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Canada Helps Preserve Indigenous Art

July 12, 2023

Flag of CanadaIn March, I wrote about how police in Canada uncovered a forgery ring that specialized in art in the style of the Canadian indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau. Some called this criminal enterprise the world’s biggest art fraud conspiracy. Indigenous art has always been a sticky subject in Canada. For decades, indigenous Canadian artists often went unpaid or unrecognized for their work, with people buying and reselling them to galleries for exponentially greater prices. The plight of indigenous artists in Canada is one of the main reasons why Canada is now considering implementing the droit de suite, the policy in effect in much of Europe where an artist or their estate would receive a payment each time their work is resold during their lifetimes and a set number of years after their deaths. Furthermore, white settlers, explorers, and traders stole many Canadian indigenous communities’ art and other cultural objects. Many indigenous artworks looted from gravesites or forcibly taken from villages are now on display in museums worldwide. Thankfully, some museums today are starting to recognize the sketchy nature of these changes in ownership, with some working with indigenous communities to have artifacts returned to them. Canada is now emphasizing their commitment to preserving indigenous heritage by funding a project that digitizes thousands of artworks.

About 89,000 works belonging to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, an arts organization by and for Inuit artists in Nunavut, are now being photographed and digitized. Many of these prints and drawings have been in boxes in an Ontario archive since 1990 when the Co-operative sent the collection south to keep it safe from local wildfires. Many works are by prominent Inuit artists like Kenojuak Ashevak, Jamasie Teevee, and Pudlo Pudlat. Plans to catalogue the works have been up in the air since then, but it was never possible. Much of the collection, known as the Kinngait or the Cape Dorset collection, has been photographed before. However, camera quality has greatly improved since 1990, so the efforts started again in 2017 in collaboration with York University. After digitizing 4% of the collection, Sarah Milroy, curator for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, where the works are being stored, sought out a way to speed everything up. She reached out to photographer Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky sits on the board of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Image Centre and is known for large-format environmental photography. After some planning, Burtynsky’s studio developed a way to expedite the process of photographing and digitizing the enormous collection. The team created a large turntable, allowing specialists to simultaneously load works onto the rotating platform while others are photographed. The turntable requires three people to operate it and is estimated to speed up the whole process by about four or five times. The team has used the turntable since March and estimates that photography should be complete by mid-July.

Burtynsky plans to build a series of turntables, called ARKIV360 machines, to sell or rent to museums, galleries, and archival centers. The West Baffin collection should be fully digitized and available online by the autumn, with an exhibition scheduled for 2025. The project received much-needed help when Pablo Rodriguez, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced that the digitization efforts would receive C$430,970 (or US$325,660) through the ministry’s Museums Assistance Program. Several thousand digitized works will soon be available via a new website made possible by Digital Museums Canada.