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Artist’s statement: Christi Belcourt on The Wisdom of the Universe

August 7th, 2014

Christi Belcourt, The  Wisdom of the Universe, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 171 × 282 cm, purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille, 2014 ©  2014 Christi Belcourt.

Christi Belcourt, The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 171 × 282 cm, purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille, 2014 © 2014 Christi Belcourt.

The AGO has commissioned and acquired an extraordinary painting entitled The Wisdom of the Universe by Christi Belcourt, a Métis visual artist and author who received the 2014 Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award at a ceremony held here on July 30, 2014. Below, Belcourt discusses the ecological concerns that inspired the work.

In Ontario, over 200 species of plants and animals are listed as threatened, endangered or extinct. Of those, included in this painting are the Dwarf Lake Iris, the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid, the Karner Blue butterfly, the West Virginia White butterfly, the Spring Blue-eyed Mary, the Cerulean Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher.

Globally, we live in a time of great upheaval. The state of the world is in crisis. We are witness to the unbearable suffering of species, including humans. Much of this we do to ourselves. It is possible for the planet to return to a state of well-being, but it requires a radical change in our thinking. It requires a willingness to be open to the idea that perhaps human beings have got it all wrong.

All species, the lands, the waters are one beating organism that pulses like a heart. We are all a part of a whole. The animals and plants, lands and waters, are our relatives each with as much right to exist as we have. When we see ourselves as separate from each other and think of other species, the waters and the planet itself as objects that can be owned, dominated or subjugated, we lose connection with our humanity and we create imbalance on the earth. This is what we are witnessing around us.

The planet already contains all the wisdom of the universe, as do you and I. It has the ability to recover built into its DNA and we have the ability to change what we are doing so this can happen.

Perhaps it’s time to place the rights of Mother Earth ahead of the rights to Mother Earth.

– Christi Belcourt


This work is one of two paintings by Belcourt currently on display in the Gallery. In the video below, Belcourt discusses the other, entitled So Much Depends Upon Who Holds the Shovel (2008), which appears in our exhibition Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes.

Acquired: Jacoposie Oopakak’s Family (2011)

October 23rd, 2013

By Andrew Hunter, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art

Jacoposie Oppaka, Family, 2001, antler, bone, stone, metal, 92.7 x 66 x 88.9 cm, detail of skull and base.

Jacoposie Oopakak, Family, 2011, antler, bone, stone, metal, 92.7 x 66 x 88.9 cm, detail of skull and base.

We are really pleased to announce that we recently acquired Family (2011), the first major work by contemporary Inuit artist Jacoposie Oopakak (born 1948, Qipisa, Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island) to come in to the AGO collection. Made of antler, bone and stone, this is a rare work: it is one of only three complete sets of antlers carved by Oopakak during his career. Antler is difficult to carve due to its fragility, and Family is also unique for having the antlers and skull intact.

Jacoposie Oppaka, Family, 2011, antler, bone, stone, metal, 92.7 x 66 x 88.9 cm

Jacoposie Oopakak, Family, 2011, antler, bone, stone, metal, 92.7 x 66 x 88.9 cm

Jacoposie Oopakak began carving in the 1970s following initial formal training in jewellery workshops run by the government of the Northwest Territories. From the outset, his skill as a carver of intricately detailed and delicate work was widely recognized. His art is rooted in Inuit traditions of hunting, travelling and living off the land and involves complex, multi-figured compositions that suggest evolving narratives and the progression of time.

Like his contemporary Manasie Akpaliapik (who is well represented in the AGO collection), Oopakak is extremely skilled at developing his carvings in a highly sympathetic dialogue with his material, allowing forms to emerge from, and to be suggested by, the structure and material characteristics of bone, stone and ivory, with the natural shape — the extended curving growth of antler in this work, for example — suggesting a narrative trajectory.

In many of his works, one sees a significant transformation in material and in the end it can be difficult to identify the source (a jaw bone or antler for example). In such large, complex sculptures as Family (2011), Power (2011, private collection) and Nunali (c.1988-89, National Gallery of Canada), however, the source material (full antler racks) is explicit and integral to the work.

