Let Wanda Speak

The ICCA has received a response to the January 17 letter asking the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to let former Curator of Indigenous and Canadian Art, Wanda Nanibush, speak. For transparency and accountability to our membership, our community, and the hundreds who signed the letter, it is now posted on our website at icca.art. Original PDF version can be viewed here.

To our institutional and individual membership,

version française

Since Wanda Nanibush’s sudden departure from the Art Gallery of Ontario in November, there has been an abundance of discussion surrounding the circumstances of the situation. At the ICCA, we are particularly concerned about and advocate for creative and narrative sovereignty on behalf of Indigenous curators, artists, and writers. The fact that Nanibush is unable to speak to the particulars of what took place is especially troubling to us.

After silently removing Nanibush from their website, AGO Director and CEO responded to the outcry from our communities by releasing an Open Letter, which did nothing to alleviate our concerns, and further obfuscated the issues at hand. We see it as vital that Wanda Nanibush be able to speak freely about the circumstances regarding her departure from the AGO. We have been in conversation with colleagues at other Indigenous Arts Organizations across the country, and together we have written a letter to the AGO Board of Trustees titled Let Wanda Speak”, demanding that “the AGO release Ms. Nanibush from any legal obligations preventing her from speaking publicly about her tenure and dismissal, about how she sees what happened and why.”

We join the thousands of artists and cultural workers who have already voiced their concerns in other open letters, and encourage anyone who would like to support this effort to sign on to the Let Wanda Speak” letter, embedded below in English and French, by filling out this Google form.

Sincerely,

Eli Hirtle, Director of Programs
The Indigenous Curatorial Collective / Collectif des commissaires autochtones (ICCA)

Please direct enquiries or responses to Eli Hirtle, e.hirtle@icca.art

For more information, please see the following resources and press coverage:

AGO-NO.ca

“Questions Arise as Indigenous Curator Suddenly Departs Toronto Museum”, Hyperallergic, Nov. 21, 2023

“Thousands Urge Toronto Museum to Address Indigenous Curator’s Exit”, Hyperallergic, Nov. 28, 2023


Dear Art Gallery of Ontario Board of Trustees,

We are writing today to express our grave concern regarding the dismissal of Wanda Nanibush from her position of Curator of Indigenous and Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and regarding the ways in which her departure has been sorely mishandled. The repercussions of your action are being felt throughout this country by Indigenous organizations; by Indigenous people connected to arts and cultural communities; and by other institutions invested in allyship and decolonization. Your decisions caused a seismic rupture within the fragile fabric of reconciliation. The lack of transparency surrounding these actions is incredibly destabilizing for all of us left in the dark, wondering what and who will be the next to fall? The institutional autocracy that you have enacted to silence and erase the presence of Ms. Nanibush – and accomplishments she made together with you, the AGO, within your walls – is chilling.

The act of including didactics in Anishinaabemowin throughout your galleries was simple, yet revolutionary. You were one of the first. To see those words, that language, made present, instilled such pride and power in us, that we would carry with us, out into the world, giving us strength long after our visits were over. The agency afforded to Ms. Nanibush in order to enact her ideas in such a space was extraordinary. It was the result of a relationship of trust.

This presented the possibility of change not only within the walls of the AGO, but beyond, national in scope. The ripple effect was felt throughout these territories, laying the ground for what we call, “decolonization”. Our stories and voices, our ways of thinking and doing, were acknowledged and honoured at home on our land, and further – they were brought to the international stage. These were done in ways that we understood: through relationship, discourse and communication. As much as Wanda Nanibush’s position was emblematic of the potential for change and good will of the institution and those who worked there, the way in which her departure has transpired from your institution, is fraught. We now see that this relationship existed in an unbalanced power structure. Relationship building that had been done for years has been severely damaged because of your actions.

