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Pair of Contemporary Calgary shows challenge and illuminate Canadian experience

A pair of shows are coming to Contemporary Calgary that promise to challenge perceptions, and provide deeper meaning to what it means to be Canadian.

Internationally-known contemporary Indigenous artist, Robert Houle, is presenting a showing of his art in Red is Beautiful. A selection of his works from the 1970s to the present will be on display, focusing on the intersection between First Nations and Settler cultures.

Photographer and sculptor Chris Curreri is presenting some of his work from the past decade in That, There, It. The show challenges viewers on how they can look at themselves, and others, alongside a re-imagining of an important work in queer art history.

“Both are really super significant artists,” said Ryan Doherty, senior curator with Contemporary Calgary.

“Robert Houle, undoubtedly one of Canada’s most celebrated artists—period—and certainly one of the most well-known Indigenous artists in the world is incredible,” he said.

Doherty also praised Curreri’s work, calling it a real treat to bring his work to Contemporary Calgary’s Ring Gallery.

Both shows open on June 23, and run until September 18.

Robert Houle will be holding a conversation with show curator Wanda Nanibush starting at 6 p.m. on June 23. Tickets for that in-person event, or for the livestream, are available on Contemporary Calgary’s website.

Robert Houle at Contemporary Calgary on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Houle’s works will be on display at the gallery from June 23 to September 18, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Powerful and thought-provoking

Houle’s works are on display in Calgary over the next several months as a result of a collaboration between the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Canada’s only Indigenous-owned national law firm Maurice Law Barristers and Solicitors.

The show will continue on to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington in 2023.

Houle called his work on display a reflection on the openness of the “majority culture of the country.”

“It’s just the meeting of my culture, native culture, and white techniques of painting,” he said.

Among Houle’s exemplary works on display are Kanata, Aboriginal Title, Red is Beautiful, and Warrior Lances for Temagami.

The latter work is one that Houle pointed out as an important one for Calgarians to see, and serves as a centerpiece within his gallery showing.

He said that Lances for Temagami addresses issues of what is sacred, traditional, and bi-cultural.

“You don’t really appropriate the larger of culture blindly, but you also have to work with it within your traditional values,” he said.

He said that he grew up in a family that didn’t see bi-culturalism as a threat, and that informs viewers to his artistic intent.

“If you feel that it’s not a threat, you see what I’ve done. You bring more people that are different from you to towards you, and vice versa to because you go there and not challenge it, but use it, and celebrate it into what you think you want to do with it,” he said.

A quote by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald contrasted with a work by famed Indigenous and Canadian artist Robert Houle, at Contemporary Calgary on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Significant moment for Contemporary Calgary

It’s no accident that a showing of Houle’s work is also coinciding with Aboriginal Awareness Week in Calgary, said Doherty.

“I just think it’s so important for institutions, art institutions or otherwise, to really be doing their part for thinking about truth and reconciliation,” he said.

Among the sections of the gallery showing Houle’s work is a room dedicated to the work that he has created as a response to his Residential School experiences. The entrance to those paintings is marked by Houle’s art, in contrast with a quote from Canada’s first Prime Minister regarding Indigenous peoples as “savages.”

“To be bringing perspectives on colonialism, and works that deal with the trauma of residential schools, and works to deal with celebrating indigenous life: this is this is important work that we can do to for the community,” said Doherty.

Contemporary Calgary will be launching a new Indigenous artist residency program, with public programming and a commissioned artwork showing at the end of that year-long period.

“We’ll have a much of it dealing with ideas of the land and our relationship to it,” said Doherty.

“This is a really significant moment right now for Contemporary Calgary as a citizen in this city.”

Self Portrait with Luis Jacob (2022) by artists Chris Curreri at Contemporary Calgary on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

‘We can change our understanding’

Curreri’s show in the Ring Gallery is all about challenging people’s notion of what it means to understand their relationship with the world around them.

“I think I’m maybe even quoting from the didactic text, but things in the world are not fixed,” said Curreri.

His work on display represents sculptures and photographs created over the past decade.

Speaking about the selection, Curreri called the inclusion of particular art pieces more about representing a metaphor that runs through all of the pieces, rather than any particular period of his more than 20 years working as a contemporary artist.

“Really simply, the porousness of bodies is a metaphor, a theme, that runs through all of the work.”

The works are arranged along the Ring Gallery in a loose thematic order, drawing the viewer into a conversation about how they relate to other people.

Among the photographs and sculptures are themes that evoke queer and BSDM sexuality, but said Curreri, this is to make the objects he’s using unfamiliar more than sexual.

“Someone asked me if they were like sex toys and like, no, that was like really mundane objects,” he said.

“You know that there’s a hand in a vase, but something about the gesture changes how the vase is understood.”

Among the more complicated works Curreri has on display is Self Portrait with Luis Jacob (2022), which is a sculptural recreation of the iconic photograph Portrait of Jorge Zontal (with Rodney Werden) from 1974.

The exhibit includes lighting that mimics the shutter of a photograph and is designed to show that the person taking the photograph is placing trust in their partner, whom is covering their eyes.

“It was part of the gesture that’s working to make a link between an earlier queer history in [Toronto],” he said.