I didn’t even see the wolves when I first entered their space. My eyes were on the walls, scanning the canvases that hung there: two or three per wall, large canvases that commanded attention. The wolves were much smaller — slivers of sculpted steel, and not at all expected. How easy it is to miss what you are not looking for.
I was drawn instead toward The Pines, a large triptych of paintings by Robert Houle. The centre canvas pulled me into a stand of mature pine trees, and then further in, all the way to to the forest’s edge where sunlight diffused a strange greenish blue light into yellow. I’d never seen a forest in these shades of blue and green. Two canvases, one painted green, the other blue, flanked the forest.
The card on the wall next to the paintings said the triptych memorializes a Mohawk burial ground that was the site of the the Oka crisis in the 1990s. As I stood looking at the paintings, I recalled bits and pieces of the story: a private company, supported by the Oka town council, wanted to build a golf course on the burial ground. Mohawk people resisted with barricades and guns, wearing military fatigues, looking fierce.
At least that is the way I remembered seeing it all play out on the news. I’d never considered that part of Canadian history through the eyes of an artist.
As I stood in front of the triptych, a slight movement distracted me. It was as if something had slipped by the corner of my mind’s eye; it was stealthy, barely there. I shook it away, and turned from the Pines to another painting, a black canvas hung with eagle feathers. As I leaned in to read the card, to better understand the meaning of this artwork, it happened again. Subtle movement just beyond the periphery of my vision. Stealthy, barely there.
It took me a while to realize it was the wolves. There were two of them, flame cut from steel, an installation by John McEwan. Welded to the gallery floor, the wolves were more like two-dimensional cut outs than full-bodied predators. There was no fierceness about them. But I swear they were moving about the gallery like wolves in the wild. Wisps of grey, glints of steel, shadows among the trees. Seeing me before I saw them.
My visit to the AGO that day, to this particular gallery featuring Indigenous artists, was purposeful. For several years I have been endeavouring to learn more about Canada as told through the art, stories, songs and experiences of First Nations people. I have been reading books by Indigenous authors – Thomas King, Richard Wagamase, Lee Maracle. I listened to Tanya Talaga’s Massy Lectures – All our Relations. Last summer I attended a two-day conference hosted by an Indigenous learning community called NAIITs that focused on the history, sacredness and divisiveness of land in North America.
It has been months since I visited the gallery, but still I sense the wolves tracking me. With every article I read about the current Wet’suwe’ten land protest, I am reminded of how small my perspective is, how little I understand. And so I keep reading, looking, listening, watching.
I am learning. But just when I come to even the smallest conclusion, something brushes past my mind’s eye and whispers: ‘do not be so sure you have seen everything there is to be seen. Take time, look around, be aware. There is more.’
Recently, I went to see a dance by Red Sky Performance called AF, a beautiful, physical retelling of the forces that have shaped the history of the Anishinaabe peoples on the land they call Turtle Island. The land I call Canada.
There was much I could not fully comprehend as I watched five dancers tumble, stretch, glide, leap and fall across the stage. Sometimes their movements made me wince, sometimes smile. At one point, they made me cry, the tears rising and falling in a way that surprised me.
I sensed the wolves again.
The dance performance was followed by a conversation between four Indigenous artists who discussed the role of art on this difficult road of reconciliation between Indigenous people, whose descendants first inhabited this land, and Settlers, whose descendants came afterward.
Does art lead? Does it push in from the edges? Is it making a difference? I cannot speak for anyone but myself. But for myself I know the answer.
Yes. Art is making a difference. I know I need to keep listening, reading and looking at the work of Indigenous artists and creators. Their work sparks all kinds of emotion in me: delight, sorrow, frustration, worry, humour and anger. It causes me to question the narratives I have grown up with, or not; and the ones I hear from media and government.
More than anything else, it leaves me feeling unsettled. And for that, I am grateful.