One of the basic tenets of a territorial acknowledgement is to name the people of the land. To not name them is to render them invisible. This is quite literally what you have now done to Ms Nanibush. The silencing of her person, the erasure of her presence within your institution, has broken any illusion of relationship upon which allyship with Indigenous communities must be built. This is an incredible step backwards that is so damaging, not only to the Indigenous arts community, but other racialized arts communities as well. These communities include individuals, organizations and networks who have all been affected by these events. Like a rhizomatic system, we are embedded throughout these territories. As something happens to one, it happens to all. Our trust has been broken.

In his open letter dated November 30, 2023, AGO Director, Stephen Jost, apparently assumed the Indigenous arts community will be willing to work with the AGO in the future – that the harms caused are focused on Ms. Nanibush alone and that her dismissal does not greatly affect us all. However this assumption is wrong. The AGO is a public institution. We are a part of it, as Wanda brought us in. While Mr. Jost mentions a continuing commitment to Indigenous artists, storytellers and thinkers, there is no plan on how this will be enacted. We require transparency and inclusion, trust and respect, if we are to continue on this journey together. For us, the first, necessary and most obvious step is to understand what happened and why.

We request that the AGO release Ms. Nanibush from any legal obligations preventing her from speaking publicly about her tenure and dismissal, about how she sees what happened and why. It is essential that we hear her words on this matter, to prepare the ground for any relations to begin to grow again.

Let Wanda Speak.

We hope you recognize the importance of the AGO’s relationship with the Indigenous arts community and urgently take this first step in repairing the trust that has been so badly damaged by Wanda Nanibush’s dismissal.

Do you not think that we are on a journey together? We share these lands. We have shared these lands. We must work together. We are in relationship.

We respectfully ask for a response to our request by Wednesday January 31, 2024.

If we do not hear from you by this date, we will consider other options that are arising from ongoing conversations within Indigenous arts communities.

Eli Hirtle, Director of Programs, Indigenous Curatorial Collective/Collectif des commissaires autochtones

Liz Barron, Director of Operations, Indigenous Curatorial Collective/Collectif des commissaires autochtones

France Trépanier, Director, Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires

Chris Creighton-Kelly, Director, Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires

Jennifer Smith, National Director, National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition  

Debbie Keeper, Operations Director, Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art

Justin Bear Larivee, Artistic Director, Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art

Becca Taylor, Director, Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre

Halie Finney, Core member, Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre

Cheyenne Rain LeGrande, Core member, Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre

Alberta Rose W. / Ingniq, Core member, Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre

Dan Cardinal McCartney, Core member, Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre

Tiffany Shaw, Core member, Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre

Please direct enquiries or responses to Eli Hirtle, e.hirtle@icca.art

Welcoming New ICCA Staff

Eli Hirtle, ICCA Director of Programs

“In this new role, I’m excited to support artistic and curatorial practices that embody and enact Indigenous creative sovereignty. I’m thrilled to be working with an organization that nurtured my practice in transformative ways when I was an emerging curator, and to be able to develop partnerships and programming that ensures this important work will continue into the future.” 

Eli is a nêhiyaw (Cree) and mixed european curator, artist, and filmmaker based on Lekwungen territory (Victoria, BC).

Cole Forrest, Community Cares Coordinator

In conjunction with Canada Council for the Arts and Creating, Knowing and Sharing

“I want to say chi-miigwetch as an emerging Indigenous curator for the opportunity to support Indigenous artists, curators, and arts workers in my role at ICCA.”

Cole is an Anishinaabe filmmaker, film programmer and curator from Nipissing First Nation. Cole has created films through imagineNATIVE, National Film Board, and Canada Council for The Arts and has supported programming at festivals including TIFF, imagineNATIVE, VIFF, and images Festival. They are a graduate of the Video Design and Production program at George Brown College currently developing their first feature film. They are grateful to represent their community in all artistic pursuits.

We’ve Moved

A huge shout out to the Toronto Outdoor Arts Festival for all their help and support as we swapped offices to better fit our organizations’ needs. We are now next door at:

264 – 401 Richmond Street West

Toronto, ON M5V 3A8