᐱᓰᐦᐁᐤ S:He raises. Acrylic on Wood. (Jason Baerg)

Can you talk a little bit about your career and how it has evolved in terms of what you're expressing?

"Expanding how we see and be" is at the core of my art practice. I am here to make a contribution to culture conceptually, as well as to advance my artistic discipline formally. As I learn, I make and share, hoping that the messages and visuals inspire others to also reach forward dynamically in our continuum.

Pathways for many, including myself, have been a part of this 25-year journey. It is real work being Métis, but I am grateful to stand in solidarity with my Indigenous kin, to support and celebrate our people, cultures and futures. It is not just about me; some of the ways I exemplified my commitment to capacity development for our community in the past [have been] by co-founding The Shushkitew Collective and The Métis Artist Collective. I have also served as volunteer Chair for such organizations as the Indigenous Curatorial Collective and the National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition. Teaching at OCADU is also an aspect of this process.

Time is in flux and as Indigenous people, it is vital that we participate culturally in larger conversations to advance our ideas and offerings. I am excited to be part of an expansive movement of recognition and inclusion beyond the expectation of what we should look like, where we should be seen or how we should make our art. 

Jason Baerg's Lasercut piece. (Emile Askey)

There is a significant focus on Indigenous art at this year's Art Toronto, with over 10% of the exhibitors being Indigenous-led galleries and upwards of 25% of the entire fair showcasing Indigenous artwork. Does this make you hopeful for the direction we are headed in terms of finally centering the work of Indigenous artists?

We're just incredible, to be honest! I remember the first Indigenous Art Jury I sat on, in what was then called Indian and Northern Affairs, back in 1998, and I was blown away by the exceptional level of talent offered by our Indigenous peoples from coast to coast. Powerful. The art world has also been shaken to a point where social phobias and racism will not be tolerated. Art histories are being rewritten and the canon now includes contributions from the four directions from time immemorial.

There is no denying that what was contributed by past ancestors informed much of what was termed as "modernism"; it takes just one visit to the Great Hall of the Oceania at the MET in New York to realize this. Within a contemporary art context, when we consider what the best Indigenous creatives are offering, POW! The profound goods are here and are delivered sizzling.

In the wake of the realization of the anthropocene, the only culture that will matter is the one that leads us to safety and survival. Yes, systems are shifting, and settlers are coming to understand that what we as Indigenous people have to offer is not only legitimate but also needed. Secrets of the land are embedded in our languages, knowledge and practices. We need our dreamers, our visionaries, and that's us, the artists.

A piece from Jason Baerg's solo exhibition at Soho House. (Jason Baerg)

Can you speak to your own experience as a queer Indigenous artist and how it appears throughout your artistic practice?

What is a Queer Spirit or offering? I have been taught that I am sacred, and traditionally some of the roles and responsibilities align with healing, visioning and helping. As a maker, it is possible to engender aesthetics, as everything has a sensuality, and these guidelines are non-binary. Artwork can also be sentient if the artist realizes they can participate in birthing something. 

In fashion at Ayimach Horizons, I challenge myself to flex garments into spaces that embrace dexterity in design. Many of the pieces are gender neutral and can be worn in multiple ways. Transformation/shapeshifting is the heart of the brand.

Many people have told me they pick up something sexual in some of the artwork. I would be amiss to deny these energetics to occasionally leak into production. That is also one of the sophisticated windows of abstraction: it allows us the privacy of delivering codes to our public.

This interview has been condensed for length. 

Art Toronto runs from October 29-31 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Due to COVID-19 protocols, tickets must be booked in advance online and scheduled for half-hour time blocks. Visitors to the festival must also show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now