Favell puts indigenous artists and curators in the gallery

ART by Gregory Beatty

Photos by Rosalie Favell

Rosalie Favell: (Re)Facing The Camera
Mackenzie Gallery
Opens Aug. 29

It isn’t exactly the usual way an artist and a curator work together but Rosalie Favell and Michelle LaVallee’s interaction adds an interesting wrinkle to an exhibition that already promises to be compelling.

More on that in a bit.

Born in Winnipeg of mixed Cree-English descent, Favell has been active as a photo-based artist since the early 1990s. Portraiture is one aspect of her practice, and in 2012 she received the Karsh Award (named after the renowned Canadian portraitists Yousef and Malek Karsh) from the City of Ottawa.

Since 2008 Favell’s used her current home, Ottawa, as a base to compile an impressive collection of portraits of indigenous artists and curators. While some of the portraits have been shown before, Favell’s upcoming exhibition at the MacKenzie Gallery is the first time the entire 283-image series will be shown.

Prior to (Re)facing the Camera being installed at the gallery, I spoke with curator Michelle LaVallee about Favell’s project.

In the ’90s, I remember a billboard project that featured standard portraits of gays and lesbians. The goal was to demystify queer people and emphasize their common humanity with everyone else. Rosalie’s portraits have a similar straightforward look to me. Did she have the same goal in mind?

The history of capturing images of indigenous people is really complicated. As a Métis photographer, she’s definitely aware of this. She’s also aware that she’s implicated in that history. We’re also very aware of the stereotypes and expectations that are imposed on First Nations people from the outside, but also internally as well. So she’s very much interested in identity, and representations of identity, and how that identity is informed.

Did you have your portrait done?

Yes, I did. When I went in, I was like, “What do you want me to do?” She replied “Whatever you want?” So she definitely wasn’t posing or directing the sitter. Instead, she gave them space to find their own way to come to terms with what was happening. Not everyone finds it awkward to be in front of the camera but for most people, it’s unnerving. That’s particularly true for indigenous people — for them, it’s a political act because of [our] strained history with the camera.

You can tell when you look at the portraits, everyone has their own way of posing. So it does become a bit of a stage or performance space. Some are serious and straightforward, while others are playful.

Are all the subjects from Canada?

It started out that way, but through different gatherings she attended to take the portraits she did start to cross borders. There are indigenous artists and curators from the United States, and also New Zealand and Australia.

For viewers, it offers the opportunity to maybe put a face to a name they might recognize, or an art exhibition they might have seen?

The series includes senior, groundbreaking artists and curators such as Tom Hill, Daphne Odjig, Alex Javier and Robert Houle. Then there’s a second wave such as Lee-Ann Martin, James Luna, Ruth Cuthand and Edward Poitras. Then there’s another wave that includes Lori Blondeau, Greg Hill, Ryan Rice and K.C. Adams. And finally, my generation — people like Jenny Western, Kenneth Hopkins and Jason Baird. So it really is intergenerational.

Canadian art institutions have traditionally excluded an indigenous voice or presence. This series literally embodies that — it’s an indigenous physical presence. It’s through photography, but it has brought the artists and curators as a community into a space that’s [long been] been denied them.

I understand there are some paintings in the show too?

Rosalie has always been photo-based. When I found out she’d recently started to paint I was intrigued. They’re still photo-based, so it’s not radically different, but she is deepening her engagement with the subject matter.

I also found it interesting that the images she’s choosing to paint weren’t taken by herself. Instead, she’s working with images from her family photo album. She’s only done six or seven to date, and four will be in the exhibition. The ones we’ve chosen investigate how popular representations of First Nations culture have been performed, often playfully and innocently in a private family setting; but also intentionally, as means of representing a cultural identity.

How do you plan to install the work?

The paintings will be on moveable walls in the centre of the gallery, then the portraits will be on the outer walls arranged alphabetically by first name. I don’t want it to be a solid grid that might overwhelm the viewer, so it will be patterned, but I also don’t want to focus in on particular individuals, or force readings between different portraits.

I know when I’m surrounded by the portraits it makes me feel good. It’s part of my community as well, and I feel supported by these people, and I’m hoping other people will get a sense of that too.

It’s a great historical document. But I imagine it also offers a sense of how the indigenous arts community is growing in Canada.

We know that’s happening, and that there’s a growing interest and focus on indigenous art. And there have been shifts in attitude, which is positive. But when you think of my position as a curator at the MacKenzie, there’s still very few us in full-time positions in major art institutions — three, actually. Before, you heard the rhetoric “Oh, we don’t know who these people are” or “The expertise isn’t out there yet.” Well, this is living proof that these people are out there. Hopefully, it makes it harder for people to deny it, and keep making the same excuses.