Jacoposie Oppakak, Family, 2011, antler, bone, stone, metal, 92.7 x 66 x 88.9 cm, detail of antler carving.

Jacoposie Oopakak, Family, 2011, antler, bone, stone, metal, 92.7 x 66 x 88.9 cm, detail of antler carving.

Oopakak’s career can be understood in two phases: a very productive period in the 1980s and then a re-emergence in the past decade. In the 1990s, he suffered a series of personal tragedies and illnesses (the death of his wife and son, depression and tuberculosis), during which his production ceased. There has been a marked resurgence in his production in recent years, creating a consistently high level of ambitious work. Much of it was exhibited in Toronto in the fall of 2011 with Family and Power being the two major pieces presented in Masterful Vision: Sculpture by Jacoposie Oopakak (Feheley Fine Arts, Nov. 5 to 30, 2011).

Carved into the antlers of Family is a mix of wildlife, human figures and pictorial scenes all reflective of the artist’s recollections of family life and community traditions. The skull is anchored to a green stone base featuring a self-portrait. Like a number of senior Inuit artists, Oopakak’s work is a bridge to the traditional life on the land into which he was born, articulated from the perspective of modern settlement life.

Family was a Chalmers Inuit Fund purchase and allowed us to acquire a rare and major work by a senior artist who is under-represented in the AGO collection. (The small carving Sea Goddess from the 1980s, donated by Samuel and Esther Sarick, was the only Oopakak work in the AGO collection). Family will be an anchor work within the AGO’s permanent collection having great potential for exhibition and education purposes and, like the National Gallery of Canada’s Nunali, a signature sculpture in the Canadian and contemporary Inuit collection.

Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography installation

October 13th, 2013

By Andrew Hunter, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art

Original cover of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2003)

Original cover of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2003)

For over two decades, Chester Brown has been one of Canada’s leading cartoonists, known nationally and internationally for such works as Yummy Fur, Ed the Happy Clown, I Never Liked You and Paying for It.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of his critically acclaimed, innovative and highly influential Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. As part of an ongoing series of interventions in the Canadian galleries, we have installed a selection of Brown’s original Riel drawings in the Georgia Ridley Salon, one of the AGO’s most memorable spaces to which, like the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, visitors regularly return. First designed as part of a 1990s reinstallation of the permanent collection, it was re-imagined as part of the Transformation program in 2008. The current installation is based on a chronological hanging of works from Confederation through to the First World War (1867-1917), with an additional emphasis on the work of women artists.

The Georgia Ridley Salon also highlights a period of nation building marked by civic growth and the accumulation of wealth in central Canada. With the establishment of art patronage and art institutions, Toronto emerged as a major centre of affluence and nationalism during this period. While this was a positive and powerful affirmation of the goals and visions of many Canadians — primarily those of British descent committed to an expanded Dominion of Canada — it was not a perspective shared by all. This idea of Canada was challenged by many, particularly in the Western regions that would become the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Chester Brown, Portrait of Louis Riel (2003), ink on paper, collection of the artist.

Chester Brown, Portrait of Louis Riel (2003), ink on paper, collection of the artist.

Louis David Riel (Métis, 1844-1885) led two rebellions challenging the new Canadian government’s plans for the West. Employing armed, diplomatic and democratic means, the Red River Rebellion in Manitoba (1869-70) was followed by the North-West Rebellion in Saskatchewan (1885). Although strongly supported by First Nations and French settlers, Riel was eventually arrested and hung for high treason.

Louis Riel remains a polarizing figure. Seen as a “founding father” to Manitobans, a spiritual leader to the Métis and a folk hero in Francophone and Catholic communities across Canada, he was considered a traitor in English Canada, particularly in Ontario and once–Protestant dominated Toronto. Through a creative collaboration with Toronto-based cartoonist Chester Brown, the goal of this project is to position Riel’s story within the salon’s story and to provoke reflection on a significant challenge to the nation building narrative.

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Chester Brown will present this year’s McCready Lecture on Canadian Art, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. Book your free tickets here.