The spirits are talking

Urban Shaman brings Indigenous art online

A virtual exhibition of works by the influential artist Joseph Sánchez will be presented online by Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art.

Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art has launched a virtual experience to bring the gallery’s programming to people across Canada, especially those on reserves, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Niizh Manidoog Giigidowag / The Spirits are Talking is a collection of large works by acclaimed Indigenous artist Joseph Sánchez. Sánchez was a founding member of Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., also known as the Indian Group of Seven. They formed the group in the early 1970s in an effort to get Indigenous art shown in commercial galleries and museums.

The paintings are inspired by conversations with the spirit world, Sánchez says. His art holds a powerful political message. The art is “saying things about the environment, about the treatment of women, all the ‘isms,’” Sánchez says. “We’re in trouble as a planet. We just can’t seem to stop consuming at a rate that’s going to leave us extinct.”

While the online format allows many people to access the exhibit, there are some challenges. “It doesn’t allow people to get close to it ...  A lot of this big work is meant to be viewed up close,” Sánchez says.

Daina Warren, director of Urban Shaman, echoed the benefits and emphasized how hard it is for people in remote communities and on reserves to have access to galleries. The pandemic sped up the process, but Warren thinks “it’s really valuable for many reasons other than just the pandemic.”

Warren compares the virtual gallery experience to Google Maps Street View. “You’ll be able to move around the space where all the paintings are hung, and then, with each painting, you’ll be able to click on them and get information,” Warren says. The virtual tour also includes four videos from Sánchez and an essay. 

The exhibit features “The Story of My Life,” a painting which traces Sanchez’s journey to Canada and back to the United States. The art show displays connection to the land and honours femininity. 

This will be the non-profit, artist-run centre’s first online show. The gallery was founded in 1996 by a group graduating from the School of Art at the University of Manitoba. “They really wanted to create a space that would be more open to showing their art, bringing in other outside artists that were Indigenous, as well as curators,” Warren says. 

Both Warren and Sánchez spoke of the challenges Indigenous artists faced when Urban Shaman was founded and continue to face. In the 1970s, when Sanchez’s group was started, “Native work was not being shown anywhere in Canada except in gift shops and trading posts,” Sánchez says.

“Since that time, I would say the arts environment has really opened up,” Warren says, but now challenges include organizations placing too much pressure on Indigenous employees to indigenize whole institutions. 

The virtual tour of Niizh Manidoog Giigidowag / The Spirits are Talking will be available at urbanshaman.org/site/exhibitions from Feb. 12 to May 12. In-person viewings are available by appointment until Feb. 27. To book appointments, email info@urbanshaman.org.

Published in Volume 75, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 10, 2021)

Related Reads