Artist Spotlight: Jeff Thomas
The Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (GGAVMA) were created in 1999 by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Governor General of Canada. The award winners are recognized for their contributions to Canada’s vibrant arts community.
The work of four of the 2019 laureates is included in the Canada Council Art Bank collection, including that of Jeff Thomas, an Indigenous storyteller, curator and photographer who was this year acknowledged with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Thomas, who self-describes as an urban Iroquois man, grew up in Buffalo, New York, and was influenced by legendary documentary photographer and social activist Milton Rogovin. Rogovin became a mentor to Thomas as he photographed powwow gatherings and street scenes. Like Rogovin, Thomas’s photographs illuminate the humanity of the dispossessed, the forgotten and the otherwise invisible.
“For me photographs are a way of generating a conversation,” Thomas said at a luncheon held at the Art Bank to honour the GGAVMA award winners. “I really see myself more as a collector of things that I can challenge myself to put together to create a story line.” Thomas says his photographs are analogous to wampum belts. Traditional wampum belts are constructed with intricately patterned shell beads and serve as visual memory keepers that record history, communicate ideas and mark agreements and treaties.” Each element on a wampum belt is a mnemonic device in the story,” Thomas says, citing the story behind his 2001 photograph Greg Hill @ The Champlain Monument from the Seize the Space series.
Jeff Thomas in front of his work entitled Greg Hill @ The Champlain Monument, 2001
The photo shows the artist and curator Greg Hill, kneeling at the foot of the statue of Samuel de Champlain. Hill’s presence is a replacement for a removed bronze sculpture known as Anishinaabe Scout created in 1918 and placed next to the statue of Champlain. The sculpture was intended to show how Indigenous peoples helped the explorer navigate the Ottawa River. The original design included the scout kneeling in a canoe, but the citizen's group who commissioned the statue lacked the funds for the canoe.
The sculpture was removed and relocated in 1999, when the Assembly of First Nations took issue with its stereotypical image of what appeared to show the guide in a subservient position to Champlain. “Photography can be used to heal,” said Thomas, “to resist the culture of erasure.”
The work of Jeff Thomas is a part of the exhibition The Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts 2019, organized by the National Gallery of Canada in collaboration with the Canada Council for the Arts, on view at the National Gallery of Canada until August 5, 2019.
Jeff Thomas and fellow laureate Lee-Ann Martin will discuss their careers in the world of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada, a conversation moderated by Greg Hill, Audain Senior Curator, Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada on Thursday, June 13, 2019, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
About the Author: Anita Barak
Anita Barak is an Ottawa-based writer and art history and curatorial studies student at Carleton University. She once wrote that “Art can save your life” and believes it to be even more relevant today.