Indigenous artwork and films exploring the concept of home, identity and place are taking over Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox this summer.

The free exhibition Home on Native Land showcases installation, performance and new media art inspired or influenced by cinema. It opens Thursday, Aboriginal Day, at the Lightbox along with screening program First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition, which has a wide range of short and feature-length films either by indigenous directors or depicting the aboriginal experience.

“For so many years, indigenous voices were silenced,” said exhibit co-curator Jesse Wente, TIFF head of film programs and a broadcaster of Ojibwa heritage.

“This is us reclaiming the space and presenting ourselves and it’s a chance for us to own the dialogue.”

'You can face the hard issues, have the discourse, have the dialogue, but have a presence on both sides...Art can do that. It can be about difficult, challenging issues, but it’s very accessible'

—Steven Loft, art curator

Born of discussions between Wente and colleague Steven Loft, a Mohawk art curator, writer and media artist, Home on Native Land includes recent work by Canadians Rebecca Belmore and Kent Monkman, American performance artist James Luna, New Zealand’s Lisa Reihana and Australian Warwick Thornton. Most of the pieces blend installation, videos and soundscapes.

The art calls attention to the friction between representations of First Peoples and the reality of their lives, as in Belmore’s powerful video piece The Blanket, which charts historic uses of the Hudson’s Bay blanket through a dance-like performance. Another example is Nadia Myre’s video Rethinking Anthem, which analyzes the lyrics “home and native land” from the Canadian national anthem, helping to inspire the title of the exhibit.

“I expect people to come in and see some art. If they think about it as well, that’s a beautiful thing,” co-curator Loft told CBC News.

“We made a very conscious decision not to put a lot of didactic there — [just] a few things to kind of explain, because some of it might not be known. But let’s not overload it with text because then it’s about that, it’s about learning something. This isn’t a teaching moment; it’s a coming-together moment."

In other featured works, historical depictions are re-contextualized — for instance in Monkman’s Two Kindred Spirits. He has created three editions of this work — the other two are in Berlin and at the MASS MoCA show in North Adams, Mass. The Toronto version of his life-sized diorama cheekily reframes two famous Wild West pairs: The Lone Ranger and Tonto from the U.S. opposite Winnetou and Old Shatterhand from German author Karl May’s popular 19th century adventure tales.

Loft says he hopes visitors will appreciate the fresh viewpoints of these artists.

“There’s some hard edges there, some political dynamic, but there’s also those areas of intersection, of a meeting place. That’s where you can face the hard issues, have the discourse, have the dialogue, but have a presence on both sides. That’s what this is about,” Loft said.

“Art can do that. It can be about difficult, challenging issues, but it’s very accessible.”

Recent and historical films showcased

The movie component is designed to provoke discussion and new ways to consider indigenous stories. Along with contemporary titles that have made a splash at international festivals — such as the poetic Inuit survival tale Before Tomorrow, the Samoan drama The Orator and Australian teen-centred musical Bran Nue Dae — Wente has included important films of the past few decades (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Smoke Signals, Black Robe) as well as key historical titles.

“What I wanted to do was show some of those very famous movies, like Dances with Wolves, like Walkabout, like Nanook of the North, but re-contextualize them, maybe reposition them in terms of their place in history for the audience,” he said.

In the case of Robert Flaherty’s famed, semi-documentary portrait Nanook of the North, Wente is screening a version in which the original English intertitles are translated into Inuktitut. He also commissioned Nunavut throat singer Tanya Tagaq to compose a new score for 1922 film, “which she’ll perform live with the movie,” he said.

“It’s really the idea of reclaiming these images for the community. Here you have a modern day artist — from the people that this movie is about — re-translating it into a new concept… You can begin to see the relationship and understand the different points of view that are being expressed.”

“We’re at a moment in history where all of this can be reconsidered and it’s a chance for everyone to understand this history — cinematic, social and cultural — in a different way,” Wente continued.

“For me, it feels very much of the moment, even though it’s an idea that I’ve been thinking about for 10-15 years and that has actually been in the organization process for more than a year now.”

The free exhibition Home on Native Land continues through Aug. 19, while the film series First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Traditions, One Nation runs to Aug. 11 — both at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Organizers are also fielding interest in touring the exhibit elsewhere in Canada and abroad.