Arts and cultural workers in Canada are calling attention to the sudden departure of Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush from Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Members of the local arts community began raising suspicions last week when they noticed that Nanibush, AGO’s inaugural curator of Canadian and Indigenous art, was no longer featured on the museum’s website.
Now, an anonymously leaked complaint sent by the organization Israel Museum and Arts, Canada (IMAAC) to the AGO on October 16 has spurred concerns that Nanibush’s public comments on the Israeli occupation and bombardment of Palestine may have played a role in the decision. Signed by the leadership of the Toronto-based group, including Art Canada Institute Founder and Executive Director Sara Angel, the email complaint alleges that Nanibush was “posting inflammatory, inaccurate rants against Israel.” The letter, verified by Hyperallergic, decries Nanibush’s social media posts referring to Israel’s role in genocide and colonialism, actions also decried by multiple human rights experts and organizations. Formerly known as Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum, the IMAAC supports Jerusalem’s Israel Museum and its programming, according to the organization’s website.
An AGO spokesperson confirmed Nanibush’s departure but did not provide a reason, noting only that Nanibush’s leave was a “mutual decision” and that the museum was “deeply grateful” to her. Nanibush declined to comment, citing the terms of her leave.
The AGO has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiries about IMAAC’s email, which also called on the museum to make “personal commitments to the Jewish community” by implementing mandatory sensitivity training for its curatorial staff based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. That definition has been scrutinized for linking antisemitism with anti-Zionism and criticism of the Israeli state in order to discredit Palestinian human rights advocacy.
“It’s an appalling letter,” Ontario-based multidisciplinary artist and activist Jamelie Hassan told Hyperallergic. A recipient of the 2001 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, Hassan pointed out that Nanibush’s departure now raises questions about who will continue to lead the museum’s Indigenous art exhibitions.
An Anishinaabe artist from Beausoleil First Nation of Georgian Bay, Nanibush is well known within the Ontario community for her work as a writer, educator, curator, and community organizer. During her time at the museum, she organized a number of exhibitions highlighting Indigenous art and culture, including shows this year dedicated to artists David Ruben Piqtoukun, Rosalie Favell, and Ningiukulu Teevee.
“It is unfortunate that the first curator of Indigenous art at the AGO has been dismissed in this way,” Canadian visual artist Syrus Marcus Ware said in an email, adding that he was concerned by the way the museum had “silently scrubbed” her from its website.
Candice Hopkins, executive director of the Native-led Forge Project in New York’s Hudson Valley, also told Hyperallergic that she was “dismayed” by the news of Nanibush’s departure.
“On a personal and a professional level, Wanda [Nanibush] has always raised her voice for justice in the belief that change also needs to take place structurally and that institutions can be leaders in this,” Hopkins said. Earlier this year, Nanibush and her AGO colleague Georgiana Uhlyarik won the 2023 Toronto Book Award for their publication Moving the Museum: Indigenous + Canadian Art at the AGO (2023).
Hopkins noted that Nanibush has been a vocal critic of “the insidious nature of colonialism and the ongoing violences of settler colonialism.”
“What her departure implies is that this is no longer a comfortable conversation for large institutions and that the work that many of us have been doing to create more just institutions is now no longer stable and safe,” Hopkins continued. “When topics like decolonization are rendered taboo, the future for Native voices in this field is bleak.”