NIIPA 20/20 – Celebrating the Collective

In 1985 a Hamilton-based group of Indigenous photographers and image makers came together to form NIIPA, the Native Indian/Inuit Photographer’s Association. The collective was the first of its kind, allowing Indigenous photographers from Canada and the United States to connect with each other and cultivate a positive and authentic representation of Indigenous peoples through the photographic arts. Though the group is no longer actively operating, their efforts to provide representation, education, and community for Indigenous photographers continue to be felt throughout the Canadian fine art world.

Though NIIPA has not been active in 20 years, the McMaster Museum of Art located in Hamilton Ontario where the group was initially founded, has put together an exhibition of works produced by NIIPA-affiliated photographers. This year’s NIIPA show is open from May 27th-September 3 and features over 150 works by fifty former NIIPA members. The works presented in this year’s show are a culmination of a five-year archival research project and are pulled mainly from two exhibitions NIIPA self-produced in the 80s showing off the skill, diversity, and process of these photographers as well as the entire association.  

My strong interest in photography was what drew me to the NIIPA 20/20 show at the end of July and was humbled by the beauty and community that is present in the exhibition. Even with limited pre-knowledge of the association, their mission and the importance of their work is palpable in each work. Many of the images are portraits or documentary images featuring human subjects and I quickly see the recurrence of children, family, and lineage.  

One of the first images that drives this narrative in particular is a photo of a group of children reading ‘Little Critter’ books in what I assume is their native language. This photo acts as an entrance for me into understanding the goal of this exhibition. Within this image, the children are comfortably interacting with their culture and community very closely. To be able to learn one’s native language as an Indigenous person has not always been so easy or accessible but the very fact that these children are able to read a popular children’s book in their language points to a larger truth that they come from a community that has worked to provide this reality. Under Rhéanne Chartrand’s expert curating, the gallery itself echoes this same notion, this would not be here without the collective effort of many people over decades.    

Larry McNeil, NIIPA members, 1991, Black and white photograph

As I continue down the line of images, I notice children are frequent subjects. Photographs of children playing and learning together. In this portion of the gallery, when there are adult subjects they are most often women. Women and their children, women and their grandchildren, aunts, sisters, and friends. The drawn attention to the roles women take within a community, particularly the maternal roles alongside the children in their care brings the viewer’s attention to lineage and the process of cultivating community. Parallels between young girls and old women are made frequently throughout the exhibition. A portrait of an elderly woman is positioned next to a portrait by the same artist of a young girl drinking a can of pop. The woman glances to her right where the image of the girl is located, the girl stares confidently and curiously out at the viewer. Here, the passage of time and cycles of tradition are clearly laid out for us. The old woman was once this girl, the girl will one day be the old woman, and so on. These cornerstones of human life, the beginning, and the end, highlight the joys of aging through a community. How one progresses from one stage to the next, eventually becoming the teacher of culture as opposed to the student. It is in these parallels that the images of the NIIPA 20/20 gallery feel so real, maybe even idyllic. They present a serene look at aging, learning, making, and being, something viewers can long for as well as relate to. The photos here touch on that all-encompassing feeling of being loved, known, cared for, and relied on, the feeling of belonging to something larger than oneself.  

Lita Fontaine, Sour Raspberries, Black and white photograph

In the center of the first room is a smaller room. Within its walls are images of NIIPA photographers during its time. A few of the photos are school-style photos of the group, each person armed with a camera. Others are candid images of past exhibitions being put together. These photos are held in the center of the gallery, the heart. These are the images of the image makers, the ones who created the legacy before they knew what would come after them. Keeping these photos on the inside of the space mimics the operation of the original association – with formal work presented outward and casual documentation kept internally, shared between those who participated.  

Moving into the second room of the gallery the images become much more craft and maker-focused. Many of the photos feature people crafting traditional hunting equipment, instruments, or shelters. It is clear that many of these images have been taken around the 80s, however the techniques used are clearly ancestral. The lack of power tools or heavy machinery in production makes it clear that these images, as well as the practices within them are about the process of crafting with one’s own hands using materials that come from the land. Again, parallels between new and old are being made, this time using craft as the link. These comparisons are particularly evident in the curation of a historical portrait in which the subject holds a hand made drum next to a modern image of a young person in the process of making that same kind of drum. The comparison is deepened when one considers that photography is itself a kind of craft that has also been preformed for generations, as the historical image proves.  

Martin Akwiranoron Loft, Jessie – Micmac, Black and white photograph Indigenous Art Collection, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada

Along with the depictions of craft, there are also far more explicit depictions of political modern history. A few images feature rail roads and trains, historically signifying the loss of traditional territory for many groups. There are two photographs both showing teepees along side churches and mass. To the left of these works there is a collection of images all related to military involvement in Indigenous lives. One photo captures protestors holding signs reading “Fuck Christopher Columbus”, other photos show Indigenous men in military uniform. The continued presence of the military and colonialism in Indigenous life is made very clear from this collection of images though it is not overtly moralized. Many serve or have served in the military, many condemn it but all have been affected in some way shape or form by the military. The fact that colonialism has destroyed so much of Indigenous culture is not shied away from but it is not presented as something that could not be overcome or separated from Indigenous stories, as it is sometimes portrayed by non-Indigenous documenters.  

When I come to the end of the exhibition I feel in awe of all that NIIPA had been able to accomplish and deeply affected seeing work produced by such a thoughtful and unrelenting force in photography and fine art. NIIPA was formed to connect Indigenous photographers and encourage a truthful photographic representation of Indigenous peoples which is exactly what is reflected in this NIIPA 20/20 exhibition. The collective work presents an insightful and powerful documentation of culture by and for Indigenous communities. In the creation of such connective work as well as a trailblazing association, the photographers of NIIPA have built a legacy that will remain relevant across the fine art world. 

Kenna Robinson Kenna Robinson is a writer for Centred and is currently studying Photography at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Images are courtesy of the McMaster Museum of Art and the photographers.

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