TORONTO — A group of visitors young and old gathered at the Art Gallery of Ontario in front of a well-known Canadian painting the docent called “Church in Yuquot Village.”
It was a peaceful 1929 image by a national figure, Emily Carr, showing a Mowachaht/Muchalaht settlement she had visited on Vancouver Island. The docent was careful to talk about Carr’s close relationship with “the First Nations,” the popular term in Canada for indigenous people.
What she didn’t mention was the fact that the Art Gallery of Ontario — one of Canada’s most distinguished art museums — had recently renamed Carr’s painting, originally titled “Indian Church,” saying the old terminology “denigrates and discriminates.”
The action was lauded by some — the art critic for The Toronto Star said the change “pays respect both to the artist and the people she so admired” — and attacked by others as unnecessary political correctness. “I got a lot of angry emails,” said Georgiana Uhlyarik, the museum’s curator of Canadian art. “People felt they were losing something.”
The docent had been coached on her language by Wanda Nanibush, the museum’s curator of indigenous art, who, along with Uhlyarik, drove the decision to change the painting’s title. “That woman did a course with me,” Nanibush said. Nodding in approval, she added, “She got it.”
In her two years as a full-time curator at the museum, Nanibush has become one of the most powerful voices for indigenous culture in the North American art world — a realm in which Canada has carved a distinct, and influential, approach. Partly because of her efforts, nearly a third of the Art Gallery of Ontario is now devoted to indigenous artists, including a show by the multimedia artist Rebecca Belmore, “Facing the Monumental,” which opened Thursday.
“Canada is way ahead when it comes to indigenous topics,” said Kathleen Ash-Milby, a member of the Navajo Nation and a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, in Lower Manhattan.
While Native and indigenous artists remain underrepresented in mainstream institutions, academia, and museums in the United States, Canada’s efforts may be inspiring greater social awareness and responsibility from Denver to Montclair, New Jersey, and New York, according to arts leaders.
John Lukavic, curator of Native arts at the Denver Art Museum, said Canadian institutions were shifting the discussion. “This art has been overlooked,” he said. “I very much appreciate what they are doing.”
In Toronto, Nanibush and Uhlyarik have gone well beyond renaming one painting. At the Art Gallery of Ontario’s J.S. McLean Center for Indigenous and Canadian Art, which they program, they have rendered wall texts for all the works first in the language of the Anishinaabe, one of the oldest North American languages. (Anishinaabe is a collective term for related peoples including the Ojibwe and the Algonquin.) English is the second language, followed by French. The action recognizes that people with First Nation heritage — who number more than 1.5 million throughout Canada — were the original occupiers of the land here.
The moves are part of resisting “the inclusion model, which is where we’re just kind of shoved in there with something that already exists,” Nanibush said.
She said her efforts were not just directed at museums and artists, but at everyone. “Museums are the cultural keepers,” she said. “We come to them to learn our stories, and find out what our humanity is.”
The efforts come as identity politics in the museum world has reached a flash point at several large cultural institutions that were criticized for racial and cultural insensitivity. Recent flare-ups included the Whitney Museum of American Art, which displayed a white artist’s painting of the body of Emmett Till, a teenager lynched in 1955.
When white artists are seen as appropriating subject matter about the painful experiences of Native peoples without including them in the work’s conception, reactions can be strong. That was the case at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last year when it showed Sam Durant’s gallows-themed “Scaffold” — an attempt, the artist said, to address the state-sanctioned hanging of Dakota men in 1862. The work was symbolically buried by elders of the Dakota Nation, but the museum’s actions resulted in its hiring an outside law firm to investigate the decision and contributed to the departure of its director, Olga Viso.
Recently, Canada has been in the forefront of the decolonization movement, which demands that institutions account for their role in the histories of colonialism.
“I want to decolonize the museum,” Nanibush, 42, said. But the curator added that tearing down was not her goal: “I want to create something.”
Nanibush and Belmore, 58, are Anishinaabe. Of their work together, Nanibush said, “We have a shorthand that comes from shared values and experiences.” They seem comfortable making bold statements, especially in tandem.
“This building is on our land,” Nanibush said of the museum where she stood. She paused. “We’re a huge nation. Everything is on our land.” She laughed slightly at the scope of the statement, but she was deadly earnest.
“Facing the Monumental” opens with one of Belmore’s most striking and provocative works, “The Fountain.” Onto a screen of falling water, a video is projected in which the artist throws what appears to be a bucket of blood toward the viewer, which Belmore described as “a violent act.”
The changes and indigenous-centered thinking have received broad if not unanimous institutional support. “As long as we are talking about showing great art, I’m in,” said Stephan Jost, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s director, an American who has worked at several museums in the United States.
