May 31, 2011 Kleinburg, ON —Profoundly symbolic works by some of Canada’s most celebrated Indigenous artists send a powerful message on the evolution of Aboriginal self-determination in Canada. Presented by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP), the exhibition Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists will be on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection from June 11 to September 11, 2011.

This deeply reflective exhibition will showcase the significant collections of Indigenous artists of the CMCP and the National Gallery of Canada, as well as selected private collections. It combines portrait photographs and video installations by twelve artists―KC Adams, Carl Beam, Dana Claxton, Thirza Cuthand, Rosalie Favell, Kent Monkman, David Neel, Shelley Niro, Arthur Renwick, Greg Staats, Jeff Thomas, and Bear Witness.

“This exhibition pays tribute to prominent Aboriginal artists whose works offer a new voice,” said former CMCP Director, Martha Hanna. The exhibition explores how contemporary Aboriginal artists have used the portrait as a means of self-expression in spite of its long problematic history for their peoples. “The portrait is a European convention which exerts control over the subject,” explained the CMCP co-curator Andrea Kunard. “In the past, Aboriginal people were often objectified for commercial purposes. They were represented as a dying race doomed by the inexorable march of ‘civilization’. Contrary to this portrayal, they have neither vanished nor died out; they survived.”

The exhibition’s other co-curator, Steven Loft, added that “these artists use their cameras to create a means of cultural self-determination. By reconstructing the narrative of race, they have captured the wide plurality of Aboriginal histories, cultures, and contemporary realities and have created their own visual identities.”

The exhibition engages a number of themes which are present in the work of contemporary Aboriginal artists. These include:

Aboriginal artists as creators of visual history

These artists reclaim images of themselves, their families, and their communities and use them as a means of transforming past concerns into the present. They challenge stereotypes, creating a new visual history, and are harbingers of a changing reality.

Keeping ancient traditions alive

To challenge the detrimental characterizations of Aboriginal life developed through colonization and assimilation, contemporary Indigenous artists represent identity as a changing and complex state, rather than one that is essential, singular and “frozen” in the past. Within these images, which describe contemporary existence, references to traditions, family, and community, appear as a source of strength and grounding.

Appropriation, mass media, and “acting up”

Bear Witness, Rosalie Favell, and KC Adams use appropriation strategies to explore the influence of art history and mass media on identity. In his work, Bear Witness weaves together images taken from popular movies. Rosalie Favell takes images from art history, and KC Adams merges stereotypes and fashion photography in her portraits of Aboriginal community members. Acting up for the camera is another approach for dealing with identity issues. Dana Claxton, Shelley Niro, Rosalie Favell, Thirza Cuthand, and Kent Monkman use photographic space as theatre, taking on various guises to present a multifaceted view of contemporary Aboriginal existence.

Socio-political issues

Kent Monkman, Rosalie Favell, and Thirza Cuthand explore contemporary, social, and political issues within the Aboriginal communities, such as sexuality, hybridity, and shifting socio-political dynamics.

The full face portrait

Arthur Renwick and David Neel focus on the face and how it is framed. Neel uses more conventional studio techniques to present his portraits, while Renwick presents larger than life, full face portraits, positioning his subjects as living embodiments of Aboriginal spiritual and cosmological traditions. Both artists offer a glimpse of Aboriginality we do not often see reflected in our media saturated society.

Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists is curated by Andrea Kunard, who has been with the CMCP since 1998, and Steven Loft, appointed in January 2008 as the National Gallery of Canada’s first ever Curator in Residence, Indigenous Art.


For further information or images, contact:

Michelle Kortinen, Communications Coordinator

McMichael Canadian Art Collection

905.893.1121 ext. 2210