Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity is a travelling exhibition organized by the Power Plant (Toronto). It is now displayed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS), divided between the lower and third floors. The exhibition was launched on May 11, 2023, and will be on view until September 17, 2023.

The idea for this project started brewing while Plains Cree curator, artist and educator Gerald McMaster was curating at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, where he was working with Aboriginal artists from across Australia. During his time in this region, he found parallels between the community of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Kinngait — formerly known as Cape Dorset — in Nunavut, both well-known art-making communities. According to McMaster, “…each is quite at the opposite end of the earth from the other; both are deserts of a certain kind; both have Indigenous Peoples who have been able to survive the intensity of their climates; and both have had and continue to have relations with outsiders — in other words, White people.” These comparisons would later inform his decision to focus on the Arctic and Amazon regions, especially after meeting anthropologist Dr. Iris Edenheiser years later.

Dr. Edenheiser holds a Ph.D. from the University of Trier, where she researched Gender concepts in the context of ethnic and national identity in Amazonian Ecuador. Because of her educational background, she persuaded McMaster to consider artists in the Amazon in the binary comparison he was already working on. In the exchange of ideas about a future exhibition, they discussed including a blend of historical and contemporary works. Due to extenuating circumstances, Dr. Edenheiser was unable to stay on the project, but in 2017 Brazilian anthropologist and curator Nina Vincent arrived in Toronto as a participant in the Emerging Leaders in the Americas Program (ELAP) grant. The exhibition came to fruition thanks to the collaboration between McMaster and Vincent, and the exchanges that took place in the 2019 Arctic/Amazon Symposium co-hosted by OCAD and the Power Plant.

The Arctic region covers parts of eight different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the USA, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland. Meanwhile, the Amazon occupies eight countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname — and French Guiana, an overseas territory of France. The artists featured in this exhibition inhabit these regions: Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Iñupiaq and Athabascan, United States), Tanya Lukin Linklater (Alutiiq/Sugpiaq, the United States/Canada), Couzyn van Heuvelen (Inuk, Canada), Máret Ánne Sara (Sámi, Norway), Uýra (Indigenous in diaspora), Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano, Wilma Maynas & Ronin Koshi (Shipibo-Konibo, Peru), Morzaniel Ɨramari Yanomami (Yanomami, Brazil), Gisela Motta & Leandro Lima (Brazil), Pia Arke (Kalaaleq and Danish, Greenland/Denmark), Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe (Yanomami, Venezuela) and Biret & Gáddjá Haarla Pieski, Outi Pieski (Sámi, Finland.)

Hidden at the edge of Gallery 1, behind large pillars is the video work of Kalaaleq/Danish artist Pia Arke. Arktisk hysteri (2016), is a performance video in which the artist seeks to embody the Greenlandic landscape through the perspective of her Inuit body. In the video, Arke crawls naked over a picture of the place she was born, as we get to the end the artist starts shredding the photograph. The video serves as an act of rebellion against the notions of hysteria imposed on the Indigenous population by Euro-Americans. It shows the harm of colonial pseudo-science as a way to oppress, especially when colonizers put in the effort to other minorities by creating narratives where they are dangerous, aggressive and unpredictable.

Pia Arke, Arktisk hysteri [Arctic Hysteria], 1996. Installation view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Image by RAW Photography.

On the same floor, Non Kenébo (2022) a work by Olinda Reshinjabe Silvano, Wilma Maynas, and Ronin Koshi, rests on the walls. The work was made in collaboration with OCAD University. The three large panels were initially installed vertically at The Power Plant, meanwhile, at the AGNS they were placed horizontally which makes them flop at the top. The work features mesmerizing patterns that have a maze quality. The designs are informed by the geometric patterns found in kené art, and the linework illustrates the koshi force of plants which presents itself when Shipibo-Konibo artists consume the medicinal plant, Noya Rao. These murals exist as a form of resistance permeated with ancestral knowledge. They echo the reality of the fractured relationship between the Western world and nature by the way Silvano’s work is rooted in tradition through shamanism and mythology.

Yanomami artist Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe’s drawings are placed on the gallery’s third floor, right off the elevator. The abstract linework drawings are delicately beautiful, they heavily use Yanomami symbols and serve as a way to keep ancestral knowledge alive. In Hore korema kosi (Apamate Flower), 2020, there are three pink leaf-shaped forms covering the mulberry paper. The repetition present in this work can be found among his other drawings, which serve as a way to depict cycles and change.

Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Selection of drawings, 2019-2021. Installation view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Image by RAW Photography.

Couzyn van Heuvelen’s Avataq (2016) seeks to point out the importance of seal hunting for Inuit culture. The works consist of floating silver balloons that resemble sealskin, they occupy half of an entire room at the AGNS. Sealskin floats have traditionally been used by Inuit hunters to catch other marine animals. The playfulness within this work allows the audience to approach this practice from a place of joy especially when the practice of seal hunting has been a topic of debate led by animal rights activists.

Couzyn van Heuvelen, Avataq, 2016. Installation view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Image by RAW Photography.

Arctic/Amazon: Networks of Global Indigeneity is also the name of the book that serves as an extension of this exhibition. This volume was produced and published by Goose Lane Editions in partnership with Wapath Centre for Indigenous Visual Knowledge with design by Sebastian Aubin. In the first chapter of the book, Epistolary Exchange, McMaster and Vincent collaborated on eleven essays that are quite conversational and constantly refer to what the other said previously. They cover different topics in their conversation, from the inception of the Arctic/Amazon project to the history of the colonization and first contact of these regions. The next chapter is titled Amazon and has essays written by Ailton Krenak, Daiara Tukano, Jaider Esbell, João Paulo Lima Barreto, Nemo Andy Guiquita and Rember Yahuarcani. The Arctic chapter has a combination of essays and interviews conducted by McMaster and Vincent, the words of Taqralik Partridge, Harald Gaski, Heather Igloliorte, Pitseolak Pfeifer, Laakuluk Williamson Bathory and Tanya Lukin Linklater are part of the selection. The last two chapters serve as documentation for the collaborations with The Image Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery.

In the essay COVID-19 and the Pandemics of the Historical Americas, McMaster introduces the “Great Dying” which occurred primarily in the 1500s when illnesses carried by Europeans to the Americas first infected Indigenous Peoples. To point to more recent cases, he mentions how in the 20th century Indigenous children died of tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia while forced to attend residential schools in Canada and the USA.

Further in the essay McMaster writes, “…the pandemics of the historical Americas continue to register with very few people.” The same can be said with the current lack of mitigation in regard to the spread of SARS-cov-2. Sure, the World Health Organization said that COVID-19 no longer qualifies as a global emergency but in the same breath said that the pandemic hasn’t ended even though the emergency phase was finished. According to the grassroots organization, COVID-19 Resources Canada, currently, 1 of 104 people are infected in Canada. It is no surprise that when diseases go unchecked and minimized by people in government it trickles down into our communities and the most affected are always minorities, with less access and resources.

In the same essay, Nina Vincent points out the ways Western society objectifies “nature” which allows the cannibalization of every aspect of existence, in harsh contrast with how Indigenous philosophies of the Amazon have for a long time highlighted the fractal nature of all creatures, demonstrating how we are all created and inhabited by many subjectivities and entities that are in continual dialogue with one another.

Something I found missing in the essays written collaboratively by the curators is how capitalism is never called by its name, and just hides under the guise of Western knowledge. Capitalists’ obsession with growth and profit is what is pushing us to the edge of global collapse. The false belief that we are all equally responsible for climate change is laughable when we have known for years now that it can be tracked down to 100 companies. I keep thinking about why that editorial decision was made, I wonder if it’s too much of a detour or if they wanted to maintain the primary focus on Traditional Knowledge. Regardless, acknowledging the culprit of climate change reveals how vicious it truly is as it undermines nature and human beings.

This exhibition relies heavily on the binary: Arctic and Amazonia. These regions are framed as complementary opposites that converse with each other. There is an exchange where they talk about the extreme changes occurring in the landscape and how more pushback is a necessity. Vincent writes “Kinship is not a given relation in Amazonia but rather a constructed one”, which can apply to the environment at large. There needs to be a move past the belief that climate change is something that happens to other people, poor people and underdeveloped nations. It is happening here, right now. Western (privileged) people, at this moment, are getting their first taste of what climate change feels and looks like. As governments and media push the narrative to conform, things will only get worse.

Indigenous Peoples have known that the indiscriminate extraction of the land will push the planet to the edge. Even as this exhibition serves as a call for action, is the audience listening?