The establishment of the Hamilton-based Native American / Inuit Photographers Association (NIIPA) in 1985 was a milestone in the growth of indigenous art in Canada and the United States.
For 20 years, NIIPA has provided indigenous artists with important national networking tools, materials, training, encouragement, gallery space and traveling exhibitions.
Until its inception, photography usually portrayed the lives of indigenous peoples through clichés and negative stereotypes captured through white lenses. Indigenous photographers often worked in isolation around the world of art.
Therefore, NIIPA’s founding principles seemed to be revolutionary: “promoting a positive, realistic and contemporary image of indigenous peoples through photography.”
It started in the basement of James Street South, moved to the office / gallery of Concession Street in the 90’s, and closed in 2006 after breaking up. This was the first two exhibitions touring the country, and a national conference was held in Hamilton. Thunder Bay and Lethbridge, Alta.
The ambitious new exhibition “NIIPA 20/20” at the McMaster Museum of Art records the group’s 20-year history and features more than 160 photographs by 50 NIIPA graduate artists from Canada and the United States. Many artists have been recognized at home and abroad, including Shelley Niro, Jeff Thomas, Murray Mackenzie, Jolene Likert, and Simon Brascoop. The exhibition will be held from Tuesday to Friday until September 3rd and will be open to the public for free.
Much of the work of the exhibition will be given to McMaster’s indigenous art curator Rhéanne Chartrand and co-director Yvonne Maracle, the founder of NIIPA.
Chartrand hadn’t heard of NIIPA until he mentioned NIIPA five years ago when he was studying another project. That discovery led to the McMaster exhibition “#nofilterneeded,” featuring 48 of NIIPA’s early works. She found much of the material for the 2018 show in Gatineau, Kenya, in an archive of Native and Northern issues in Canada. After opening at McMaster, “#nofilterneeded” went on a tour to the Indigenous Art Centers in Lethbridge, Thunder Bay and Gatineau.
Chartrand considered her work on NIIPA completed. She was wrong. Chartland became acquainted with Maracle through her “#nofilterneeded” survey, and one day Maracle said there were more NIIPA photos she might want to see.
By the time NIIPA collapsed in 2006, the organization had accumulated a significant permanent collection. To prevent the photos from being destroyed after the dissolution of NIIPA, Maracle has moved to various local indigenous organizations to create and store the photos.
There are 360 photos in all, and the last resting place (in front of McMaster) was Koo Gaa DaWin Manitou’s senior residence in downtown Hamilton. Maracle hung many of the photos on the inner wall of the building. She took Chartrand to see them.
“I came in and realized I wasn’t done,” says Chartrand. “I had no choice. When I was given 360 photos, I couldn’t just sit down. You have to do something with them.”
Approximately 125 photos preserved by Maracle are featured on “NIIPA 20/20”, most of the rest from the original “#nofilterneeded” exhibition.
In an interview from her home in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Bellville, Maracle admitted that she was very relieved to be able to hand over 360 photos to Chartland.
“I’m very happy that I came across Rhéanne, and she was able to remove this load from me,” Maracle said. “She is a great savior and the image of NIIPA is alive. It’s history, indigenous history, our history.”
Meanwhile, Chartrand and Maracle are working on ways to make up for the loss of art to the elders of Koo Gaa Da Win Manitou.
“Yvonne and I are going to have the elders come to see the show,” says Chartland. “Currently, their walls are exposed. We are still thinking about how to replace the photo.”
The McMaster Museum of Art hosts an online panel discussion focusing on NIIPA at 3:00 pm on Thursday, June 16th, 1990s. The panel will be moderated by Chartrand and will feature Maracle, NIIPA co-founder and longest director, Carol Hill. (Former Director of NIIPA) and Tim Johnson (Founding Committee and Photographer). You can subscribe to the discussion from the museum website museum.mcmaster.ca.