Curators across the country are challenging traditions as they focus on exhibits displaying aboriginal work with an emphasis on fine art over ethnographic examination.

Until recently, aboriginal art had found its home in museums and galleries as documentation of a culture, a trend the National Gallery of Canada and art houses across the country are trying to buck.

“When we think of preserving, we think of the future and having really good documents for showing these times. But, it’s important to view these works as art and not just ethnographic documentation,” Greg Hill, Audain curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada said from Ottawa.

It wasn’t until 1986 that the country’s national gallery made its first “self-conscious purchase” of contemporary aboriginal art: Carl Beam’s The North American Iceberg. Since then, their collection has grown to roughly 2000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis pieces.

Just outside of Toronto, the McMichael gallery — which has a 100 per cent made in Canada mandate — has just kicked off an 11-week show featuring 40 contemporary First Nations artists.

“We want to underline the fact that they are the finest artist working in Canada today. They take traditional art and use it as a starting point for self-expression,” Tom Smart, executive director and CEO of the gallery said.

One purpose of the exhibit is to look at a revival of some traditional techniques nearly forgotten after the Canadian government repressed many aspects of Indigenous art, culture and ceremony.

Further east, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax is also making an effort to expand their Aboriginal collection.

Since acquiring their first Inuit print in 1991, the permanent collection has increased to include 160 works in the Inuit gallery and 120 in the First Nations room.

The Curator of Collections at the gallery said part of the reason collectors took so long to include this type of art, is that it was simply overlooked.

“When you look at European gallery models, they’re collecting from elsewhere and often, you don’t see what’s in your own backyard,” Shannon Porter said, adding that it’s wonderful that galleries across the country are expanding their horizons and including more art focused on Aboriginal culture.

“I hope we keep collecting and pursuing the vision.”

Other exhibits with aborignal art

• Vancouver Art Gallery: Permanent collection contains work by First Nations artists, such as Haida artist, Robert Davidson that bridge traditional and contemporary.

• Currently exhibit: Two Visions: Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt, shows how two Euro-Canadian artists address and examine First Nations art such as totems and masks.

• Art Gallery of Ontario: Current exhibition: The Thomson Collection of Canadian Paintings and First Nations Objects, includes historical pieces by Charles Edenshaw and several First Nations objects such as masks, amulets, combs.