“Proposing Parity: Changing the Display of Aboriginal Women Artists” Written by Rebecca Frerotte (Carleton University)

In 1985, the Guerrilla Girls began information campaigns in order to highlight the disparity of women and male artists shown in art museums. These campaigns sought to fight discrimination, and expose sexism and racism in the art world and culture at large. [1] From 1971 to 1981, the National Gallery of Canada displayed fifty-four solo exhibitions by men and one by a woman.[2] More women artists have been exhibited, reviewed, and collected, in part, due to their efforts since this time. Unfortunately, this increase has primarily been associated with Caucasian women artists; women of color still encounter difficulty when trying to have their works shown. It is this papers intention to statistically illuminate the continued disparity between the display of men and women artist in the Canadian context; the disparity between white and Aboriginal artists; discuss Aboriginal women artists in relation to the museum and feminist practices; and propose systematic solutions that are founded in theory and statistical reality.

Statistical Disparity between Men and Women

In 1971, Linda Nochlin wrote the seminal paper “Why have there been no great women artists?” which proposes to combat the notion of the genius artist.[3] In creating this systemic change to the conception of genius or great artist, a greater inclusion of both women and socio-economically challenged artists could be achieved within the canon.[4] Forty years later this change has not occurred and we are therefore still party to many solo exhibitions shown in both major and minor institutions, touting the great accomplishments of individual artists.  Author Julie Cason highlights the continuation of this problem:

How many one-man exhibition of men’s work have been held at the Whitney since the new building opened, and what is the percentage of those to the four full fledged, and two one-room women’s exhibitions of   which you are so proud? With all respect to Louise Nevelson’s achievements the fact that two of the four large shows have been hers indicates the Whitney’s narrow outlook on women’s work in general…we consider this a “lousy” record.[5]

In the Canadian context at the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Vancouver Art Gallery alone there have been 181 solo exhibitions. Examining these shows in terms of demographic parity 80.1% of these solo shows have shown work by male artists and 19.9 % female artists.[6] At the Vancouver Art Gallery, of the twelve of solo shows with artwork by women two were for Emily Carr and in addition to these two solo shows there were two other group exhibitions that forefronted Carr’s works. Like Cason’s feeling towards Nevelson’s achievements and her display at the Whitney, I respect Carr’s achievements but this is an incredibly narrow view of what women artists in Canada are, and have been presenting. If women artists are provided with so few solo shows it is necessary that these shows reflect the variety of artistic accomplishments rather then perpetuate the myth of the great artists of the past.

The Display of Aboriginal Women Artists

The number of Aboriginal women artists who have received solo exhibitions is even smaller. The percentage falls to 4.97% overall.[7] This scarcity has not gone ignored by feminist writers, Elizabeth Marin and Vivian Meyer created Female Gazes in 1997, a Canadian Publication on female artists from the sixteenth century to the present. Included amongst the women artists are Daphne Odjig, Rebecca Belmore, and Pirseolak Ashoona.[8] Martin and Meyer stated,  “The task of telling the stories of Canadian women artists is a relatively recent one. This work is now unfolding, but it is difficult to find material on Canadian women artists without sifting through journals, magazines and newspapers”[9] Vivian Gray notes that it is even more difficult to find published literature on Aboriginal women and the arts. Here we can see that the critical gap in the inclusion of Aboriginal women artists is not limited to the museum space, they are also written about less.[10] “There is also no mention or definition of Aboriginal women’s art in Contemporary Canadian art history.”[11] Where Aboriginal women have been included in the gallery it is as the subject of male European painters, and rarely as the creators of their own autonomous works.

