More than 3,400 Canadian artists, writers and cultural workers have signed three separate letters this week criticising the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto over the departure of Indigenous art curator Wanda Nanibush.
News that Nanibush, the first Canadian and Indigenous art curator at the AGO, was leaving the institution shocked the Canadian art world last week. The news has been linked to a leaked letter accusing her of “posting inflammatory, inaccurate rants against Israel”. The letter, verified by Hyperallergic and The Global and Mail, was sent to the AGO by Israel Museums and Arts, Canada (IMAAC)—an organisation set up to support the Israel Museum and Israeli grassroots arts organisations—on 16 October. It was signed by members of the IMAAC's leadership team.
The letter accused the curator—the co-head of the AGO’s Indigenous and Canadian Art department—of “misleading hate speech” and “unchecked vitriol”, adding: “We don’t accept the AGO’s incapacity and refusal to contain this promotion of hateful disinformation by its employee.”
The letter claimed that Nanibush, who was a jurist for the recent 2023 Sobey Art Award, Canada's leading contemporary art prize, “has been peddling these lies since 2016”, citing an article she wrote for the now defunct Canadian Art magazine. In the article, which has a standfirst that reads “An Indigenous perspective on the contested land of Palestine”, Nanibush drew links between the Indigenous Canadian and Palestinian experience, writing: “Colonisation marks a before and after where identity is radically altered by loss.”
Contacted by The Art Newspaper, Nanibush declined to comment, adding that the situation is addressed in several supportive letters circulating within the Canadian art world.
On Wednesday (29 November), an open letter to the AGO with—at the time of writing—more than 3,300 signatures began with an expression of “outrage at the recent push out of Wanda Nanibush from her position as the inaugural curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, following the bullying of the museum by pro-Israel art collectors and donors”.
The open letter went on to say that the leaked letter from IMMAC made it “clear” that “pro-Israel donors and supporters of the AGO pressured the museum’s director and board of directors into silencing Nanibush’s ongoing efforts to educate people about Palestinians and their fight for freedom—and her condemnation of what the United Nations has warned is a ‘genocide in the making’ by Israeli forces—which ultimately led to her departure from the institution.” It continues: “The [IMMAC] letter openly admits this is not the first time its signatories have attempted to intimidate the museum’s administration to punish Nanibush for her expressions of solidarity with Palestinians.”
The letter went on to call for a boycott of the AGO and the Art Canada Institute, whose director, Sara Angel, was a signatory to the leaked letter from IMMAC. Additionally it asked for “a public accounting of how AGO board members were involved in the ousting of Nanibush and request the resignation of those responsible for her departure.”
A second letter, entitled “A Statement of Concern from Members of the International Arts Comnunity to Institutions Worldwide” and signed by more than 50 Indigenous artists, curators and professors from Canada and around the world, was also released Wednesday. It asks for acknowledgement of and accountability for Nanibush’s departure from the AGO.
The letter, organised by Aylan Couchie, a Nishnaabekwe interdisciplinary artist, curator and writer from Nipissing First Nation, stated: “Indigeneity is marked by settler colonial violence and oppression, both historical and contemporary. Given this inheritance, our capacity for pattern recognition allows us to acknowledge our shared circumstances and intersectionality with global Indigenous populations. We have no time to excuse the suffering of those we recognise as our own.”
Couchie also wrote that Nanibush’s departure “followed a long line of failures by arts and academic institutions to properly support Indigenous people, women in particular, who are expected to help ‘decolonise’ from within while constantly working against limiting policies and discriminatory behaviour by those who we’re expected to be in collaboration with”. The letter cited the departures of Lucy Bell (Haida), former Head of Indigenous Collection and Repatriation Department at the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives (RBCM) in 2020 “due to admitted ‘acts of racism and discrimination at the museum’” and the subsequent exit of her colleague Troy Sebastian.
A third letter, published on 28 November and signed by 44 Governor General Award-winning artists also asked for accountability from the AGO saying, “The forced departure of Wanda Nanibush is an act of political censorship with shades of a new McCarthyism. It undermines principles of artistic freedom and freedom of speech. It also reveals a shallowness to the AGO’s supposed commitment to reconciliation, decolonisation and justice for Indigenous people, and to social justice more generally.”
Nanibush, who is a member of the Anishinaabe Indigenous group, wrote the book Moving the Museum: Indigenous + Canadian Art at the AGO (2023), which won the Toronto Book Award last month.
The controversy around Nanibush's statements comes at a time when members of the Canadian arts community have been calling for a ceasefire, and protesting the more than 15,000 Palestinians who have been killed—according to the Hamas-run health ministry—since the Hamas terror attacks in Israel on 7 October, in which more than 1,200 people were killed and around 220 hostages were taken (more than 100 of whom Hamas released in detainee exchanges with Israel during a one-week ceasefire).
Police arrested protestors who crashed the Scotiabank Giller Prize gala on 13 November to demonstrate against Scotiabank, which is the largest foreign shareholder in Elbit Systems, an Israel-based arms manufacturer. In the aftermath, an open letter signed by 1,800 Canadian writers and publishers was published, calling for charges against the protestors to be dropped and for the Canadian government to stop military funding of Israel.
Last month, protestors supported a successful sit-in by the Palestinian-American artist Jenin Yaseen at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto that resulted in her work being returned to its original format. Meanwhile, the Indigenous professor Natalie Knight was put on leave after remarks at a pro-Palestinian rally in Vancouver during which she described Hamas’s 7 October attack as “amazing” and “brilliant”.
In a statement, Stephan Jost, the director and chief executive officer of the AGO, said: “Incorporating historical narratives that have been long excluded in institutions like the AGO is very hard work. In coming to this mutual decision with Wanda, we acknowledge her monumental leadership and vision and are deeply grateful for everything she accomplished.”
In an open letter published subsequently, on 30 November, Jost wrote: "The AGO, along with many other cultural institutions, is being asked to better define the rights and limits of political and artistic expression in a locally diverse but globally complex environment. We will go through a process to listen, to understand multiple perspectives and then together we will articulate our institutional position."
The AGO did not respond to The Art Newspaper's request for a specific comment on the IMAAC letter. A spokesperson from IMAAC responded by email, stating: “After seven incredibly productive years, Wanda Nanibush, curator, Indigenous art has left her position at the AGO.”