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Transforming Indigenous art education at SFU

lessLIE, Salish Modern/Tradition. Installation documentation, Teck Gallery, 2022

A ground-breaking commitment from “activist collectors” George and Christiane Smyth will uplift Salish art and help Indigenize art education at SFU.

Partnering with SFU, the Smyths’ extraordinary gift will support a Chair in Salish Art Practices within the Faculty of Education; a full-time curator, Indigenous projects at SFU Galleries; and programming and a public art commission at SFU Library’s Indigenous Curriculum Resource Centre. Their contribution also includes a remarkable gift-in-kind from their Salish Weave Collection, including numerous works on paper, paintings, and sculptures by contemporary Salish artists. Some of the works on paper acquired by SFU through the donation will establish a “teaching collection” accessible to the Chair in the Faculty of Education, as well as other faculty, students, and community educators and members.

Based on territories of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations (also called Victoria on Vancouver Island), the Smyths have built their collection to promote awareness of Salish artistic practices. They have provided support to established and emerging artists through purchasing original works, commissioning print editions, and supporting Indigenous artist-in-residence programming at the University of Victoria.

“The works of art George and Christiane have generously given to SFU already greatly enrich SFU Galleries’ community and programming, and we are thrilled to commission major new public artworks for the Indigenous Curriculum Resource Centre with their support,” says SFU Galleries director, Kimberly Phillips.

“But perhaps most significantly, the Smyths understand the importance of activating art. Their partnership with SFU to help create both an academic Chair in Salish Art Practices and a full-time curator, Indigenous projects, are transformative gifts and will create lasting change at the university. Consulting deeply with Indigenous SFU students, faculty and external community members, the new curator will develop and maintain meaningful and supportive processes and protocols to actualize Indigenous worldviews through projects and programs.”

The university is working to create and recruit for these new roles in the coming months. The process takes time and requires thoughtful guidance, as in the Faculty of Education, where the Indigenous Education Reconciliation Council (IERC)— guided by Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Holders—has been pivotal in conceptualizing and shaping the newly endowed Chair.

Dr. Michelle Pidgeon, associate dean, Indigeneity ʔək̓ʷstənəq ts'up'new̓ásentasʔək̓ʷstənəq ts'up'new̓ásentas and associate professor in the Faculty of Education, shared that the IERC co-developed the new Chair with a vision centering on the values of Salish art practices, and focusing on Indigenous knowledges, processes, and practices of education.

“The aim of the Chair is to support the resurgence, and ongoing thriving, of Salish art through the enactment of Indigenous art as knowledge practices as well as through an Indigenous knowledge transmission process that is intergenerational and inherently an aspect of enacting Indigenous pedagogies.”

Through the Smyths’ generous support, with a focus on Indigenous art, and centering Indigenous knowledges, art practices, and pedagogies, the university can deepen our commitment to Indigenization and Reconciliation. We look forward to updating the community as these new dynamic roles are filled.

About the Salish Weave Collection at SFU

The works bring significant contextual value to the SFU Art Collection, particularly given its regional focus. They address SFU’s responsibility to the Host Nations — xwməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, səlilw̓ ətaʔɬ, kwikwəƛəm, Q'éyts'i, Kwantlen, and Semiahmoo — on whose territories the campuses sit.

The Collection features works by 16 Coast Salish artists, including intergenerational members of the same family. Demonstrating the strength of Coast Salish artistic lineage, it is a tremendous resource for studying the artistic commitments, stylistic continuities and developments within Coast Salish families and communities over time. Many of these works are now publicly visible across the Burnaby and Vancouver campuses.


Art as literacy and knowledge

The walls of SFU Library’s Indigenous Curriculum Resource Centre feature seven works of Susan Point’s "Circles in Time" series, and pieces by Maynard Johnny Jr. and Dylan Qwul’thilum Thomas. And the ICRC project, “Salish Weave Box Sets: Art and Storytelling,” funded by the Salish Weave Fund at the Victoria Foundation, features recorded conversations with the Indigenous artists in the collection, and with the Smyths.

As SFU Indigenous initiatives librarian, Ashley Edwards, notes, the art not only enhances the space but makes art publicly accessible. Along with the audio resources, it also promotes the understanding that knowledge exists outside text-based formats and that “art and engaging with art is a form of literacy.”

This story is part of our summer 2023 edition of Engage, our magazine celebrating the impact of SFU’s donor community.
To read more stories, please visit the Engage landing page.