New Canadian Embassy woos the French with Indigenous art

Canada's brand-new embassy in Paris is a showcase for Canadian culture — with an emphasis on Indigenous artists.

Paintings by Indigenous artist Kent Monkman featured in inaugural show

Detail from Kent Monkman's Miss Chief's Wet Dream, which the artist created for the new Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris. (Sandra Abma/CBC News)

Whether visiting for a trade negotiation, to replace a lost passport or applying for a visa at the new Canadian Embassy in Paris, the backdrop is art that reflects Canadian values.

A few blocks away from its former home, the new embassy is located in a smaller but completely renovated building with updated, high-tech facilities designed to show off Canada's artistic talent.

A view from above the new gallery at the Canadian Cultural Centre. Monkman's work is framed by artifacts of animals with significance to Indigenous culture. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

The walls, lobby, meeting spaces and consular offices at the new embassy are covered in art — and most of it is by Indigenous artists.

And for the first time, the embassy, the Canadian Cultural Centre and its gallery are under the same roof.

The new Embassy of Canada to France and Canadian Cultural Centre is located at 130, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris 8e. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Culture is important to the French and Paris is arguably the epicentre of the art world, according to Manon Dumas, the centre's director. 

With that in mind, Canada's new embassy in the City of Light is a tribute to Canadian artists' creativity.

"Cultural diplomacy is one more tool to make sure that Canada's interests and Canada's values are resonating around the world," said Dumas, noting the country's values of inclusion, diversity and reconciliation.

Detail from Ontario-born, Manitoba-raised artist Monkman's 2008 painting Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Works by Indigenous artist Kent Monkman, an internationally acclaimed Cree artist, were chosen to inaugurate the new centre. His massive new paintings depict his heroic alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, in a series of mythical and historical scenarios.

"Here we have two major themes that are screaming out at us: LGBTQ rights and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples," said Manon. She said the featured art also inspires related lectures and panel discussions at the embassy.

In the new works, Monkman created provocative responses to the traditional European paintings that he viewed at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon. 

Curator Catherine Bédard described Monkman's work as 'reverse colonization of European painting.' (Sandra Abma/CBC)

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Miss Chief's Wet Dream, a monumental eight-metre-wide canvas. It's inspired by two iconic historical French paintings: Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa and Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People.

Monkman's version is populated with Indigenous heroes and symbols and notable representatives of the old order of Europe. 

Detail from Miss Chief’s Wet Dream 2008, a large-scale work by Kent Monkman created for the new embassy. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

"We wanted a show that was totally new. And we wanted it to be about the relationship between France and Canada," said curator Catherine Bédard.

She described Monkman's work as "reverse colonization of European painting."

Art woven throughout

The art doesn't stop at the gallery's door. It is woven throughout the space, reinforcing a vision of Canada the embassy wants to the world to see.

The windows of the embassy's conference room are engraved with 195 indigenous symbols on the glass. Each represents a signatory of the Paris Climate Accord. The work was created by Marianne Nicolson, a B.C. artist activist. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

For instance, the window of the embassy's conference room — with its view of the Eiffel Tower — is imprinted with Indigenous symbols. Marianne Nicolson, a Dzawada'enuxw visual artist from B.C., engraved 195 images from nature onto the wall of glass. Each one represents a signatory of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

Quebec artist Nadia Myre's Tree of Shifting Forms rises from the inner court yard of the embassy building. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Constructed from traditional clay tobacco smoking pipes, Nadia Myre's illuminated Tree of Shifting Forms stands tall in the embassy's courtyard. 

Myre, a Sobey Award-winning contemporary artist, is an Algonquin member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation.

Those applying for permits to travel to Canada will visit this corridor and walk past this video installation by Tamira Sawatzky, Elle Flanders and Eshrat Erfanian. It recreates a symbolic voyage and the constant hope of the horizon. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

A video installation of undulating ocean waves and a constant horizon accompanies visitors on their journey toward the consular office, and perhaps, a new life.

The installation — created by Tamira Sawatzky, Elle Flanders and Eshrat Erfanian — promises hope at the end of the long corridor and reflects the voyage (literally or figuratively) that many have made to get there.

Detail from Stephen Andrews' multi-tiled Mosaic, which is based on photographs of the crowds watching a Raptors game in Toronto. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Meanwhile, a huge mosaic dominates the embassy's front lobby, bringing visitors face to face with Toronto basketball fans. 

Toronto artist Stephen Andrews collaborated with artisans from Montreal's Mosaika, an art and design company, to piece together photographs of a huge multicultural crowd typically filling the stands at a Raptors game. 

"We want to be influential, to stimulate debates, questions and interrogations and emotions," Bédard said.

Watch the creation of the piece made by Andrews and Mosaika: