New AGO curator Wanda Nanibush shines light on Toronto art in the 80s

"It's a good time to figure out where Toronto art is right now by looking at what came before. Are we really innovating? Are we where we want to be?"

TORONTO: TRIBUTES + TRIBUTARIES, 1971-1989, at the AGO (317 Dundas West), September 29 to May 2017. See listing.

The AGO has made a smart move: in July it hired Wanda Nanibush, a self-described “Anishinaabe-kwe image and word warrior, curator and community organizer,” as assistant curator of Indigenous and Canadian art. 

She’d already been working on Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries when she got the appointment. The show is “in conversation” with a concurrent exhibit curated by Luis Jacob at the University of Toronto. 

Nanibush chats with NOW about her AGO debut, which she’ll change up in January with other art from the collection. The show’s bulletin board of flyers for artist-run galleries even includes a 1986 NOW cover. 

The AGO originally wanted to focus on the 60s and 70s, but, Nanibush says, “I pushed it to 70s and 80s so I could deal more with cultural diversity and the cultural revolution that I think was taking place.”


Robert Nelson Markle’s Snakes Galore

An impetus for both shows is the desire to challenge the characterization of Toronto as blank slate, a city without a history. Another is the rapid rate of change we’re experiencing now. 

“We want to slow things down, to make sure we know where we’re going,” she says. “It’s a good time to figure out where Toronto art is right now by looking at what came before. Are we really innovating? Are we where we want to be?” 

Many artists here are still going strong – for instance, Nanibush calls Vtape founders Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak “forces to be reckoned with.” But she says some who’ve fallen off the radar deserve a closer look, like June Clark, whose light boxes about her African-American childhood are on display here. 


Norval Morrisseau’s Ancestral Warrior

“I’d love to see a solo show of her work. It’s never really happened, especially not at an institution of this size. She has devoted her life to teaching and had an amazing career in Paris and New York, but Toronto forgets her. I think that’s sad, because her work is really beautiful and strong and provocative.”

Joanne Tod, who’s still painting, is often thought of as an artist of the 80s. “Giving her her due in a nice big retrospective would be great.” And performance art by the likes of Lillian Allen or the Clichettes’ Johanna Householder is difficult to preserve in museum collections.

Ato Seitu, an artist and musician with reggae band Truth & Rights, worked with Allen in Regent Park. 

“The artists in the show might not have exhibited with Ato, but they would have known his music and seen his work around town. So why not acknowledge that relationship?”

Nanibush’s outsider perspective gives Tributes + Tributaries a refreshing inclusiveness that was absent from some previous, more self-congratulatory surveys of the city’s recent artistic past. | @franschechter

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