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Lindsay Sorell
Picturing the Northwest & Niitsitapiisinni at Glenbow Museum
January 10, 2018

With over one million objects, documents, photographs, and artworks in its collection, Glenbow Museum has the opportunity to be a transcultural, inter-chronological, institutional beacon for Wichispa Oyade (Calgary). However, caught between contemporizing their exhibits and showing previously developed permanent collections, the Museum remains in a purgatory of oddly disjointed, shoulder-to-shoulder contradictions. Each exhibit makes sense isolated thematically, but side-by-side they upend each other’s meaning, neutralizing the overall relevance of the institution. If you’ve been to the Glenbow, you know the most painful manifestation of this action is the Museum’s tucked-away Niitsitapiisinni: Our Way of Life upstairs, and the prominently positioned and poorly contextualized Picturing the Northwest: Historical Art from Glenbow’s Collection below.

Glenbow Museum

Brightly lit and freshly re-branded with fun gold and black curly-cue Western font didactics, Picturing the Northwest – Glenbow’s permanent collection of colonial, early 1900s plains oil painting – celebrates white settler painters Frederick Arthur Verner, Cornelius Krieghoff, Frances Anne Hopkins, and others. Armed with the brief, self-aware caveat that First Nations people were indeed “devastated by disease and deprived of their sources of sustenance” and “confined to reserves and provided with inadequate rations and no means of subsistence,” paintings and sculptures depict white people churning the earth, Hudson’s Bay officials getting into a canoe, an Indigenous woman carrying moccasins to sell, and four cowboys, pistols in the air, on horses.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the now seventeen-year-old Niitsitapiisinni: Our Way of Life exhibit, museum labels are falling off their wall glue, interactive displays are worn out, and poor lighting guides the viewer through what should be the most cared-for exhibit in the building. Co-curated with Blackfoot Elders, Niitsitapiisinni is a generous and thoughtful re-writing of North American history, documenting intricate pre-colonial Indigenous mapping systems, Indigenous relationships to the land, animals, textiles, and the cultural vibrancy of the Blackfoot. Simultaneously, it chronicles the devastation of European diseases to Indigenous people, the horrific abuse at Residential Schools (1880-1996, the last school closing only five years prior to this exhibition launch), and the continued loss and trauma resulting from the colonizing of the West.

Niitsitapiisinni is unquestionably the most important project in the Museum, and its disrepair needs to be addressed. The exhibit would benefit from a complete overhaul in collaboration with Blackfoot Elders, accommodating for technological and user-experience advancements in the past seventeen years, thoughtful toward Indigenous Futures, and inclusive of contemporary Indigenous thinkers and makers. While other interesting programs like the tour of Textiles from Glenbow’s Indigenous Studies collection with Indigenous Studies Curator Joanne Schmidt, and the current inter-cultural textile show Eye of the Needle are great advancements for the Museum, the curly-cued jollification of Western colonization apparent in Picturing the Northwest and elsewhere is unacceptable and frankly appalling. Although Picturing makes it clear that colonizing the West was once romanticized, there is absolutely no reason for that romanticization to be further perpetuated. Why not collaborate with Blackfoot Elders in curating that too?

Glenbow Museum:
The gallery is accessible.

Lindsay Sorell is an artist and writer who recently collaborated with the Advanced Toastmasters of Calgary for the IKG Live 1 performance festival and completed two solo exhibitions of new work: Exercises in Healing at Contemporary Calgary and Buddha, Why Am I Alone? at AVALANCHE! Institute of Contemporary Art. She is currently working on a large-scale watercolour painting of food and is the editor of Luma Quarterly. She is Akimblog's Calgary correspondent and can be followed on Instagram.



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