But Robert Houle, one of the pioneering First Nation artists and curators who brought these issues to the fore in the 1970s in Canada, said he objected to the name change of “Church in Yuquot Village” precisely because he wouldn’t want anyone having the power to change a title of his.
“I think it’s political correctness,” said Houle, who has an installation in the museum, called “Seven Grandfathers” (2014), that comprises seven paintings that resemble ceremonial drums.
But he added that the consciousness-raising that drives the terminology debate was the beginning of “a good conversation.”
The dialogue was partly spurred by the ramifications of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the Canadian government convened in 2008 to investigate the devastating effects of the residential school system — a national policy in effect until 1996 — that took the children of indigenous peoples away from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into white culture. The commission’s report in 2015 called the system “cultural genocide.”
That level of government and public engagement on the topic, which has deeply penetrated the art world here, is a world away from anything like it in the United States. ‘‘You can’t brush it under the carpet here,” said Julian Cox, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Take the name of the National Museum of the American Indian, which was created by a 1989 act of Congress, incorporating a large private collection and turning it into a public institution.
“It’s a little bit dated, but I don’t think it’s offensive in any way,” Ash-Milby said of the titular use of Indian. Last year she was an organizer of a show of Native artist Kay WalkingStick that traveled to the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. The Smithsonian said there have been no serious discussions about changing the name.
Amy Lonetree, author of “Decolonizing Museums” and a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, pointed out that in the United States, American Indian is also a legal term, which keeps it in use. Lonetree, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, added that “it doesn’t really offend me, though it’s not my preferred term in my writing.”
The representation of Native artists remains a trickle in museums in the United States. “Why isn’t more art by Native Americans collected, contextualized and presented by major institutions like the Walker, the Whitney and MoMA?” artists and curators of Native American heritage asked last fall in a round-table discussion sponsored by the Walker Art Center.
The Whitney did present the work of Jimmie Durham, an artist and activist, but there was a hitch: He has self-identified as Cherokee yet isn’t an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. The tribal controversy threatened to undermine acclaim for his touring retrospective — what Holland Cotter of The New York Times called Durham’s “brilliant, half-century-long act of politically driven self-invention.”
In the Walker’s round table, Jeffrey Gibson, a Native American artist, cited other forces keeping Native voices marginalized, including the lack of integration of American Western art history and Native American art history.
Ash-Milby worried that museums might avoid showing Native artists after the Durham controversy, thinking: “I don’t want to step into something I don’t know enough about. This is too fraught.”
There are only a few large art museums in the United States with full-time, specialized curators of indigenous art, mostly in the West. They include the Denver Art Museum, Portland Art Museum and Seattle Art Museum (where “Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson” is on view through Sept. 9). The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is an East Coast exception.
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A current show at the Denver Art Museum, “Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer,” through August 12, was organized by Lukavic. He noted that the museum, founded in the 1920s, was one of the first that treated Native American works as art and not as ethnographic material.
He worked closely with Gibson — a registered Mississippi Band Choctaw who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley — on the show, which features eye-catching paintings, fiber and textile works that often take inspiration from Native craft.
The curator and artist had long talks about how the conversation around Native American visibility had been stuck in place for 50 years. To move it forward, Lukavic is participating in the growing trend of “land acknowledgment,” or stating what people first occupied a particular place. Speaking at a recent conference at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, he paid homage to the Pawnee, among others. “Such a simple gesture means so much to people,” he added.
But Gibson, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Royal College of Art in London, is ambivalent about being presented as a Native American artist rather than just a contemporary maker.
“People believe that by supporting me, they are supporting a Native American art world, but I am not sure that’s true,” Gibson said. “I’m not representative.”
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Kay WalkingStick, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said she has seen progress in the art world since she arrived in New York in 1960 (she is based in Pennsylvania).
“My goal was to open up the mainstream to Native American art,” WalkingStick, 83, said. “And it has absolutely gotten better.” The biggest breakthrough, she added, was getting past the expectation that “Indian artists made art about being Indian.”
As Belmore readied her exhibition at the Ontario museum, she spoke about one featured work, “Mixed Blessing” (2011), a crouched, hooded figure in a jacket with synthetic hair spreading out on the floor behind it. The jacket is emblazoned on the back with explicit phrases about being both Indian — her word, the same one rejected in Emily Carr’s title — and an artist.
Belmore, a soft-spoken sort who lets her work do the talking, said it represented the contradictions of her identity.
As for whether the museum show, her largest to date, was going to be a personal game-changer, she expressed a hopeful hesitation that could apply to the progress of all indigenous artists and the cultures they represent: “It’s too soon to tell.”