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Indigenous arts leaders sign open letter in support of Wanda Nanibush after departure from AGO

November 29, 2023
Wanda Nanibush, former curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, joined the AGO in 2016 and left earlier this month.CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Globe and Mail: PUBLISHED YESTERDAY, UPDATED 4 HOURS AGO – More than 50 artists, curators and professors from Indigenous communities in Canada and around the world have signed a letter asking the Art Gallery of Ontario to publicly acknowledge the departure of Anishinaabe curator Wanda Nanibush and the global impact of her work.

The letter, released Tuesday morning, calls for a “genuine response from the Art Gallery of Ontario and a public acknowledgment of the departure of their first Indigenous Curator in the Indigenous and Canadian Art Department.”

Ms. Nanibush joined the AGO in 2016 and left earlier this month. Though neither she nor the gallery have shared any details about her departure, The Globe and Mail reported last week that her outspokenness, which included public support of Palestinian causes, caused friction with some at the gallery and in the arts community, and came to a head after the Israel-Hamas war began in October.

The gallery described Ms. Nanibush’s exit as a mutual decision.

Tuesday’s letter asks the gallery’s leaders to recognize Ms. Nanibush’s “contributions to the International art world and meaningful engagement with issues of Indigeneity and decolonization during her tenure with the AGO.” It also calls for greater protections at all art institutions for Indigenous staff who speak about their experiences.

The letter was organized by Aylan Couchie, a Nishnaabekwe interdisciplinary artist, curator and writer from Nipissing First Nation, who said it “isn’t just about Wanda’s departure.”

Instead, Ms. Couchie said, Ms. Nanibush’s exit ”followed a long line of failures by arts and academic institutions to properly support Indigenous people, women in particular, who are expected to help ‘decolonize’ from within while constantly working against limiting policies and discriminatory behaviour by those who we’re expected to be in collaboration with.”

The signatories include Greg Hill, the former Indigenous curator at the National Gallery of Canada who is of Mohawk and French-Canadian ancestry. He did not respond to a Globe request for comment on Monday. Last year, he said he was let go from the National Gallery because he had disagreed with its approach to its decolonization agenda.

Another signatory is Raymond Boisjoly, a Simon Fraser University professor and artist from the Haida Nation. He said in an interview that “it should never have been a surprise” for Ms. Nanibush to express solidarity with Palestinians, given her previous public comments.

Around the world, other signatories include Biung Ismahasan, a curator and researcher from the Bunun, Atayal and Kanakanavu nations indigenous to Taiwan; the Seminole-Muscogee-Navajo professor Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie; and Megan Tamati-Quennell, a curator in New Zealand who is of Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mūtunga, Ngāi Tahu and Kāti Māmoe, Māori descent.

Tuesday’s letter follows several other major public statements from the arts community in support of Ms. Nanibush. One group of artists and curators, including the artist and professor Deanna Bowen and the curator and professor Gabrielle Moser, has called for a boycott of the AGO until it commits to continue Ms. Nanibush’s reconciliation-oriented work, gives a public accounting the reasons for her exit, and guarantees freedom of expression for staff.

Meanwhile, the AGO’s former Canadian-art curator Andrew Hunter has written to Canadian and American museum groups, including the Canadian Art Museum Directors Association, suggesting the AGO’s director and chief executive Stephan Jost be dismissed and that the board of trustees face “real consequences.”

“So many people from communities that have historically been marginalized, whether Indigenous, people of colour, the Black community, disabled people, who try to come into these colonial institutions that claim to be about diversity and decolonizing – so many people are either pushed out, or leave traumatized,” Andrew Hunter said in an interview. “I’ve seen it.”

The AGO declined to comment on Monday, citing Ms. Nanibush’s exit as a personnel matter.

In Mr. Jost’s internal memo to staff announcing her departure, which The Globe obtained, he wrote: “One of the many things I always heard from Wanda was her honesty, which at times resulted in difficult conversations, including in the last few weeks. … She unswervingly inserted Indigenous art and artists, with grace, honesty and pride – which has changed our sense of history and our collective future at the museum.”

Ms. Nanibush, the AGO’s inaugural curator of Indigenous Art, brought in exhibitions such as Rebecca Belmore’s Facing the Monumental and led the gallery to host annual international symposiums of Indigenous artists and curators, called aabaakwad (it clears after a storm). She was a jurist for the 2023 Sobey Art Award and recently won the Toronto Book Award for her co-authored book with Georgiana Uhlyarik, Moving the Museum.

Ms. Nanibush’s departure from the AGO follows years of outspokenness connecting the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada with those of Palestinians. She could not be reached for comment.

In a letter leaked to social media last week, a group of Canadian supporters of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem wrote to Mr. Jost accusing Ms. Nanibush of “posting inflammatory, inaccurate rants against Israel.”

One source who spoke to The Globe last week said that letter did not play a role in the decision for her exit and disagreed with some of its contents.

Josh O’Kane

Follow Josh O’Kane on Twitter: @joshokane