The year is 1980. Ronald Reagan has just become President, Blondie’s “Call Me” is at the top of the charts, and Indigenous art is in a state of radical transition.
“There was this mythical period in the early '80s,” says Richard Hill, an art historian and Emily Carr University of Art + Design’s Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies. “It constitutes the first generation of contemporary Indigenous artists who were, in large numbers, trained in mainstream art schools.”
Richard is fascinated by the changes that faced Indigenous art from 1980 to 1995—so much so that they’ve become the focus of his research, as well as his forthcoming book. Since joining Emily Carr University (ECU) in 2015, he’s published a wide array of work on the topic, including several academic papers and a column in Canadian Art that was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.
“It was a really exciting period,” he says. “[These artists] were doing something in large numbers that their predecessors had only begun to chip away at… They weren’t engaged in so-called ‘traditional’ practices for the various regional tourist markets; they were trying to break into the world of mainstream contemporary art.”
In a recent interview with ECU, Richard offered us a deeper look at what it meant to be an Indigenous artist in the '80s and '90s, and how this period shaped the way we think about Indigenous art today.
Reimagining “Indigenous art”
“There are certain words that seem to function most powerfully when we elide their variety of definitions,” Richard wrote in a 2016 Canadian Art column, “‘Art’ is one.”
The same, he says, is true of Indigenous art. Although the term is widely used, few of us really understand what it means.
“Is Indigenous art any art made by an Indigenous person?” he asks. “Or is it somehow art that is the product of particular cultural traditions? Or could it be something like: art about Indigenous issues or ideas? And, by the way, what is an Indigenous person?”
Richard has been knee-deep in questions such as these for the past four years. In that time, he’s traveled extensively to conduct his research, reading (and re-reading) the scholarly literature, pouring over museum archives, and interviewing Indigenous artists and their families. He plans to further these interviews this summer, when he’ll drive across North America to visit as many artists in their studios as possible.
“I’m pulling together a huge library, a bibliography, creating timelines,” he explains. “[I’m] trying to [gain] an understanding of what really happened, rather than what we would like to imagine happened or what would seem ideologically the most convenient to have happened.”
Looking back to look forward
So far, Richard’s research has revealed that the 1980s and '90s were complex times. This period of change not only redefined the way Indigenous art was viewed; it also set the stage for conversations we’re still having today.
“It was a very complicated period, especially in the beginning as people were trying to find space for themselves and how they identified themselves,” he explains. “Ideas which we’re still working with around what it means to be Indigenous and what Indigenous culture is, questions around identity and identity politics, were all formed around that crucial moment.”
From the early '80s on, ground-breaking Indigenous artists such as James Luna, Rebecca Belmore, and Jimmie Durham began pushing for inclusion in North America’s contemporary art scene. Slowly, they gained access and exposure to the galleries, museums, and magazines from which they’d long been excluded. The hope was to shape a new identity for themselves and redefine what it meant to be Indigenous and an artist
“They were Indigenous, they had this traditional heritage, but they also had this entire engagement with modernity,” Richard explains. “Artists were fighting to have that recognized, because they didn’t want to be marginalized into what they saw as a ghetto of Indigenous or ‘Indian’ art, as it would have been called then.”
Although that recognition didn’t fully take root until more than a decade later, this moment of transition and redefinition continues to fascinate Richard.
“We’re not in a continuous present with that moment anymore,” he says. “[But I’m interested in] going back to that and trying to figure out what that moment really was, what it means now, and how it might challenge our contemporary ideas in certain ways.”
Preserving an understudied history
Although the 80s and 90s was an important time for Indigenous artists, it remains largely understudied and, often, undocumented.
“This history isn’t exactly there to be read just yet,” he says. “Or at least, it’s not necessarily something that a lot of people are aware of.” Indeed, many of the most important Indigenous exhibitions of the day exist only in the form of 35 mm slides. Others are preserved solely in the memories of the artists themselves.
“I have a sense of urgency about capturing this history that exists in people’s recollections,” Richard says. “Many important artists have [already] passed away.”
Helping others access that history has become an essential part of Richard’s work.
“Being able to put that [information] out as a resource for younger artists would be valuable in a lot of ways,” he says. “[I want] to help them understand the situation they’ve emerged into, and what’s happened before them.” Only by acknowledging the past, he says, can we truly move toward the future.
In addition to his Canadian Art column and his forthcoming book, Richard has published several essays on his research, one of which won the Ontario Association of Art Writing Gallery Prize. He’s also given numerous presentations — including participating in what he was told was the first panel discussion on Indigenous Art ever presented in Naples, Italy — and is launching an exhibition at ECU’s concourse gallery this fall. Eventually, he hopes to complement these efforts by creating an online video archive of all of the interview footage he’s collected over the years.
As Richard looks toward the months ahead, he can’t help thinking about what other ways he might share his research. “There’s video, of course, but there’s also all these 3D technologies,” he says, with a smile. “It’s hard not to think of different applications for these [tools], once you become aware of them—being at Emily Carr really helps me see that.’
Written by Alice Fleerackers