Guardian – Ashifa Kassam
The exhibit shows the interconnectedness that lay at the heart of indigenous architecture, in sharp contrast to dominant ethos
Unceded: Voices of the Land, Canada’s indigenous entry to Venice Architecture Biennale Photograph: Handout
More than a dozen architects and designers from across North America have come together to create an unprecedented showcase of aboriginal architecture in Canada’s first ever indigenous-led entry to the Venice Architecture Biennale.
The aim of the exhibit is to convey the interconnectedness that lay at the heart of indigenous architecture, said David Fortin, one of the curators of Unceded: Voices of the Land.
“In a typical architecture exhibit you see plans and models of buildings,” said Fortin, a Métis architect and academic at Ontario’s Laurentian University.
“Our exhibit is about storytelling. You can’t look at a building without hearing the dances. You can’t look at a building without seeing the landscape behind it or beside it, you can’t look at a building without hearing the voice of the architect and them referencing their families.”
As visitors move within through the curved walls of the enclosed exhibit, the space comes alive with multimedia artwork featuring examples of architecture, indigenous voices and scenes of lush forests and rushing rivers.
It’s a sharp contrast to architecture’s dominant ethos in which the work is often thought to stand on its own, said Fortin, resulting in a very different take on architecture exhibits. “You build a model of something, you put it in a gallery and everyone admires the object, the thing.”
Organisers of Unceded – which was chosen to represent Canada through a nation-wide, juried competition – hope the Biennale will cast a global spotlight on an approach that has long been muted. In Canada, fewer than two dozen of the country’s 10,000 architects identify as indigenous, said Fortin.
The exhibit, which runs until November, is divided into four sections. One explores colonisation, delving into the history of the residential school system, which saw 150,000 Aboriginal children in Canada removed from their families and placed in church-run schools that were rife with sexual and physical abuse. A recent truth commission described the schools as a tool of “cultural genocide”.
That history cannot be erased from the North American indigenous experience, said Gerald McMaster, a co-curator of Unceded and professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. “We have to understand and know where we came from,” he said.
From this history springs resilience, a theme that is woven throughout the exhibit, said McMaster. “We never did give up our land, ourselves and our personhood,” he said. “There’s a sense that architecture is being built for communities … that it’s giving the soul back to the people through architectural expression.”
The exhibit also hints at the work that still remains, noted Fortin. “We don’t talk about the state of housing, and the suicide rates and those sorts of things that are facing indigenous people,” he said. “We want to focus on the positivity of the future, but the reality for many indigenous people is that we are still very much in a colonised state.”
For Douglas Cardinal, the renowned architect who led the initiative, the exhibition comes at a critical time; catapulting the idea of a deep relationship with the land and a connection to past and future generations onto the world stage at a time of rapidly increasing urbanisation and environmental challenges.
“We have a real problem right now with all these colonial nations that are, in a sense, creating no values at all,” said the 84-year-old. “We are killing species every day with our lack of concern for life, to a point where we’re endangering our own species, which is a form of insanity.”
For Cardinal, whose designs include the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History, indigenous architecture offers an alternative to a dominant culture that has long relied on exercising power and control over nature.
“I firmly believe that the indigenous world view, which has always sought this balance between nature, culture and technology, is the path that humanity must rediscover and adopt for our future,” he added. “The teachings of the elders are not the teachings of the past. They’re lessons for the future.”