Showcasing works by 21 Indigenous artists, Transits and Returns at the Vancouver Art Gallery brings together artists from across the Great Ocean and beyond. On the occasion of the exhibitions opening, Tarah Hogue, Senior Curatorial Fellow of Indigenous Art and member of the curatorial team, speaks with IAQ Contributing Editor Emily Henderson on the shows central themes of movement, mobility and migration.
Transits and Returns runs until February 23, 2020.
Emily Henderson: Can you tell me about your role at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) and as part of the curatorial team for the Transits and Returns exhibition?
Tarah Hogue: My name is Tarah Hogue and I am in the second year of my three-year senior curatorial fellowship of Indigenous art here at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Besides curating exhibitions, which is the main focus of my position, I’ve also been working with Gallery staff to think about the Gallery’s relationships with local First Nations and other Indigenous communities we collaborate with.
Within the Transits and Returns project I’m one of five co-curators alongside Sarah Biscarra Dilley, Freja Carmichael, Léuli Eshraghi and Lana Lopesi. This is the third iteration of a series of exhibitions that were initiated at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, which is where the seeds of this project took root. In the fall of 2017, we were invited to do a visiting curatorship in Brisbane, where we developed that first exhibition, titled The Commute. It included eight newly commissioned artworks by artists who each curator had an already established relationship with.
EH: Can you tell us about how this exhibition came to Vancouver?
TH: The idea for the exhibition to travel was there from the very beginning. It’s taken different forms in each location, which arises from the curators’ desire to work responsively to the land where we are developing the exhibitions, and our desire to ground our work in local knowledges and practices. This project is intended as an opportunity for exchange and to think about what the shared concept of “the Indigenous” means from the perspectives of the different geographic and cultural contexts we are each coming from.
The second iteration, called Layover, took place at Artspace in Auckland, where we commissioned two new projects from Auckland-based artists and programmed a gathering. Gathering has been a constant throughout the three iterations as a way of thinking through the projects’ ideas in dialogue.
In Vancouver, we had to think about the context here, both in terms of the history of this place but also the institutional context, which is different from the first two iterations. We brought the works that were commissioned for the first two shows and loaned a number of additional works—so it’s really expanded.
EH: Is this the first time you’re including circumpolar or Arctic artists?
TH: Yes. This exhibit is looking at the idea of the “Great Ocean” as an alternative name for the Pacific and the many ways this space is traversed and we wanted to further those tendrils outwards towards the North. Maureen Gruben was an artist that I invited and while she’s now moved permanently back to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, I had been thinking about her practice over the last number of years and her circular migrations between Tuktoyaktuk and Victoria, BC and how the materials she employs in her work draw from that movement.
We have also included Alutiiq artist Christopher Ando, who was based in New York for the past number of years but has now moved to Oakland. His carving, collage and paper-based practice embody his own Alutiiq worldview while also grappling with the representation—or lack thereof—of Indigenous people throughout American history.
EH: Can you elaborate on Maureen Gruben’s work and tell us about how it engages with the rest of the exhibition?
TH: Maureen’s material practice is just so astounding to me: the way in which she brings everything together, from objects she finds in thrift stores alongside materials from the subsistence way of life in the North. Her work in the exhibition is titled We all have to go someday. Do the best you can. Love one another (2019), which is actually a quote from her late father, Eddie Gruben. The piece is deer hide mounted on an aluminum frame that on one side has stitching and gromets and the other side has a series of holes representing an angiogram of her father’s heart. When you look at it, you can see the way it maps the blood vessels of the heart, but it also elicits caribou migration patterns across the land. The work is in conversation with other pieces in the exhibition that draw upon the importance of kinship and relationships with the land.
EH: And Christopher Ando, as another circumpolar Indigenous artist in the show, could you expand on his work in the exhibition?
TH: Christopher has a series of thirty-six collage pieces that are part of a series called A Guiding Hand (2017-18). They’re cut-paper works on Masonite board and they have a real physicality to them. He has taken [prints of] paintings by the artist Norman Rockwell who is known for his depictions of life in America in the 20th Century. He cuts the images into very small squares and rearranges them into areas of shared pattern or colour, so they become abstracted forms. In doing so, he is reckoning with the idealism and romanticism Rockwell is so famous for. He relates the process of making this work to the process of allotment, the division of land and the way in which his and other Indigenous communities have been reconfigured by such policies.
EH: Are there any distinct challenges curating an exhibition that features 21 artists?
TH: Conceptually, yes. Speaking for myself, I think that in any large group exhibition like this, as a curator you have to attend to the way in which the narrative of an exhibition can potentially “flatten” the individual artworks and the complexities they explore. We must consider how we can bring our collective and individual sovereignties as Indigenous cultural workers from different nations into dialogue with one another and how that shapes the shared space of “the Indigenous.”
EH: In doing so, were there specific themes or connections between artists you found surprising?
TH: I’m struck by how pervasive and deeply impacting considerations of movement, diaspora and migration—all these ways that we move across the lands and waters—have been. I feel often in Indigenous contemporary art that these aren’t necessarily the kind of stories being foregrounded. I think that while there are several artists who are deeply rooted in their specific cultural practices and their home communities in the exhibition, there’s also a dialogue taking place around these experiences of mobility.
EH: Finally, I’d love to hear more about the “Great Ocean Dialogues” that are occurring in conjunction with the exhibit?
TH: The program is enabled by a partnership between the VAG, the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and SFU Galleries. The content of the gathering stems from this idea of the Great Ocean and Indigenous forms of relationality with the water itself, as well as across the waters with other communities. We are thinking about this concept both in terms of ancient knowledges and practices as well as from our multiple contemporary experiences. It’s an opportunity to shape the dialogue around Indigenous art for ourselves by drawing upon all of this amazing knowledge from our international visitors but in a way that is also very much grounded in a local context because the event includes multiple speakers from local First Nations.