Indigenous art and the ‘reverse gaze’

Gerald McMaster is fascinated by creative people who move in an out of, or are influenced by different communities and cultures. At once nomadic and connected, their experiences formed the basis of his early research.

Sea Captain Figure, circa 1840, sculpted out of argillite and ivory by a Haida artist in Haida Gwaii, B.C. (Courtesy: The Art Gallery of Ontario)

Sea Captain Figure, circa 1840, sculpted out of argillite and ivory by a Haida artist in Haida Gwaii, B.C. (Courtesy: The Art Gallery of Ontario)

Today, the Ontario College of Art and Design University professor, curator, author, and artist is about to dive back into this area of research. He is launching a multi-year project that will examine the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures interact, influence and inspire one another.

“You might hear that Indigenous people are often caught between two worlds,” says McMaster. “They ask ‘What are my loyalties to Native peoples as I’m trying to move into this other world?’

“But I was never comfortable with the notion of being caught, especially artists who so freely move, physically and intellectually. I thought there has to be a more creative and strategic way of looking at this,” he says. McMaster is Plains Cree and a member of the Siksika First Nation, located just east of Calgary.

One of the key organizing principles of his research will be the notion of the “contact zone.” The term was coined by literary theorist Mary Louise Pratt to refer to “social spaces where cultures, meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they lived out in many parts of the world today.”

McMaster will use the idea of the contact zone to examine Indigenous peoples’ views – past and present – of colonizing populations through the visual arts, and how both sides influence one another. It is an area of research with deep roots in Africa and Asia, but something that has not been well-studied in North America.

“I’ve begun to think of it as the ‘reverse gaze,'” says McMaster.

Looking north and south

Part of his research will also examine the artistic worlds of Cape Dorset, Nunavut and Papunya, Australia. The two Indigenous communities have very different histories and cultures, but share similar political and existential concerns, he says.

Despite the fact that artists from Cape Dorset and Papunya are isolated, they travel and exhibit their art around the world. Yet there has never been a comprehensive cross-cultural examination or exhibition of their work together.

In a similar vein, he will also engage in a collaborative study of the Arctic and Amazon and the historical  perceptions of people who live in these environments, including contemporary Indigenous responses to climate change.

McMaster’s research will try to answer four basic questions: How does art from one culture influence and inspire art in another? How can curatorial practices associated with Indigenous visual culture support new insights and expression? What is the impact of globalization on the production of Indigenous art and its reception by non-Indigenous societies near and far? What are the effects of new technologies on the development of new art forms?

In the end, he hopes to come away with a deeper understanding of relationships among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. “What is history telling us through art?” he asks.  “I think it’s important to make this contribution to the art history of this country.”

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