Here’s where to go to explore traditional and contemporary visual and performance art by First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists.
Indigenous art occupies a vital position within Canadian art. Indigenous people consist of diverse cultural groups, with strong regional identities among First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, bands and tribes — which extend into artists’ creative output. When viewing Indigenous art, understanding the cultural context it was produced within will provide you with a deeper appreciation of the artist and their work.
Whether you’re looking to visit a gallery, catch a show, or stretch your legs while viewing outdoor art, here are 5 ways to discover Indigenous art in Toronto.
1. Visit a major art gallery
The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and, just north of the city, Kleinburg’s McMichael Canadian Art Collection (McMichael), showcase work by the most influential modern and contemporary Indigenous artists, including Ojibway visual artists Norval Morrisseau and Carl Beam.
Morrisseau pioneered the circa-1960s Woodland School of brightly coloured, stylized, symbolic art with thick lines connecting people, places and creatures together, while Beam examined themes of identity, colonization and resistance through a variety of media, including etchings, photography and collage.
Another major artist at the AGO and McMichael is Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook. Known for her ink and coloured pencil drawings, Pootoogook portrayed life in her Northern community of Cape Dorset, Nunavut (known as Kinngait in Inuktitut).
Her representations explore personal experiences and everyday occurrences, such as children watching television — or a woman experiencing domestic violence. Pootoogook’s work mixes humour and blunt representations of the disparities found in Indigenous life, making these scenes of “normal” life a point of confrontation. Pootoogook’s work has been included in prestigious international group exhibitions, like Germany’s Documenta, and in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
The AGO’s Indigenous Collection is also home to 5,000+ Inuit sculptures, prints and drawings, including Manasie Akpaliapik’s whalebone, ivory, stone, antler, baleen and horn sculpture, “Respecting the Circle”, which is one of the AGO’s most popular works on display.
The McMichael’s Inuit Art collection focuses on contemporary work including a comprehensive collection of 100,000 drawings, prints and sculptures on long-term loan from Cape Dorset’s historic West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative Limited artist group.
2. Don’t miss “Kent Monkman: Being Legendary”
In Canada, as elsewhere, conversations about Indigenous rights remain ongoing. This context is a persistent concern for Indigenous artists, as many issues between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous society remain unresolved. Yet as Canadians, we share collective history and geography.
That perspective is explored prominently in the work of Kent Monkman, a Toronto-based, contemporary artist of Cree ancestry whose queer alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is depicted in painting, film and video works as a counter-narrative to colonial history.
Monkman’s paintings, in sweeping 19th-century Romantic style, deconstruct notions of “Indians” that have been portrayed in history textbooks and art over the past few hundred years. Monkman reimagines these works, painting scenes of love and war, appropriating and subverting the conventional. It’s an approach that’s confrontational — and effective.
Monkman is one of Canada’s most internationally renowned contemporary artists, with work displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Australia’s 2010 Biennale of Sydney. Locally, his work has been exhibited at the Toronto International Film Festival, Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada, and in the permanent collection of the AGO.
Curated by the artist himself, the Royal Ontario Museum’s upcoming “Kent Monkman: Being Legendary” (October 2022 to March 19, 2023) is a must-see, with new paintings alongside objects from the ROM collections.
The ROM is also home to four towering totem poles carved by members of the Nisga’a and Haida communities of the Pacific Northwest, and the Daphne Cockwell Gallery Dedicated to First Peoples Art & Culture.
3. Stroll around an Inukshuk
The Inukshuk is a sculptural figure that serves as a multifaceted guide to the Inuit, both practically and symbolically. The waterfront area’s Toronto Inukshuk Park features a 50-tonne mountain rose granite version created by globally acclaimed artist Kellypalik Qimirpik, also of Cape Dorset.
Plan a scenic stroll (or an invigorating run along the Toronto Waterfront) to check out this iconic sight looming next to the Lake Ontario shoreline. One of North America’s largest Inukshuks, the structure stands 30 feet tall, with an arm span of 15 feet.
4. Catch a film
Launched in 2000, the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival (October 18 to 30, 2022) is the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous screen content, showcasing national and global Indigenous-made film, video, audio and digital media each fall.
The Toronto International Film Festival (September 8 to 18, 2022) and year-round TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema both include Indigenous content in their regular lineups and special programming.
5. Dive into theatre and performance art
The oldest professional Indigenous theatre company in Canada, Native Earth Performing Arts has been presenting theatre, dance and multidisciplinary programming for nearly four decades. The organization is dedicated to presenting artistic expression of the Indigenous experience in Canada.
The organization is dedicated to presenting artistic expression of the Indigenous experience in Canada.
Upcoming theatre performances include Where the Blood Mixes (May 26 to June 26, 2022), a Governor General’s Award winning drama about the residential school system, and Kamloopa (June 23 to July 24, 2022) — winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Drama — a witty, three-woman road trip to self-discovery.
Finally, if the stars align, check out the one-night-only Outside Looking In showcase, Canada’s largest Indigenous youth performance. With music, dance and other performance art, it takes place at Meridien Hall on May 12, 2022.
– Written and researched by Clayton Windatt, Tara Nolan, Jennifer Krissilas and Yuki Hayashi