Ryan Rice, 2020 Finalist

Ryan Rice, Kanien’kehá:ka, is an independent curator and an Associate Dean at OCAD University. His career spans 25 years in the curatorial field. Recent curated projects include; “raise a flag: work from the Indigenous Art Collection 2000-2015,” You’re Welcome, Listen to the Land, and BAIT: Work by Couzyn van Heuvelen.

We asked curator and OCAD University Associate Dean Ryan Rice to tell us more about himself and his curatorial practice. 

Original photo courtesy of Ryan Rice. Artwork by Amber Williams-King
You’ve held curatorial positions in the US and across Canada. How has your international work impacted your curatorial practice?

Working across the international border of Canada and the US is common practice for my community (Kahnawake), nation (Mohawk) and confederacy (Haudenosaunee) since our extended territories and home lands are situated across those political boundaries. Our ability to mobilize our rights across a boundary that crossed us has compelled our sovereignty, and is a negotiation we retained and continue to maintain rightfully so. This has allowed me to consistently navigate across an expanded land and culturally-based geography and has impacted my curatorial practice quite significantly because it offers a wider breadth of artists and practices for me to consider within my focus while I exercise my right to physically work from both sides.  However, these spaces (two countries) function quite differently and I have been able to learn from these distinct ecologies.

The infrastructure for arts and culture are as different as can be imagined. In Canada, the federal and provincial support for arts and culture render professional experiences and significant opportunity for community/public engagement. The US economies for arts and culture have vast limitations and most often are dependent on private donors and the arts market. By keeping these two different systems in mind, and sometimes collapsing them to imagine a sustainable framework, I am able to shape or calculate the experience for the artists, gage a public reception of the artworks/exhibition and institutional expectations through a lens of decolonization. The commonalities that both sides share is the dependency of grants, donors, institutional bureaucracy and public support the field is subjected to, to navigate and warrant our curatorial projects to fruition.

You’ve talked about how institutions don’t know how to recognize Indigenous knowledge or labour. How do you feel this has changed? Or has it?

By default, an Indigenous curator (or whatever position one walks into) has to assume a huge responsibility based on societal and institutional assumptions that we can represent all nations from coast to coast and time immemorial. The expectations to work from such a monolithic lens is a significant amount of labour when drawn into colonial structures tasked with negotiating decolonization, racism/systemic, and reconciliation to name a few “issues” facing scrutiny that sits within the inclusion /exclusion of Indigenous presence and opportunity. Additionally, to re-educate the public to a true history of place or offer a sovereign narrative that pushes against the dominant voice, where the Indigenous knowledge and aesthetics have been essentialized for a very long period of time, becomes a huge undertaking for one person. Change has happened and is underway at various levels but it is very recent amidst the persistence of generational labour the Indigenous cultural sector has undertaken and demanded for a very long time.

In 2005 you helped found the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, and at that time there were only 10 Indigenous curators at Canadian Art Institutions. Describe the importance of the Collective’s work, both then and now.

The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC) was formed as a timely community-led intermediation to address the deficiency of Indigenous curatorial practice in the field.

The impetus to establish the collective (ACC) was to support the growing and necessary curatorial projects being undertaken by Indigenous curators, who were losing opportunities to non-Indigenous curators even though professional development and career capacity building was being supported through new granting programs to support Indigenous curatorial projects and residencies. At that time, in 2005, there were only a handful (less than 5) of Indigenous curators working within curatorial positions at art and cultural institutions.

Over 15 years, the collective’s position strategically strengthened our voice to critically engage and address our absence, ongoing erasure and willingness to recognize our presence in the field. The ACC’s focus on networking opportunities, collaboration, critical dialogue, research and scholarship focusing on dynamic engaged curatorial practice launched a context for activating Indigenous methodologies and visual sovereignty to be implemented, exhibited and witnessed.  Steps to assert, insert and demand space for Indigenous curators was key to driving a culture shift that has slowly led towards some institutional transformation and autonomy we are witnessing today. The collective’s will to name, define and increase the public profile of Indigenous curators and artists continues to be a critical step to dismantle the systemic barriers inherent of such colonial structures in the arts and its institutions. Since its founding, the collective has managed to achieve national arts service organization status and has built its sustainable operational capacity to advocate for the efforts of Indigenous curatorial practice, professional development and most recently, community care. In 2020, we may now have reached a count of 10 Indigenous curators at varied art institutions in Canada.  

Can you talk about how your roles at OCAD University have impacted your independent practice?

One of the reasons I had shifted my curatorial practice and career to join OCAD University was to address the discrepancies of engagement (public and private) that were limited due to an ingrained colonial narrative driving history (art and otherwise), representation / misrepresentation, and the absence of Indigenous people within the public sphere. I recognized that a critical component lacking from curatorial practice and exhibitions was furthering an opportunity for education to take precedence. My roles at OCAD are supported by my curatorial career and experience in arts administration, so moving into the university system offered a new way to think through my research. I was drawn to the Indigenous Visual Culture program at OCADU because it is a significant platform (BFA) to develop and train artists, and at the same time, extend the learning opportunities for students across all faculties on Indigenous art, culture and history. My roles at OCAD complement my independent practice succinctly because there is much more work to do within both systems (art and education) and incredible possibilities to re-align them side by side.     

How does it feel to be nominated for the Celebration of Cultural Life Award?

I am honoured and excited to be considered for the Celebration of Cultural Life Award. I am also grateful for my nominators who put my practice and achievements forward. An award such as this, and its juried recognition, aligns with my aspiration to champion creativity and Indigenous visual culture through curatorial practice, education and public engagement. The projects I have undertaken over the last 6 years while living in Toronto have allowed me to contemplate and locate both an Indigenous presence and absence within the fabric of Toronto’s short history. In being recognized as a cultural leader, I am motivated to establish future contributions to ensure and reveal the momentum of Indigenous presence that has been cultivated in this city continues and not reduced to a land acknowledgement.