Anishinaabeg: Art & Power – The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

On now until November 19, 2017, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is a new exhibit exploring the life and culture of the Anishinaabeg people, Anishinaabeg: Art & Power. The Anishinaabeg are the Indigenous peoples of the Canada and United States that include the Odawa, Ojibwe, Cree, Mississauga, Algonquin, and Potawatomi people. This eye-opening and fascinating exhibit showcases Indigenous artworks steeped in cultural symbolism yet touched with modern influences at the same time, including traditional and ceremonial clothing featuring the most delicate and intricate bead work.

Offering an in-depth look into then culture and traditions of Indigenous people that many may not know much about, this exhibit is certainly something worth checking out.

Located on the third floor of the ROM, the Anishinaabeg exhibit is full of a wide assortment of artifacts from artwork lining the walls to textiles including ceremonial outfits, friendship bags, and headdresses, to handheld items including intricately carved pipes and other tools. Everything on display offers a look into the Anishinaabeg connection to nature, their ancestors, each other, and to other Indigenous groups.

The exhibit was developed by three co-curators Arni Brownstone, the ROM’s specialist on North American Great Plains cultures; painter Saul Williams, a member of the Woodlands School of Art from North Caribou Lake First Nations in northern Ontario; and historian Alan Corbiere from M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island.

While spending plenty of time absorbing all that the exhibit had to offer, there were a number of pieces that caught my attention. A baby doll, Barry Ace’s Baby Warrior, painted in bright dazzling floral patterns accented with black signifies the Anishinaabeg’s roots with the creeping areas of pink representing the pressure of assimilation into the encroaching non-Indigenous culture.

There’s a striking painting of a starkly white-skinned woman engulfed with plants. This painting titled White Women and Their Plants, painted by co-curator Saul Williams is a rather humorous take on Williams’ first encounter with non-Indigenous women in the city.

I was captivated by photographic print of a circular beaded mosaic of red and white beads and, though at first glance it simply looks pretty, this is where reading the accompanying details reveals so much more. The piece was created by Quebec artist Nadia Myre as part of her Meditations in Red series. This one, in particular, was inspired by an experience she had while crossing the United States border during which she was asked to prove she had more than 50% of Indigenous blood in her in order to claim tax exemption.

Finally, this piece is one I almost overlooked and am very glad I didn’t. It is another circular portrait playing again on the mosaic theme – a depiction of a face in side view comprised of copper discs. The piece was created by Kathryn Wabegijig of Garden River First Nation entitled Self Portrait in Reclaimed Copper. The side-view silhouette is meant to depict what her portrait would look like on a coin and the copper pieces are pennies hammered until the Queen’s face is obliterated. This is also Wabegijig’s way of reclaiming copper as a precious resource for the Anishinaabeg people.

Anishinaabeg: Art & Power is truly a remarkable exhibit and it is clear the time and dedication that not only the curators put in, but the numerous Indigenous artists and teachers have invested in illustrating the stories of their communities and culture for the Toronto public. It’s fascinating, inspiring, educational, and well worth a trip to the ROM. Entrance to this exhibit is included in the general ROM ticket price.

Review and Photos by Samantha Wu


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