Indigenous artists eagerly await National Gallery of Canada facelift

The National Gallery of Canada is undergoing its first major renovation since it opened in 1988 to create the new Canadian and Indigenous galleries. Indigenous artists are closely watching how the new space unfolds.

First major renovation at the National Gallery of Canada since it opened in 1988

National Gallery of Canada officials say the renovations will result in a "comprehensive and more useful display." (Sandra Abma/CBC News)

Indigenous artists are keenly awaiting the results of the National Gallery of Canada's first major makeover since it opened nearly three decades ago.

Renovations are underway to create the new Canadian and Indigenous galleries. The National Gallery has knocked down walls and widened doorways to make room for Indigenous art alongside classic and contemporary Canadian works in what used to be called the Canadian galleries.

Gallery director and CEO Marc Mayer calls it "rearticulating the story of art in Canada by integrating Indigenous art and photography into the narrative." He believes it will be a "transformative experience" for art enthusiasts.

"Each time period in Canadian art has its own personality," Mayer said. "We're also telling the story of Indigenous art as it evolves through time: the effects of the settler cultures on Indigenous cultures, both the good and the very bad effects, the effects of Indigenous culture on Canadian art, which has been extraordinarily important."

The new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada will open to the public in June. (Sandra Abma/CBC News)

Curatorial work is also underway. The new Canadian and Indigenous galleries are slated to open to the public on June 15. Indigenous artists, like Aylan Couchie, are curious to see how artworks are presented together in the new space.

"I feel that a dialogue must be created between the artworks — both settler and Indigenous — and how they related to the social, political and colonial narratives of that time period," said Couchie, an Anishinaabe sculpture and installation artist from Nipissing First Nation currently based in Toronto.

Aylan Couchie is a Toronto-based sculpture and installation artist originally from Nipissing First Nation. (Supplied)
"If we are integrating artworks, then the histories of our own settler-Indigenous integration should not be brushed over," she added. 

"It's important to have these hard conversations surrounding the impacts of the Indian Act, reserve systems, land expropriation, loss of culture, the list goes on. Art can be educational, and the (National Gallery of Canada) has the resources in its collection to create an exhibition that can speak to Canada's true history and provide the educational components that are key to reconciliation."

'Taking back our own stories'

Cree-Métis artist Jaime Koebel is eager to see a bigger gallery space that's more inclusive of Indigenous art. She remembers only being able to see Indigenous art at the former Museum of Civilization two decades ago, before some works found a more permanent home at the National Gallery.

"At one point there was only a small little section of Indigenous art at the beginning of the Canadian galleries," said Koebel, originally from Lac La Biche, Alta. "It's really important that I can walk through the Indigenous and Canadian galleries once it opens in June and be able to see an evolution of Indigenous art history side-by-side Canadian art."

Couchie also believes it's important for the gallery to be forthcoming about how it acquired Indigenous artworks, and that Indigenous curators play a key role in providing context for those pieces. 

"In this way, we can decolonize from within by removing the dominant non-Indigenous curatorial gaze through taking back our own stories and histories."​

The creation of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries is the first major renovation at the National Gallery of Canada since it opened in 1988. (CBC News)

With files from Sandra Abma