Much has been written about this exhibition in all the important arts magazines and the New York Times. I decided to look at it from the perspective of my personal taste. Even though these works come from colonized groups throughout the world, in fact from 16 countries representing 40 indigenous nations I tried to look at their message with a “decolonial gaze”, applying my standards in terms of their aesthetic value as I would to any Western art with which I am infinitely more familiar.

Much of the pieces I found alienating, if not off-putting such as “What else?”. A work from Indonesia which according to the text includes a layered social and political commentary which was lost on me.

What Else? by Eko Nigroho

On the other hand, I was immediately drawn to “Ultrabeam”, a quilted tapestry made out of brilliant coloured patches of the kind of batik cotton which African women wear to this day. The South African artist Siwa Mgoboza has created a series of these hangings called “Africadia” in reference to the Greek notion of Arcadia. In Greek mythology Arcadia was the pastoral paradise where the god Pan lived. Africadia is an utopian vision of Africa, a continent where the notion of race, gender, ethnicity and class are transcended or to quote from the artspeak commentary where these “binaries” do not exist anymore. This artwork spoke to me immediately by its beauty and its message.

Ultrabeam by Siwa Mgoboza

The message was clear in Inuit artist Aupilardjuk’s work “Giving without Receiving”. We see an ugly oversize hand with fingers like claws which ends at its wrist with a figure of a priest holding a kudlik, the stone pot which served for the Inuit as a source of light and as a stove to cook meat. The story of a missionary taking this cooking pot without giving anything in return was told by Aupilardjuk’s father. As the commentary suggests it must have been a case of cross-cultural misunderstanding but comes across as a harsh criticism of missionaries in Canada’s North.

Giving without Receiving by Pierre Aupilardjuk

A delightful surprise was the work by the Indian artist Balu Jivya Mashe “Untitled (Paddy Harvest”) illustrating rice harvest. The scene shows farmers cutting rice and many other details from his traditional Warli culture. The figures are painted with cow dung which is sacred in their beliefs and acrylic on canvas.

 Balu Jivya Mashe “Untitled (Paddy Harvest”)

Next on my list of favourites is Barry Ace’s Nigimakizinan-Moccasin Otters. It presents moccasin trail dusters which among the Plain Indians were used to erase the wearer’s footprints. They remind us about our contemporary concern of leaving digital footprints. The beautiful moccasins are decorated with traditional beads as well as electronic components from a computer.

Nigimakizinan-Moccasin Otters by Barry Ace

Finally, another work by a Canadian artist, Hannah Claus. The title is “Our minds are one” but the label reads as follows: “This is a three-dimensional interpretation of the Haudenosaunee Celestial Dome. The title originates from the words of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. The images on the discs of the installation are of my world at the time: the sidewalk between home and studio, the forest outside the school where I teach, the treetops at a gallery where I was exhibiting and the sky. The images are arranged in tiered sections, one on top of the next.”

Our Minds are One by Hannah Claus

The piece is quite beautiful with all the plastic disks gently swaying depending on the airflow in the room. And yet I am confused. How does the notion of “our minds are one” relate to a celestial dome I know nothing about nor about the traditional thanksgiving address by the Haudenosaunee? Is it fair to present the viewers with concepts they know nothing about?

What I resent about any piece of “conceptual art” is the fact that only after having read the label the viewer has a chance to understand what the work is all about.

I am glad to have seen the exhibition even though I was partially alienated and confused. I discovered wonderful artists like Siwa Mgoboza from South Africa and rediscovered Ottawa-based artist Barry Ace.