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AGO curator Wanda Nanibush on editing the art book, Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental

Rebecca Belmore, Mixed Blessing, 2011. Hair, plaster of paris, hoodie dimensions variable. Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal, purchase, Louise Lalonde-Lamarre Memorial Fund

In October 2017, Wanda Nanibush was named the Art Gallery of Ontario’s first Indigenous curator for its new Department of Indigenous and Canadian Art. Nanibush’s promotion was key to the cultural institution’s broader strategy to reframe how it presents its collections and to increase the visibility of First Nations artists. With her new show for the AGO, the Anishinaabe-kwe curator and community activist from Beausoleil First Nation has already made a strong curatorial impact. The provocative new survey exhibition, Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental, presents the work of the internationally renowned Anishinaabe artist, who employs natural elements and media technology to build both personal and political narratives.

Nanibush – who also curated a 2014 exhibition of Belmore’s multi-disciplinary work for the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto – edited the accompanying catalogue for Facing the Monumental (Goose Lane Editions), bringing a refreshing, multi-faceted perspective to the art-book tradition. She spoke to Q&Q about the process of working on this major full-colour publication for the AGO.

Often in catalogues and art books, the curator is omnipresent. But immediately from the introductory essay, you are clearly present; not just as a curator, but as a human being. We know where you are writing, how you are feeling. Does this reflect your overall curatorial approach? 

I like my writing to reach any audience which I think is more possible in a personal voice. It’s also part of my politics to acknowledge that this is one perspective – no one really is objective – objectivity is really about what discourse has power at any given moment. I am also centring Indigenous knowledge by using insights from my language Anishinaabemowin – our word for truth is heart-knowledge and we believe that you can only ever really speak the truth by speaking what you actually know. My curation has these values embedded in it. I curate from my body and intuition which is the heart. I want it to have and evoke experience and feeling.

The book feels very collaborative, incorporating text from other curators, poets, etc., as well as Rebecca’s own words. Do you also consider this part of your curatorial philosophy? 

The book is almost an artist book – we focused on details that you might not notice or get in the exhibition. It’s not a record of the exhibition. Rebecca and I worked hard to find texts that inspired her or that she loved. It is personal in that sense. Almost like a behind-the-scenes take.

My philosophy does love the connections between the visual art world and music, poetry, fiction, the article or news item, the poster. We experience life as a collage of unrelated things that we build connections between … curating is like that. I want the experience to be moving and challenging at the same time.

It was exciting to see “works in progress.” That is something that feels rare to see in publication. How did you come to include those?

These are new works commissioned for the exhibition itself so were not created at the time of the catalogue construction. But her influences and details, thoughts, feelings were available.

It much be a challenge to convey the power of the media pieces in book format. How did you approach that challenge? 

The media work was approached like the performance art section – given details of the images in many smaller frames. We even included production shots if they were available like for “Fountain.”

For readers who are unable to see the exhibition in person, what would you like them to take away from this publication? 

To grapple with the issues of our time through poetic and beautiful contemporary art and to value the work of artists.

Rebecca Belmore, sister, 2010. Colour inkjet on transparencies 213.4 x 365.8 cm (overall). Courtesy the artist © Rebecca Belmore

Rebecca Belmore, Fountain, 2005. Single-channel video with sound projected onto falling water, 274cm x488 cm. Courtesy of the artist © Rebecca Belmore