The Changed Position of Aboriginal Women in Society

There is a complex relationship between feminist ideas and the reality of being an Aboriginal woman. The following interpretations of the traditional autonomy of women is made with an awareness that they are based in cultural traditions which are not my own. There is a contradiction that has arisen between how Europeans depicted Aboriginal women. There is a dominant theme presented which projects a homogenous representation of Indigenous women within a narrow range of tropes which are all characterized by their powerlessness: worker, mother, Indian maiden and sexual provocateur.[12] It is the European patriarchal perspective which has created such depictions, the validity of which must be questioned Josephte Ourné by Joseph Légaré is an example of such a depiction. In many Aboriginal cultures, men and women’s roles were characterized by complementarities. The stereotypes presented by European painters have worked to obscure these traditional positions of power held by women.

In the centuries since the first attempts at colonization in the early 1500s, the invaders have exerted every effort to remove Indian women from every position of authority, to obliterate all records pertaining to          gynocratic social systems, and to ensure that no American and few   American Indians would remember that gynocracy was the primary social order of the Indian American prior to 1800.[13]


Joseph Légaré, “Josephte Ourné” (1844), 131.5 x 95.5 cm, Oil on Canvas, Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

In Colleen Cutschall’s Art: Lakota Knowledge for the New Millennium, Ruth B. Phillips discusses how the subversion of Aboriginal women can also be seen in the historiography of Native art. This misrepresentation is made clear by the writings on historic plains arts, which characterize women’s arts as geometric and decorative, and men arts as representational and symbolic.[14] Phillips submits that this is “a coded statement of value, since in the hierarchical Western system of classification decorative art is equated with the inferior categories of applied art and craft, while representational art is allied with the higher, fine art genres of painting and sculpture.”[15] Therefore although there is very little similarity between the historical position of women in the western European context and the Aboriginal context, the historiography of their art has served to impose these positions upon them, and lessoning the true prestige associated with women’s work.[16]


Coleen Cutschall, “The Great Race” (1989), 122x122cm, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery

Contemporary Aboriginal artist Colleen Cutschall has created artworks that reclaim the centrality of the feminine in traditional Lakota practices. Her series Voice in the Blood stylistically simulates the quillwork and beadwork styles of her Lakota peoples.[17] In mimicking “the lazy stitch” with her paintings Cutschall relays to viewers the mythological past of the Lakota people which is simultaneously contemporary and recalling the stylistic creations of women past. The Great Race is an example of work from this series. Cutschall repeated this technique in her more recent series House Made of Stars, the creation of such works requires an enormous time commitment which pas tribute to Lakota women’s artistic tradition and “affirms the high value place on women’s industriousness in Lakota society.”[18] Cutschall also incorporate iconographical means to reaffirm the complementary nature of women and men’s traditional roles in The Androgynous Landscape, which depicts the Black Hill’s site, a very sacred site to the Lakota people.[19]


Colleen Cutschall, “The Androgynous Landscape” (1996)

Contemporary Investigations into Aboriginal Female Identity

European intervention into the lives of Aboriginal families shifted the dynamic of how women have been thought of and treated. Many Aboriginal women have suffered similarly to European women in the repression of their rights on the reserves; they were suppressed not only for their gender but also because of their heritage due to the creation of the Indian Act. Indigenous artists have been creating artworks like Cutschall’s, which comment and illuminate what it means to be an Aboriginal woman in contemporary culture. Some of these artists are Rebecca Belmore Daphne Odjig, Jane Ash Poitras, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, and Rosalie Favell.

Jane Ash Poitras has earned an international reputation as one of Canada’s most important female artists. Poitras has created artworks with bold and colourful imagery, “her Artwork is a testimony that critical art analysis and the continual development of new and renewed Aboriginal aesthetics as contemporary art is not only possible by important for First Nations art”.[20]

Rebecca Belmore’s work has spoken directly with the troubles and difficulties of living as an Aboriginal woman in today’s culture. One of her pieces, The Named and the Unnamed discusses the disappearance of women. The 2002 performance of the piece referred to the more than seventy women (mostly Aboriginal) who had gone missing from the Vancouver’s downtown eastside.[21] Rising to the Occasion is a Victorian-style dress resembling a beaver dam and adorned with broken china teacups, which was worn by Belmore during the Duke and Duchess of York’s official visit to Canada (Figure 4). The piece references historical representations of the female body, recalling full-length Victorian portraits. The political message of the dress made from the wreckage of British colonialism is also overt.


