Thousands of artists, writers, educators, and cultural workers from Canada and other countries are calling on Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to address the recent departure of Anishinaabe curator Wanda Nanibush. AGO’s first curator of Canadian and Indigenous art, Nanibush left the museum earlier this month following a pro-Israel group’s complaint about her social media posts in support of Palestine.
A statement of concern signed by over 80 cultural workers belonging to the international Indigenous community, including artists Shelley Niro and Melaw Nakehk’o, was published yesterday, November 28. The collective statement, which urges the AGO and other organizations to “genuinely support and commit to practiced policies of decolonization and Indigenization,” was released at the same time that another petition decrying the AGO’s actions and calling for a boycott of the museum was leaked to the public. That petition has over 2,900 signatories at the time of this writing, including artists Maria Hupfield and Syrus Marcus Ware and Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School.
The dissemination of the group letters was initially sparked by the sudden exit of seven-year AGO curator Nanibush after the organization Israel Museum and Arts, Canada (IMAAC) sent a complaint to the institution about Nanibush’s online comments in support of Palestine. AGO has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
“I’ve had conversations with Indigenous colleagues who’ve felt silenced about their ability to speak out, specifically to recent events in Gaza, but this has been ongoing for years regarding other protests, actions and even the blockades prior to the pandemic,” Aylan Couchie, a Nipissing interdisciplinary artist, writer, and curator who organized the collective statement of concern, told Hyperallergic.
Rebuking the AGO’s decision to silently remove the former curator from its website following her exit rather than release a public statement, the collective statement signers link Nanibush’s departure to recent cases of Indigenous arts workers who left institutions. The letter cites Kanyen’keháka artist Greg Hill’s sudden dismissal from his position as senior curator of Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) last year; Hill claimed he was fired because he disagreed with the museum’s “colonial and anti-Indigenous” work practices.
The statement further demands that arts institutions globally establish protections for creative expression, including social media accounts which the letter points to as “spaces of digital resistance, inter-community connections, collaborations and sharing of thoughts and information.”
Couchie said that this component felt vital to include, as she said she has witnessed many other people’s social media being used against them across industries. She added that there were many people who supported the statement, but did not sign their names out of fear of retaliation; notably, there are a few anonymous signatories.
“We really need to take a look at silencing as being a core failure of the decolonization and Indigenization platforms these institutions claim to be incorporating into their spaces,” Couchie said, adding that communities “need the freedom to speak to settler colonialism everywhere, including in Palestine.”
Art historian and curator Gabrielle Moser, who organized a second open letter that was leaked at the same time as the collective Indigenous statement, told Hyperallergic that she and many other artists were alarmed by the lack of transparency surrounding Nanibush’s departure and the silence from both her and the institution. The letter’s signatories pledge to boycott AGO until the museum meets demands which include publicly acknowledging Nanibush’s departure and recommitting to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action, policy recommendations that address the harmful impacts of Indigenous residential schools in Canada.
Moser emphasized that she was also concerned about the silence around Nanibush’s departure and pointed to the “alarming rise” in non-disclosure agreements across Canadian arts and cultural institutions. “It should not be just a concern to folks in the art world, but to everyday people that this institution that is supposed to serve the needs of the public is now being manipulated by external donors, patrons, and private individuals who are seeking to undemocratically remove people from their jobs,” Moser said.
Two grassroots activist groups, Artists Against Artwashing and Artists for Palestine – Canada, also announced today an email campaign demanding that the AGO address Nanibush’s exit and “stop censoring the Palestinian movement for decolonization.”