Exhibition Review: Towards Home
The CCA’s current exhibition explores northern Indigenous concepts of home.
TEXT Leah Snyder
PHOTOS Mathieu Gagnon © CCA
The idea of home is adaptable, meaning many things to many people. It also has meaning to other mammals, birds, reptiles and insects who construct their dwellings instinctually, by way of hereditary genetic knowledge. As humans, we wrap our inherited culture and traditions around us in the form of structures, as well as with objects that are functional, decorative or both. Our structures—and what we place in them—buffer us from the elements, and provide an emotionally imbued space inside of which we gather together.
The current exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home, poses questions around what home is, and for whom. It considers how Indigenous concepts as well as Indigenous design—from inspiration and aesthetic to process and construction—offer considerations that can, in the words of the curators, “support northern Indigenous forms of sovereignty shaped by an understanding of home.” The collaborative curatorial project between Indigenous and Settler curators (Joar Nango, Taqralik Partridge, Joceyln Piirainen, and Rafico Ruiz) acknowledges that “the work of deepening architecture’s engagement with Indigenous designers and their communities needs to above all centre the knowledge and experiences of being at home on the land.” The exhibition is also part of the CCA’s commitment to a “living land acknowledgement,” an initiative that takes the form of discussions, research, and installations that work towards “fostering affirmative relationships with Indigenous and other peoples across Tiohtià:ke / Mooniyang / Montréal” and beyond.
The exhibition opens by welcoming visitors into a threshold space inspired by a porch from a Northern home. Inuk artist and curator Taqralik Partridge worked with Métis architect and exhibition designer Tiffany Shaw on the installation. They describe the porch as an important space for objects for daily activities, and for storage for all of the tools connected to being out on the land. In the corridor of the CCA, it acts as it would when connected to a house: as a threshold from which to transition between inside and out, a catch-all area for seasonal clothing, and storage for hunting and fishing gear. A kettle and a box of Salada tea sit ready to be put into use at the arrival of a guest. The installation is like the vestibule or mudroom from any residential structure, where objects from our day-to-day eddy into a comforting pool of familiarity.
From there, the exhibition spreads out into six other galleries. In the middle gallery, the work of artist Geronimo Inutiq (Inuk) provides the initial soundscape that filters into the other rooms, an important auditory component that adds an affective resonance. Uvatinni Uqaalajunga / J’appelle chez nous / I’m Calling Home is produced as a tri-lingual Northern radio program that “aims to bridge diverse communities.”
In a model of a government-issued matchbox house, chairs positioned around a radio are an invitation to sit and take time to listen. From throat singing to rap performed in Inuktitut and English, along with a weather report and an artist Q&A, what is heard are the contemporary voices of the North. The work addresses how dialogue connects people to others, as well as to the land in the North, even when at a distance from it while living in urban centres in the South. The sound of traditions previously banned—as with women performing throat singing—are a sensual accompaniment through areas where it filters in, prompting an inquiry to unpack: why were/are Indigenous women promoted as a threat to the colonial apparatus, and why were/are Indigenous women displaced from their homes?
Inissaliortut / Making Room, by Inuit artists Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Tagralik Partridge, assists in the unpacking.
In this profound and powerful piece, larger-than-lifesize images of the two women, standing barefoot and clothed in blue and red shifts adorned with beadwork, are projected onto individual plywood screens that reside in two corners of the northwest gallery. They deliver astute assessments of how we arrived at the current state of housing crises among Indigenous communities in the North, as well as homelessness among Indigenous populations in cities in the South. Laakkuluk lists what has been taken away (self-determination / food sovereignty / culture / children / women) itemizing the replacements (capitalism / food insecurity / unemployment / heartache / loss). She details a Settler solution for dealing with the symptoms:
And out come the calipers and the calculators to problem-solve the problematization
And suddenly there’s a capital city filled with people hired to solve the problems.
“Colonization is a pyramid scheme,” Taqralik concludes. It is by design, they explain, that when Indigenous children, women and men (as well as other species) become inconvenient and cease to serve the market economy, a system, process, or structure is implemented to enforce their removal. Similar to the Inuit, the Sámi also endured the banning of traditional subsistence and cultural practices: their drums were burned as part of a campaign towards Christianization, and restrictions placed on their nomadic existence, tied to reindeer herding. State oppression and the displacement of the Sámi still continues.
Although the destructive symptoms of colonization and capitalization are underscored in the exhibition, ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home provides visitors with multiple pathways forward. In the north gallery, where the soundscapes pool together, some of the most aesthetically lush work in the exhibition can be found.
The gallery contains the results of the CCA’s Futurecasting: Indigenous-led Architecture and
Design in the Arctic workshop series, an inter-generational gathering of Inuit, First Nations, Métis, and Sámi designers co-curated by Inuk architectural designer Nicole Luke and CCA curatorial assistant Ella den Elzen. Printouts mounted to the wall document the participants’ reflections and illustrate their design processes, which take form as stunning prototypes and maquettes. In Rivière aux rats by Robyn Adams (Métis), strips of intricate beadwork, with a palette that suggests land and water, sit atop a cross section of soil. “[O]ur culture and values are embedded into the built world,” writes Robyn. In Lost Natures by Naomi Ratte (Anishinaabe), red beads traverse a river-shed topography carved from ash wood. The colour can be interpreted as an alert—or as representing the blood of most animal species. “The land is pharmacy, kin, story, grocery store, ceremony, food, medicine, and time,” writes Naomi. It is “wendaaji’owin—that which sustains life.”
There are several large structures installed throughout the galleries, including the tent-like shelter Nuna, by artist asinnajaq (Inuk) in conversation with Tiffany Shaw, which invites a moment of rest and contemplative reflection. A series of drawings of life in Nunavik produced by Inuk artist Tuumasi Kudluk hangs alongside Nuna, presenting insight into how the land can provide aesthetic cues when thinking about shelter. In the opening corridor, Inuk curator Jocelyn Piirainen has assembled works from the Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq’s collection, including an early drawing by Shuvinai Ashoona. Family in Tent (2003) depicts an archetypal domestic scene: parents and their children with the remnants of a shared meal, a Red Rose tea box nestled between them while they lie on a communal cot.
This extensive exhibition has many strengths, yet its setting creates some constraints. Joar’s Sámi Architectural Library, a collection of books and artifacts that “adapts and expands as it moves from place to place” with the intent to “reconnect architecture to the land” elicits some of these challenges. In 2019, it was installed in the main entrance of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, as part of their exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art, Àbadakone / Feu continual / Continuous Fire. To prepare the hides that would be used in the installation, tanning areas were set up outside of the National Gallery. When walking towards the Gallery from my own home, on unceded Anishinaabe Algonquin aki (land), the aroma of the fires could be smelled from blocks away. Each visitor entering through the doors carried the scent in with them, altering the sensory experience of the building. Once installed, the hides continued to emit the scent inside. Yet in the CCA configuration, that smell is almost imperceptible—a missed opportunity to more powerfully evoke the land beyond our structures.
What can be gathered from ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home is the idea that home is not a construct fixed to location. Rather, home can be understood as a set of values—considering our impact on the land, acknowledging how we share space with non-human neighbours, modelling reciprocity in our relations. As we carry these values forward, spaces—along with the buildings and communities that exist in them—will change for the better, for all.
Leah Snyder is an Ottawa-based digital designer and writer. Snyder writes about culture, technology and contemporary art, and contributes regularly to Heffel, the National Gallery of Canada, and other Canadian art publications.
ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home is on display at the CCA, Montreal until February 12, 2023. A companion publication will be available this fall.