Rebecca Belmore, “Rising to the Occasion” (1987-1991), Dimensions unknown, Mixed Media, Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario

The Beothuk people were an Algonkin speaking tribe that inhabitted Newfoundland. When Europeans arrived in Newfoundland in about 1497, the people we would come to know as Beothuk lived all around the island. In 1823, three starving, sick Beothuk women surrendered to a Newfoundland settler living in Notre Dame Bay. Two of the women died leaving alive a woman whom we know as Shanawdithit. Sadly, Shanawdithit died in St. John’s in June of 1829. Her death probably marked the end of her people, and as such was a tragedy of terrible proportions. Rebecca Belmore addresses the Beothuk tragedy. Her piece, Shanawdithit, The Last of the Beothuk, (2001), is composed of casts of the artists’ feet and hands and positioned in an ambiguous position that could be read as a posture of bondage or prayer (Figure 5). The space where the body should be is empty, speaking to the history of the missing tribe, but also the history of these captured women, both in 1823 and in 2002.

Daphne Odjig was one of the first Aboriginal women artists to have her work exhibited in art galleries in the 1960’s. Her artworks from across her more then fifty-year career are all reflective of an enormous amount of curiosity and creativity. It is in her later works that we see Odjig expressing a uniquely feminine point of view from a woman who has realized the beauty and strength of her reality as a First Nation woman.[22]


Rosalie Favell, “Living Evidence” (1994), Dimensions unknown, Photograph with ink, Collection of the artist

Rosalie Favell speaks to what it means to be an Aboriginal woman from a personal perspective. The Living Evidence series consists of a suite of inscribed and altered Polaroid enlargements by Winnipeg artist Rosalie Favell (Figure 6). Favell’s project revises the family snapshot genre to accommodate a fractured tale of troubled love between herself and another Indigenous woman. The artist speaks to the issues in representation arising from her work and life, focusing on her struggles to come to terms with who she was as an Aboriginal woman, in love with another Aboriginal woman. Favell told a story from her childhood, about how her sister and her wore their watches in the same place always so that they were able to move them and show the tan lines, ashamed of their heritage they wanted to emphasize that there skin colour was a tan and not apart of being Métis. Favell placed images of women she knew with warrior women from popular culture that in turn highlighted the quiet heroism of her friends and family. “In this work I had turned to family snapshots in hopes that by re-visiting my early years that I would discover visual evidence, clues to explain the shaping of my identity and to better situate myself as a contemporary native woman.”[23] The images from the Plain(s) Warrior Artist series depict this continuing struggle to find her place in the world, only now a shift has occurred, instead of looking outside for a hero, she become one. She had always been searching for a hero and found one in the television character of Xena Warrior Princess, and then digitally inserted herself amongst the pictures Transformation (1999), in order to visually reclaim the position of power for herself.


Rosalie Favell, “Transformation” (1994) Dimensions unknown, Digital Photograph, Collection of the artist

Contemporary Interventions into the Museum

Many of the women who are investigating what it means to be an Aboriginal Women are also investigating their relationship to the museum as an Aboriginal person. Gerald McMaster has written about these artists and their varying investigative techniques. Rebecca Belmore’s performance piece Artifact #671B (1988) was presented in order to protest The Spirit Sings: artistic Tradition of Canada’s First Peoples, and addresses the issue of authority.[24] This piece directly critiqued the Glenbow Museum electing to partner with Shell Oil for the presentation of this exhibit. At the time, Shell Oil was in the midst of a land dispute with the Lubicon-Cree. Their involvement in such an exhibition reflected tacit support of their position on an international level, as the exhibition was apart of the 1988 Olympic games. The number 671B refers to Belmore’s Indian status as well as the notion of the museum catalogue number. Two numbers which have institutionally been prescribed to both Aboriginal people s and their cultural productions.

