New curator brings ‘radical diversity’ to Mackenzie Art Gallery

New curator brings ‘radical diversity’ to Mackenzie Art Gallery

“When I curate Indigenous artists, I’m making that space within the gallery a sovereign place, where we have a voice and power.”

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Growing up in Cumberland House Cree Nation, Felicia Gay never ran out of ideas for her drawings.

“I wasn’t very talented, but I had a lot of great ideas,” said the new curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery (MAG). “It’s really aided me in my curating.”

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Following a stint as a curatorial fellow that began in 2019, Gay was announced as the Regina-based gallery’s new curator in April, a role she takes on while finalizing her PhD work on Indigenous curatorial practice at the University of Regina.

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Channeling her Indigenous heritage — she’s half Swampy Cree and half Scottish — Gay said she incorporates a lot of her own experience into the work she showcases at the MacKenzie.

“My world view is informed by my language and the way I grew up with my family,” Gay said in a recent interview. “When I curate Indigenous artists, I’m making that space within the gallery a sovereign place, where we have a voice and power.”

Gay said visual art is a huge part of her culture, and is very identifiable within that understanding of the world.

“Some Indigenous folks are disconnected because of colonialism, but they’re still connected to the land,” said Gay. “I like to tell folks who sometimes struggle with identity that, through art, your perspective is important. You belong here.”

Gay didn’t always set out to be a curator. She initially had her heart set on archeology while studying at the University of Saskatchewan. But after taking some art history classes as part of her course requirements, a new path began to reveal itself.

“It really piqued my interest,” said Gay, who added that learning about the U.S.-based Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist female artists, and activism art were of particular intrigue.

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“It was all about these people’s experiences and they were talking about that through their artwork.”

After taking an Indigenous art class with artist Ruth Cuthand, something clicked.

“That’s all it took. I just knew that was what I was supposed to be doing,” said Gay.

Cuthand, who is well known for her beadwork, became somewhat of a mentor to Gay throughout her career.

“For someone who’s from up north and often comparing myself to other curators, I felt sometimes it was hard to value myself,” said Gay. “She supported me in my perspectives and she always made me feel valued and like what I was saying was important.”

Felicia Gay, the new curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, stands for a portrait inside the MAG on Friday, May 10, 2024 in Regina. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post

Gay went on to work at the U of S campus gallery and eventually started her own community-based gallery in Saskatoon called The Red Shift that was based on the idea of artist-run galleries in the 1960s and 1970s. Artist-run galleries became popular during the rise of many social justice movements at the time where Black, Indigenous, people of colour, 2SLGBTQ+ and female artists weren’t represented in major institutions.

“The Red Shift was really meant to support Indigenous artists in their careers,” said Gay. “We would pull artists that were early or mid-career artists and give them solo shows that could really amplify their resumes.

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“It was a way to push our community forward.”

After leaving her position as the artistic director at Red Shift, Gay went on to curate Sasipenita and Wanuskewin Galleries in Saskatoon and was a guest curator at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.

Now settled in Regina, Gay says the MacKenzie is moving away from the idea of hierarchy.

“We want more of a place where we’re equalizing those spaces of power to be shared,” she said. “We really believe in the idea of radical diversity here. We’re not interested in old institutional practices.”

Gay feels the MacKenzie is ahead of the game compared to other galleries in Canada.

“We do a lot of work here that is quite different from other places and I’m proud to be a part of that.”

Gay likes to showcase artists that convey powerful messages about their lived experiences and said a recent exhibition, Touching Earth and Sky, centres on the concept of being interconnected.

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“When you’re walking, you are touching the ground, but you are also touching the sky at the same time,” said Gay. “Instead of one or the other, you’re both.”

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One of the pieces showcased in Touching Earth and Sky was a beaded veil by Judy Anderson, a Nêhiyaw Cree artist from the Gordon First Nation. At a certain angle, you can see the name Eugene, a brother Anderson had never known about because he was taken during the ’60s scoop. The piece is called “Every time I think of you, I cry.”

“It’s showing the complexities and dealing with the trauma of being disconnected from your community,” she said.

As this kind of work can be triggering to some, Gay said they try to balance a safe space while not subverting the history.

“We want it to come from our voices,” said Gay.

“As a young person, I never identified as someone who would ever be part of a gallery … that was something for white folks. That’s why my practice has always been really community-minded, because I wanted to be inclusive to my own people.”

Those who wish to see some of Gay’s upcoming exhibitions can keep an eye out for “Beads in the Blood,” an expanded version of a Ruth Cuthand exhibit which will open in November, as well as a long-term installation of the Kampelmacher Memorial Collection of Indigenous Art, set to open in 2025.

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