Unveiling 20 Years of Indigenous Photographic Art

The formation of the Hamilton-based Native Indian/Inuit Photographers Association (NIIPA) in 1985 marked a turning point in the growth of Native art in Canada and the United States.

For 20 years, NIIPA has provided an important national networking tool for Indigenous artists, offering materials, training and encouragement, as well as galleries and traveling exhibits.

Until its inception, photography had generally depicted Aboriginal life through negative negative stereotypes and negatives captured through white lenses. Indigenous photographers often worked in isolation on the periphery of the art world.

‘Fort McPherson, NWT’, 1984, by photographer Dorothy Carseen (née Chocolate).Barry Gray

Thus, the founding principle of the NIIPA seemed revolutionary: “to promote a positive, realistic and contemporary image of Native people through photography”.

It all started in a basement office on James Street South, then moved in the 90s to an office/gallery on Concession Street until it dissolved and closed in 2006. His first two exhibitions toured the country and national conferences were held in Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lethbridge, Alta.

An ambitious new exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art “NIIPA 20/20” chronicles the group’s 20-year history, with more than 160 photos by 50 former NIIPA artists from Canada and the United States. Many artists have achieved national and international recognition, including Shelley Niro, Jeff Thomas, Murray McKenzie, Jolene Rickard and Simon Brascoupe. The exhibition runs until September 3, Tuesday through Friday, and is free to the public.

'Nitsik 11', 2019, by artist Couzyn van Heuvelen.
‘Nitsik 11’, 2019, by artist Couzyn van Heuvelen.Barry Gray

Much of the credit for the exhibit goes to McMaster Indigenous Art Curator Rhéanne Chartrand and NIIPA Founding Co-Director Yvonne Maracle.

Chartrand had never heard of the NIIPA until five years ago, when she came across a reference while researching another project. This discovery led to “#nofilterneeded,” an exhibition at McMaster featuring 48 works from the early years of NIIPA. She found much of the material from that 2018 show in the archives of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in Gatineau, Quebec. After its premiere in McMaster, “#nofilterneeded” toured Lethbridge, Thunder Bay and the Center d’art origine de Gatineau.

From left to right,
From left to right, “Nettie Watt”, 1985, and “Wanda”, 1984, both by photographer Robert “Tim” Johnson.Barry Gray

Chartrand thought his work on the NIIPA was done. She was wrong. Chartrand had gotten to know Maracle by searching “#nofilterneeded” and one day Maracle mentioned that there were more NIIPA photos she might want to look at.

By the time NIIPA closed in 2006, the organization had accumulated a large permanent collection. To prevent the photographs from being destroyed after the disbandment of the NIIPA, Maracle crated them and transferred them to various local Indigenous organizations willing to store them.

A series of untitled photographs,
An untitled series of photographs, “Making Lacrosse Sticks”, by photographer Charles Agel.Barry Gray

There were 360 ​​photos in all, and their final resting place (before McMaster) was the Koo Gaa Da Win Manitou seniors’ residence in downtown Hamilton. Maracle hung many photographs on the interior walls of the building. She took Chartrand to see them.

“I walked in and realized I wasn’t done,” Chartrand says. “I had no choice. When you get 360 degree photographs, you can’t just sit on them. You have to do something with them.

Right, “Louisa Oshoochiah and Elisapee Qimmirpuk,” by photographer Jimmy Manning, Nunavut, 1990.
Right, “Louisa Oshoochiah and Elisapee Qimmirpuk,” by photographer Jimmy Manning, Nunavut, 1990.Barry Gray

About 125 of the photos Maracle had recorded are now featured in “NIIPA 20/20”, with most of the others coming from the original “#nofilterneeded” exhibit.

In an interview from his home in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Maracle admitted it was a great relief to hand over the 360 ​​photos to Chartrand.

“Real Indians”, by photographer Larry McNeil, 1980.Barry Gray

“I’m so happy to have met Rhéanne and she was able to relieve me of this burden,” said Maracle. “She is a great lifesaver and the images of NIIPA live on. It’s history, Aboriginal history, our history.

Meanwhile, Chartrand and Maracle work on ways to make up for the resident elders of Koo Gaa Da Win Manitou for the loss of the art.

“Two Men and a Caribou”, by artist Eegeetsiaq Peter.Barry Gray

“Yvonne and I will try to bring the seniors to see the show,” Chartrand said. “At the moment their walls are bare and we are still considering how to replace the photographs.”

The McMaster Museum of Art is hosting an online panel discussion on NIIPA in the 1990s on Thursday, June 16 at 3 p.m. The roundtable will be moderated by Chartrand and will feature Maracle (co-founder of NIIPA and longest serving director), Carol Hill (former executive director of NIIPA) and Tim Johnson (founding board member and photographer). You can subscribe to the discussion on the museum’s website museum.mcmaster.ca.

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