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Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today

A Knowledge and Literature Review

August 18, 201218 August 2012

Aboriginal arts / Cultural diversity

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Based on interviews and other research information (both oral and written), this report has the goal of expanding understanding of Aboriginal art in “the mainstream art world”. The report works “with an Indigenous research methodology”, in order to integrate the teachings of elders, artists and other commentators.

In the report, “the arts” include Western arts disciplines as well as storytelling, basket weaving, pole carving, powwow, and other Aboriginal practices. However, “for most Aboriginal people, ‘art’ does not stand alone without a cultural context. The distinctions among cultural practice, art and craft as separate categories are not articulated in the same way as mainstream arts…. Some Aboriginal languages do not even have a word directly for ‘art’ as it is understood in Canada’s mainstream art system.”

Among the distinctive Aboriginal art forms in the Americas, the report notes that powwow “exists only here”. The report argues that this heightens the importance of the preservation of distinct art forms.

In order to understand Aboriginal arts, the report proposes and details eight perspectives:

  • Aboriginal worldview
  • Aboriginal knowledge
  • Aboriginal arts in communities
  • Aboriginal artists and their art
  • Canada’s colonial history
  • Recent history of Aboriginal arts
  • Western arts lens
  • Future of Aboriginal arts

The report indicates that important concepts within an Aboriginal worldview include the land, connectedness, an oral tradition, and visual pictures.

The report highlights the significance of Aboriginal knowledge, “a vast field which touches on all aspects of being human – from creation stories to medicine to our relationship with nature to sexuality to creativity to food. This knowledge, going back millennia, informs principles of health, healing, justice, education, ecology, social work and many others.” Historical knowledge also “has a direct connection to identity and art practice”.

In terms of working with communities, “many artists have important connections with their communities and sometimes this connection is evident both in their work and its impact within the community.”

Probing further the situation of Aboriginal artists, the report indicates that “many, though certainly not all, Aboriginal artists face the quandary of hybridity – working within two ancestries, two traditions or two aesthetics.”

In recent times, “there has been a resurgence of Aboriginal artistic production”, with Aboriginal artists reviving and re-imagining traditional images, dances and songs in a contemporary context. Many contemporary artists “have used their work to discuss, to examine and to re-interpret the effects of colonial history”.

The report criticizes the “Western arts lens”, arguing that it “both glorifies European artists and their art forms and, at the same time, denigrates or ignores those art practices from other peoples in the world”.

The report concludes with observations concerning future tendencies in Aboriginal society and art:

There are increasing levels of formal education among Aboriginal youth.

  • A higher birth rate among Aboriginal peoples will lead to more Aboriginal youth.
  • Important exchanges of knowledge and strategies are taking place among Indigenous peoples.
  • New and emerging technologies are having an impact on Aboriginal artists and communities.
  • There are more Aboriginal artists with mixed roots “creating hybrid art forms”.
  • Through the production of their work, artists are contributing to Aboriginal healing from the impacts of colonization.

Challenges arising from these tendencies relate to infrastructure, new arts awareness (and new audiences), critical discourse, and Indigenization (i.e., reclaiming, re-appropriating and re-imagining Aboriginal ways of being in the world). The report argues that “the lack of appropriate infrastructure to support Aboriginal arts – arts organizations, training institutions, arts service organizations, Aboriginal venues, presenters” – is one of the weakest components of Aboriginal arts in Canada.

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