Joan Cardinal-Schubert is another Aboriginal Woman artist who sought to draw attention and investigate the practices of museums and how they have affected the cultural traditions of Aboriginal pieces. Her work Is This My Grandmother’s (1988) was created to ask questions bout cultural authority and ownership. In it, she consider perhaps how the cultural traditions of Aboriginal peoples have changed as a result of all their possessions being placed in museums.[25]

These artists critique both musicological and anthropological perspectives as they uniquely relate to Indigenous cultures. Issue of repatriation, and colonialism are inherent. These museum practices discuss primarily the effects of the treatment of historic artifacts. Aboriginal peoples are not uncomfortable with their contemporary works being shown, in fact they would like there to be an increase in the inclusionary practices. In doing so it helps to combat the notions of the “vanishing race” which have been perpetuated by museums by their decision to show Aboriginal culture as artifacts rather then include contemporary Aboriginal peoples as current participants. Rather then displaying artworks as though their culture ceased to develop after the arrival of settler communities, museums should begin portraying them as a living and thriving culture. If we deconstruct the storied that museum exhibitions tell and reposition the objects along the continuum of First Nation women’s history, they become the voice of women across generations. We can then highlight the preservation of artistic practices and engagement throughout the history of art.

Proposed Changes to Exhibition Practices

Aboriginal women artists have been displayed less in solo exhibitions in major institutions. Is this because Aboriginal women have created less art? No. Is this because there art is of a lesser quality? No. The many artists I have mentioned thus far as well as the historically robust artistic traditions of Aboriginal peoples demonstrate both of these reasons to be false. If we are to acknowledge the truth of why museums continue to be allowed to show less women, and less artists of varying ethnicities, it is because we have failed to de-naturalize the frame of the museum.

The museum effaces itself to become an invisible frame for the art or artifacts it appears merely to house, conserve and exhibit. To recognize that the institution itself produces meaning, we need to widen our focus   to see its active framing of its contents and our experience.[26]

We allow ourselves to reconceive what is presented to us by acknowledging that the frame of the museum is the construct of personal and political agenda., Why are we presented with primarily the western white male perspective within the museum space? Because this is the history of the museum, museums originated as colonial treasure chests, the material evidence of empire. The ideas that were forwarded as great and accomplished were those of the conquering explorers. This is the unfortunate colonial legacy of museums, the classification of human societies along a continuum that ranges from the primitive to civilized, privileging the western male as the epitome of cultural success. This narrative has been continually presented in history books, in educational paradigms and indeed in the museum and art gallery. Griselda Pollock quotes Suzanne Oberhardt

What we can strive for, though, is the continued deconstruction of prevailing frames for the purpose of creating new ones: each attempt resisting odious and dominant world views and creating fresh meaning, identities, and fairer ways of life. In a shift from a relatively static culture to a global, corporate, and electronic culture that constantly invents and reinvents itself, we can come to know the art museum differently.[27]

This new conception of the art museum, if achieved, will critically consider public engagement in the creation of exhibitions, asking the important questions who is being presented with what ideas, notions, and histories. In doing so museums will no longer be able to reflect upon the current disparity of what is presented without acknowledging the troublesome affects and effects of displaying an overwhelmingly white perspective when the museum visitor continuously becomes a more diverse audience.


