Indigenous art can bring meaning and celebration to your home through careful selection.
BY DANIELLE POPE
Art is often lauded as a personal choice. Even in the design world — where light colours stay on trend, styles of minimalism reign supreme and some predictability exists in “what sells” — art has always been a wild card.
With as many options as there are visionaries to think them up, punctuating your home with meaningful pieces of art is one of the fastest and most evocative ways to add style to your abode. And, on the West Coast, a special opportunity exists to connect with the region’s Indigenous artists and the heritage their work reflects. Knowing what to choose and where to find it, however, can be a daunting task — especially when you factor in ethical issues around art selection, supporting local and valuing the people who make this their livelihood.
Spruce spoke with local curator Mark Loria to ease the process. Loria is director of the Mark Loria Gallery, specializing in contemporary Indigenous art from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Based in the traditional territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples in downtown Victoria, the gallery (previously named Alcheringa Gallery) has been representing Indigenous artists from Vancouver Island, B.C. and Canada for over 40 years, and has placed art in private and public collections all over the world.
How do you recommend people start their art search, and what should they keep in mind?
Understanding the work you are investing in is a valuable start.
Modern-day Indigenous art signifies resiliency, creativity, innovation, controversy and a sharing of history. Buyers collect Indigenous art for a variety of reasons. It may be because they connect to the quality of the work, the stories and myths about land and sea, or the artists’ personal stories.
Indigenous art, like any art form, is made by an artist for their own purposes as a means of personal expression.
My process involves asking questions about any parameters a client may have, like size, design and colours, and show them available options. The benefit of the gallery experience is taking it all in and learning about each artist’s style of expression.
In what ways does the history of the area influence the work people choose?
It doesn’t take long to see clients connecting with a style or a specific artist. Many of our regular collectors are interested in certain artists or territorial styles — like Coast Salish art, which is very modern and graphic in its nature.
We are a destination for newcomers and collectors interested in contemporary Indigenous art, so a lot of our visitors already have an understanding of the art we represent.
It’s important to remember all of our artists are impacted by colonialism and residential schools, either as survivors themselves or as descendants of survivors, so we speak about this every day to continue shedding a light on the true journeys of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
When it comes to showcasing cultural pieces in your home, how do you respect and honour those pieces properly?
I do get that question from clients: “If I have Indigenous art in my home, am I appropriating it just by having it?” And the answer is no; the artists have made these pieces available for sale. That’s where working with a reputable dealer comes in. Follow your due diligence to make sure you know who you’re buying from.
Once you purchase that work, whether it’s a memory from a place you visited, something you feel deeply connected to or just because it matches the colours in your room, the artist doesn’t get involved with that — including how it’s displayed.
However, there is a growing effort around understanding Indigenous cultures, and some people choose to take the time to learn more about the meaning of a piece and what it represented to the artist. That can inform how they move forward with it.
How can people ensure they’re supporting genuinely local artists?
Nowadays, you’re looking for those signatures. It became more common for artists — specifically Indigenous artists — in B.C. to start signing their work in the 1960s.
I would never advise anyone to buy anything that isn’t signed or attributed to an artist, as there is a lot of appropriation that has historically happened in the world of Indigenous art. Some contemporary artists don’t always sign their art, but a specialist can use other identifiers to attribute it.
Our gallery only deals in contemporary Indigenous art — 1960s forward— so the new art we represent, as well as the secondary-market art, is all signed and attributable to the artist that made it. From an ethical standpoint, this ensures the art is genuine and handmade and, most importantly, intended for public sale and display by the artists.
What should people do if they come across an unidentified cultural art piece?
I always recommend clients access expert advice when they can. If it’s a piece that’s been passed down for generations, for example, it may be a case that the family received a gift for something someone did long ago. The best-case scenario is to hold onto it within the family, or work with cultural experts to return the piece, if desired.
We have conversations daily about the difference between Indigenous art for public collection and Indigenous art and artifacts from before the 1960s that may have questionable ways of coming to market.
Our gallery’s strength is our direct relationships with the artists who are known among their communities and are given authority by elders to make art. We have a great responsibility in representing Indigenous art. We have even been blessed and smudged by Coast Salish elders to do so.