The Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts - 2004

Tom Hill

Tom Hill
Photo: V.Tony Hauser


Be it So, It Remains in Our Minds

Be It So, It Remains in Our Minds 1996

Tom Hill at the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo '67

Tom Hill at the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo '67

Tom Hill receiving wampum belt

Tom Hill receiving wampum belts at Repatriation Ceremony, with Sadie Buck (1989)

Tom Hill with Chief Dan George (1979)

Tom Hill with Chief Dan George (1979)

Tom Hill with sculptor Bill Reid (1980)

Tom Hill with sculptor Bill Reid (1980)

Allegory to MGM

Allegory to MGM 1973
Photo: Lawrence Cook

“I look to my own Iroquoian philosophical traditions to help me pose the questions and find the balance.... My curatorial experience is a constant interrogation of the real world in order to make the necessary adjustments in my practice between local and international concerns. This constant movement towards maintaining the balance must be the goal in itself.” - Tom Hill 1

“Maintaining the balance” during the politically fraught decades since Tom Hill began his remarkable career in the early 1970s has been a formidable task, calling not only for artistic and intellectual abilities of the highest order, but also for personal skills of sensitivity, tact and diplomacy. In the global struggles to establish a new postcolonial order that have unfolded during these years indigenous people have insisted on the tight link between sovereignty and cultural renewal. Aboriginal artists and cultural workers have played particularly important leadership roles in Canada, but Tom Hill's multifaceted career stands out even among the members of his remarkable generation. He has been our bridge-builder par excellence, seamlessly integrating work as a creative artist, curator, art historian, filmmaker, arts administrator, consultant, policy maker, potter and actor. With clarity of vision and persistence he has sought to create new kinds of cultural spaces in which the wounds of colonialism can heal and the creative energies of Aboriginal artists and intellectuals be realized. With equal commitment he has sought the common ground where Natives and non-Natives can collaborate on projects of benefit to both. We owe Tom Hill a huge debt for the many ways in which decolonization has progressed in the art world, from the creation of a cultural climate that supports contemporary Aboriginal artists to the formulation of new art histories, critical discourses, curatorial practices, institutional mandates and government funding policies.

Tom Hill was born in 1943 at Ohsweken, Ontario, and grew up on the Six Nations Reserve at Brantford. His interest in art first manifested itself during a period when the notion of Aboriginal art was identified either with the Primitive Art of a past era, or with craft and souvenir production. In a 1993 talk, Hill recalled the opposition of his father, a Konadaha Seneca, to his desire to become an artist, which his father associated with stereotypes of blanket-wrapped sellers of tourist art:

“It took me a few years to really understand his comments. It wasn't until I began to struggle to have my work taken more seriously and accepted for what it was – 'Art' – that I found I was being relegated to a special cultural niche here in Canada in which 'Indian' was the key word.... I was tired of working outside modernism, of being the 'authentic' Indian artist making anthropology or tourist mementoes while white artists made serious art.”2

By 1964, however, when Hill entered the Ontario College of Art, new roles for Aboriginal artists were beginning to be possible. Contemporary Inuit sculpture and prints had been critically and commercially successful for 15 years. Only two years before, Norval Morrisseau's first exhibition had caused a sensation in the Toronto art world. Although they had not yet come together as a group, Native artists across Canada were beginning to contest a critical climate that excluded them from the modernist mainstream.

Expo '67 brought these artists together for the first time in a program of contemporary art for the Indians of Canada Pavilion. They were also drawn in to the heated climate of political activism that resulted in the first comprehensive exhibition to present Native history and culture from Aboriginal perspectives. Hill's ceramic mural for the building's exterior, “Tree of Peace,” drew on the abstract geometric iconographies of Iroquois wampum belts to represent the central icon of the Iroquois confederacy and associated values of farsightedness, vigilance and unity. For the artists, Expo '67 forged a new sense of community and common purpose. For Hill it also sparked an interest in curatorship and exhibition design, which he pursued the following year as the first Aboriginal intern at the National Gallery of Canada.

The activist political climate of the1960s also led to important new initiatives at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (DIAND), designed to reverse a century of official policies of directed assimilation. One of these was a new Cultural Affairs section with responsibility for the development of Indian art. Hill became its director in 1968, and during his 10 years at DIAND he oversaw the creation of exhibitions, new programs of support for artists, seminal publications such as the magazine Tawow, and built what has become one of Canada's premier collections of contemporary Indian Art.