These interventions into the museum space are practical artistic proposals for the rectification of the position of women, Aboriginals, and all other marginalized groups to the museum space. Yes, some theorists have expressed concern at being included in exhibits because they are the token individuals included to demonstrate diversity and not because of the value of their piece. [28] But the inclusion being proposed here is one done in earnest not for individual instances of inclusion as have been demonstrated by the small percentages of solo shows by women artists of Aboriginal decent. Instead I propose a reevaluation of the parameters of what is shown, like Anne Innes Dagg wrote in 1986 “The purpose of this work is not to discuss how we can attain equality… in the arts in Canada, but to provide documentation to demonstrate that this should be our aim”[29] if we continue the practice of solo exhibitions lets make them truly reflective of the realities of our country. Practically, this is not saying that the number of artworks must be reflective of the racial and sexual realities in the census but instead be reflective of the quality of works and expose a new intention to exhibit as many perspectives in as many of ways as possible. Women, Aboriginal artists, and all artists currently being skirted to the margins can attain their rightful places within the art museum, by allowing for this multifaceted notion of education. Their works are of equal quality and worth and should be understood and exhibited as such. Julie Cason said that in the 1970’s the alternative artists centers in New York were created not just as a space for women but also as a space for artists of all races to be free to create and display their artwork. Like these spaces, I am seeking to offer equal opportunity but I believe that this should be reflected on a larger scale in our national and provincial institutions. We are a country made up of many peoples, those who were here before, and those who arrived as part of the settler society, and thus all artists deserve to be shown.  If we must revive the statistical tactics of shaming the museums used with some success by the Guerrilla Girls then let us do so, and let us do so with greater and more fervent success then before.

[1] The Guerrilla Girls, “Introduction and Conclusion to the Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of western Art,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge), 411.

[2] Anne Innis Dagg, The 50% solution; why should women pay for men’s culture? (Waterloo, Ont: Otter, 1986), 61.

[3] Linda Nochlin, “Why have there been no great women artists?.” in The Feminism and Visual Culture reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge), 266.

[4] Nochlin, 266.

[5] Julie Cason, “On Discourse as Monument : Institutional Spaces and Feminist Problematics,” in Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement, ed. Griselda Pollock and Joyce Zemans (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007) 202.

[6] Author utilized the National Gallery of Canada, The Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Vancouver Art Gallery’s websites in order to conduct a case study on the frequency of solo exhibitions by women, men, and women of Aboriginal decent. Please see bibliographical references to these websites.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Vivian Gray, “A Culture of Art: Profiles of Contemporary First Nations Women Artists,” in Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community and Culture, ed Gail Guthrie Valaskkis, Madeline Dion Stout, and Eric Guimond (Winnipeg:University of Manitoba Press, 2009) 267.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gray, 267.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Anne de Stecher, “Subjugation and Autonomy: Images of Aboriginal Women, Imagery by Aboriginal Women, A Comparitive study” (MA Thesis, Carlton University, 2006), ix.

[13] Paula Gunn Allen,  The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon Presss, 1992), 2.

[14] Ruth B. Phillips, “Colleen Cutschall’s Art: Lakota Knowledge for the New Millennium” in Colleen Cutschall: House Made of Stars, ed.  Shirley Madill (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1996) 37.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Agnes Grant, “Voice in the Blood: A Conversation with Colleen Cuschall,” Canadian Women’s Studies 11, (1990): 13.

[18] Phillips, 37.

[19] Phillips, 38.

[20] Gray, 273.

[21] Jolene Rickard, “Rebecca Belmore: Performing Power,” http://www.rebeccabelmore.com/performing-power.html, (accessed November 15, 2011).

[22] Gray, 27.

[23] Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, “The Art of Rosalie Favell,” http://www.Aboriginalcuratorialcollective.org/acc_gallery/favell.html (accessed November 15, 2011).

[24] Gerald McMaster, “Museums and the Native Voice,” in Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement, ed. Griselda Pollock and Joyce Zemans (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007) 74.

[25] McMaster, 75.

[26] Griselda Pollock, “Unframing the Modern: Critical Space/Public Possibility,” in Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement, ed. Griselda Pollock and Joyce Zemans (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007) 1.

[27] Pollock, 2.

[28] Adrian Piper, “The Triple Negation of Coloured Women Artists,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge, 2010), 276.

[29] Dagg, 120.

Written by Rebecca Frerotte in her 4th Year at Carleton University in 2011.

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