M’Chigeeng’s Alan Corbiere co-curates major ROM show on Anishinaabeg art, power

From left Alan Corbiere and Saul Williams, co-curators of the ‘Anishinaabeg: Art & Power’ display starting June 17 at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), with ROM assistant curator Arni Brownstone pour over Anishinaabeg art that will be part of the new exhibit. photo by Anne Marie Guchardi from the ROM conservation department

TORONTO—The life, traditions and sacred stories of the Anishinaabeg, as told through their powerful art over the last two centuries, is the focus of a new Royal Ontario Museum installation ‘Anishinaabeg: Art & Power’ and M’Chigeeng historian Allan Corbiere played a central role in putting the exhibit together.

‘Anishinaabeg: Art & Power’ takes the viewer “on a journey through the artistic evolution of one of the most populous and diverse indigenous communities in North America.”

“I got invited about a year and a half ago,” said Mr. Corbiere. “At that time they were just going to do an exhibit of their Eastern Woodland art collection.”

The ROM’s Eastern Woodland art collection is quite extensive and includes the works of many local Anishinaabe artists. “There are pieces there by Blake Debassige, Leland Bell and Norval Morriseau,” he said. “They put together a set of thumbnails of all of their collection.”

But as the curatorial group consisting of Mr. Corbiere, co-curator (and renown artist in his own right) Saul Williams, along with the ROM’s own Arnie Brownstone, assistant curator, settled into their work, Mr. Corbiere pointed out that the symbols and images that are used in contemporary art extend back through millennia and can be found in beadwork, petroglyphs and pictographs going back long before contact. Those images contained within them the power and spirituality of the people and were utilized in the wampum belts that bound the political alliances of the nations.

Although the bulk of the Anishinaabeg’s current homeland may now be found in Ontario, their communities stretch from Quebec to Alberta and Michigan to Montana and many remain in place to this very day.

After some discussion, the decision was made to expand the exhibit to include examples of the art of the Anishinaabeg through all of the art forms utilized by the people.

The Anishinaabeg have communicated and expressed their knowledge and cultural traditions through art for centuries, depicting the relationships between humans, their ancestors, nature, ceremony and supernatural beings known as spirits. Over time, the art of the Anishinaabeg became deeply influenced by both inter-community relationships with other indigenous groups and the arrival of the Europeans to Canada, notes the exhibit announcement.

“From early art forms and intricate beaded regalia to paintings and drawings from the Woodlands School art movement, these richly colourful and vibrant pieces reveal the artistic transformation of Anishinaabeg art,” continues the announcement. “By showcasing the great beauty and power of this cultural history, ‘Anishinaabeg: Art & Power’ highlights the shared connections among indigenous groups and between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.

“My goal was simple,” said Mr. Corbiere, “but not so simple to execute. People really don’t know what the ROM has. I wanted people to see what is actually there.”

Much of the ROM collections are held in storage, with only a fraction on display on the museum floors at any given time. Those collections are an invaluable resource for the Anishinaabe themselves as they seek to rebuild their understanding of their culture, traditions and history.

“There are so many young students who are down in Toronto going to university and college who I would like to see taking the opportunity of exploring their heritage through these collections,” said Mr. Corbiere.

The story of the art is the story of the people, he noted. “Art travels with the people,” he said. “The sharing of artistic vision is central to ‘Anishinaabeg: Art & Power’.”

Through interaction with the Sioux to the west, the Cree to the North and numerous other cultures to the south and east, the art of the Anishinaabeg influenced and was influenced by those other cultures. When the Europeans came from over the seas to explore the lands that were new to them, they found a rich and deep culture and traditions that had been established for thousands of years before them and today there are many subtle (and some not so subtle) examples of the interchange of ideas and culture that continued to take place.

Mr. Corbiere said that not all of his ideas were put in place. “It’s a give and take kind of compromise,” he laughed. But one of the main impacts he had was to see the installation space expanded dramatically from what had originally been envisioned when the project began.

The layout of the exhibit itself is emblematic of the cultural and spiritual influences of the Anishinaabe. “The room is on an east-west axis,” explained Mr. Corbiere. “We tried to organize it this way, with the eastern doorways denoting the treaties through dodemic images and, in the west, the Selkirk Treaty in Saskatchewan.”

‘Anishinaabeg: Art & Power’ is on display at the ROM from June 17 to November 19 and is well worth the visit for anyone wishing to explore the history and culture of the original inhabitants of the land, particularly since this is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the country we know as Canada upon those territories.