At the ROM, Anishinaabe art, but whose power?

At the Royal Ontario Museum’s brand new show, Anishinaabeg: Art and Power, the ceremonial dress of Sitting White Eagle, a prominent medicine man from the Salteaux Anishinaabe, rests on mannequined limbs, preciously behind glass. This, our western eyes would tell us, is nothing new. But there right alongside it is Sitting White Eagle himself, a ghostly image in black and white, right-sized at full height and wearing that very outfit somewhere out on the Saskatchewan plains before his death in 1930. It’s the first clue that Art and Power is, in fact, something new. Such intimate connections, historically, have been rarely made in such places as the ROM, which for most of its existence served the purpose of uncoupling such objects from the actual human beings who used them. Such was the role of colonial institutions in our government’s broad project of erasure: Indigenous people – their practices, languages, art and culture – were to be seen as things of the past as we gradually wiped the slate clean of inconvenient notions of difference and belonging. Us and them was less a philosophy than an official policy, and museums were a convenient spearhead to gently re-educate the public along those lines while the ugly work of assimilation, or worse, took place far from the eyes of polite colonial society. Well, enough of that, the ROM says, finally and at last, and Art and Power is its emblem, and an outward signal that it understands its historic complicity in such things. Josh Basseches, the ROM’s director, tacitly acknowledged as much, declaring at a private preview last week that the show “serves as a profound reminder for an institution such as ours” that the power to represent has sat alongside the power to exclude for far too long. As partial remedy, Basseches took the opportunity to announce that the museum had established a new position, the curator of Indigenous art and culture, that would be held by someone of native heritage “to ensure Indigenous perspectives are reflected in the galleries and throughout the museum,” he said. Article Continued BelowIndian Act, Page 51, one of a series by Nadia Myre in which she redacted all 56 pages of the federal act governing Indigenous peoples with red and white beads. The piece sits alongside ancient forms of written Anishinaabe language.  (MURRAY WHYTE / TORONTO STAR)  “We must seek out different voices to ensure stories are not told in isolation or from a single museum perspective,” he said, and that the ROM was less interested in using its position to participate in the vital conversation about reconciliation now at the centre of our national agenda, than “how to lead it.” It was an extraordinary affirmation from a museum director: That the very infrastructure of the institution has been built for the wrong reasons, and that it’s committed to making it right. The museum’s opening gesture puts its money where its mouth is: Art and Power enlisted Indigenous artist Saul Williams, one of the founders of the Woodland School alongside Norval Morrisseau, and Alan Corbiere, an Indigenous historian and curator, to guide it, step by step. They worked alongside ROM curator Arni Brownstone, but I think it’s fair to say the show very much belongs to Williams and Corbiere. Everything about it subtly digs at convention: The room is haunting and low-lit, with objects radiating in an arc around a central vitrine, mingling ancient and contemporary. Wall texts are not coolly detached informational blurbs, but stories, often personal, and rooted in experience, not academics.