Tom Hill also continued to make art during these years. Two works reflect the major preoccupations of contemporary Native artists during the 1970s, the exploration of traditional indigenous knowledge and the contestation of stereotypes of Indianness. The ink drawings of his Methical Indian Series explore the moral, ethical and philosophical principles expressed through Iroquois oral traditions. In contrast, a triptych in the DIAND collection, Allegory to MGM (1973), confronts the romantic stereotype of the Vanishing Indian of the Hollywood movies on which Hill, like his viewers, had grown up.

The 1970s also saw the establishment of a new federal program for the creation of cultural educational centres in First Nations communities. One of the largest and most active of these centres, the Woodland Cultural Centre (WCC), was established at Brantford, Ontario, and in 1982, Hill returned home to serve as the director of its museum. He immediately initiated a series of pioneering exhibitions whose local resonance and national museological impacts have been out of all proportion to the museum's modest resources. Hill designed the Indian art annuals begun in 1982 to showcase “the best work created over the past year by artists of Indian ancestry.” The catalogues testify to an innovative and consistent curatorial vision that from the first challenged the ill-fitting slots of fine art or craft, art or artifact, traditional or contemporary into which mainstream museums have tried to force Aboriginal visual expressions. Hill's approach is laid out in his catalogue essay for the landmark exhibition he co-curated in 1984 with Elizabeth McLuhan at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers. It insists on the interconnectedness and equivalent authenticity of three kinds of visual objects made by Native artists: “ceremonial art,” “crafted art” and the “new art” influenced by Western modernism.

As WCC director Hill also curated and commissioned a series of exhibits remarkable for their originality and timeliness on topics ranging from popular culture stereotypes of Indianness to the wam-pum tradition, Native quilt-making, the role of women in Iroquois society and the culture of Iroquois ironworkers. He has also found time to work on epoch-making exhibitions of contemporary and historical Native art for major museums in Canada and the United States. In addition to the AGO's Morrisseau show, these include Beyond History at the Vancouver Art Gallery (1989, co-curated with Karen Duffek) and Creation's Journey: Native American Identity and Belief, the inaugural exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (1994, co-curated with Richard W. Hill Sr.). Tom Hill's essays for the exhibition publication reposition the discourse of Native art history. In keeping with his guiding quest for balance and with characteristic generosity, he both acknowledged the contributions of new Western academic approaches and urged the unique contribution of native values. “We live in a world filled with contradictions – rich in possibilities, yet beset by tragic social problems,” Hill wrote. “Perhaps the values expressed in a cradleboard, a mask or a lovingly made coat can help guide us toward solutions.”3

The models of partnership that inform Hill's vision had been articulated two years earlier in the report of the Canadian Task Force on Museums and First Nations, co-chaired by Hill and Trudy Nicks. Commissioned by the Canadian Museums Association and the Assembly of First Nations, the Task Force envisioned new kinds of partnerships between Aboriginal people and museums, and developed guidelines for their implementation. Hill's wise and judicious guidance of the process has helped to ensure that the kind of para-lysing confrontation that had led to the Task Force's creation – the boycott of the Glenbow Museum's blockbuster Olympics exhibit, The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada's First Peoples – has not recurred.

Tom Hill has continued not only to put his experience at the service of institutions from the National Gallery of Canada to the Ontario Arts Council, but also to make art. Two recent installations on which he collaborated reflect the complementarity of his artistic practice with his work as curator, administrator and policy maker. In Dogs of Free Speech (1993), Hill and poet Daniel David Moses confronted the viewer with an assemblage of bones, fragments and words that referenced both museological desecration and ritual respect for the relationships of humans, animals and nature. And in 1996, Hill created Be It So, It Remains in Our Minds with Bill Powless, Patricia Deadman and Kelly Green for the “Oh Canada” project at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In dialogue with the Group of Seven works then being shown in Art for a Nation, the installation presented an alternative and conceptual landscape formed of spoken and written language in which topography is manifested by the written words of the Thanksgiving Address, the central prayer of Iroquois traditional spirituality. As in every aspect of Tom Hill's practice, these works position cultural difference as a precious resource that, when cherished, opens us all to new worlds of art, thought and practice.

Ruth Phillips, an art historian specializing in First Nations art history and museum history and theory, holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern Culture at Carleton University. Her books include Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900 (1998), and, with Janet Catherine Berlo, Native North American Art. She was director of the UBC Museum of Anthropology from 1997 to 2003.

1. “Local Knowledge/New Internationalism,” from Naming a Practice: Curatorial Strategies for the Future, Banff: Banff Centre Press.
2. Commencement address, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, reprinted in “Towards the Millennium,” Wadrihwa 7 (1), 1993, 8.
3. “Introduction: A Backward Glimpse through the Museum Door,” in Tom Hill and Richard W. Hill Sr., eds., Creation's Journey: Native American Identity and Belief, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, 19.

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