Steven Loft has a lot of chutzpah. This Mohawk-Jewish curator, writer and media artist is the first to hold the two-year position of curator-in-residence, Indigenous art, at the National Gallery of Canada. His overall career goal is impressively ambitious: “I want to change the way mainstream Canada thinks about Aboriginal art.”
During his stint at the Gallery, Steve has created two new and challenging exhibits that exemplify his willingness to push boundaries and help to make his goal a reality: Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists and Rethinking Abstraction from an Indigenous Perspective. These exhibits present highly contemporary First Nations art that incorporates abstraction, photography and multi-media, and break with notions that Aboriginal art must be based on traditional Native art forms.
“With Steeling the Gaze, we want to turn the gaze back to the audience. We want the viewer to say, ‘Wow this is how Aboriginals look at themselves and at the rest of society.’ This exhibit is important aesthetically (it presents beautiful works of art) and culturally, because it explains partially what it is to be an Aboriginal person in this country. Politically it says we are here; we need to be heard and be seen on every level.”
The curator-in-residence position is funded by the Canada Council of the Arts. During the two-year term, the resident curator creates an exhibition for the National Gallery’s On Tour program. Steven Loft’s contribution is Steeling the Gaze, created in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Steve’s career includes many examples of his willingness to break new ground in his field. When he started working in the Aboriginal art field, very little was written on the subject, and there were very few Native curators—exceptions being Tom Hill, director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, and Gerald McMaster, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
“I read everything I could, but it was hard to learn about Aboriginal art, because there was not much available at that time. I more or less taught myself. I attended conferences where I got to talk to Aboriginal artists, and then started writing about Aboriginal art.”
In the 1990s, Steve was one of the few people writing on Native art, so he received many requests to write articles. “I was even asked to write the essay for Alanis Obomsawin’s Governor General’s Award. When I got the call, I thought it was some sort of prank. I couldn’t believe it. I had to pinch myself.”
After several years at NIIPA, Steve spent two years at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in the 1990s, as First Nations Curator. He worked closely with Shirley Madill, a curator who has been instrumental in promoting Aboriginal art in Canada. They co-curated Alt.Shift.Control: Musings on Digital Identity, the first exhibit to feature contemporary Aboriginal artists at the Hamilton gallery. Steve then relocated to Winnipeg, where he became director of the Urban Shaman Gallery, Canada's largest Aboriginal artist-run centre.
Loft is the child of a Jewish mother who escaped Nazi Germany as a young girl, and a Mohawk father from the Iroquois community of Six Nations in Ontario. Steve grew up in Hamilton, Ont., but despite the proximity of Six Nations, he did not meet his Mohawk family until he was an adult.
“My mother met a dashing Mohawk man when she was quite young, and had me when she was 17. My parents split up when I was very young. My father had his demons to deal with—he struggled with serious alcoholism for many years.”
Steve’s chutzpah extends beyond his career in the arts. He has a friendly, open manner that becomes evident as soon as you meet him, but it belies a certain toughness that has allowed him to survive serious health problems.
His arms are intricately decorated with tattoos (including one depicting his Indian status number), and rings draw attention to his fingers, which appear stiff and curled. As a survivor of Progressive Systemic Sclerosis, a rheumatic disease, Loft has lost full use of his hands.
“I had a rare invasive disease that affects the tissue that skin and cartilage is made of. It starts at the extremities and changes their form. It can also go into your vital organs and once that happens, you die. I had a fifty-fifty chance for quite a while. My internal organs were affected.
“But then I went into remission. The doctors say the disease spontaneously burned itself out, because it hit me so hard. I’ve been in remission for over 20 years. It was nasty, but we all have the things we bear. I have found my joys and they are many more than my sorrows.”
Before becoming ill, Steve had planned on being a chef, but the damage to his hands made it impossible. Instead he studied sociology at McMaster University, learning more about his Mohawk heritage and developing his writing skills. He continued to work as a restaurant manager.
“When my son’s mother was pregnant, I realized I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. So I made a deal with her: I would spend the months of her pregnancy looking for work as a writer or in the arts. If I couldn’t find a job, I would go back to managing a restaurant.
“I got a few freelance gigs and even wrote for an Aboriginal newspaper out of Manitoba, but I didn’t find anything that paid any real money. Then I applied to an artist-run centre called the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers Association [NIIPA]. They were hiring artists for a video arts training and mentorship program. I got an interview near the end of the pregnancy. When I got a call for a second interview, my girlfriend went into labour.
“We went to the hospital. I was going to postpone the interview, but the nurse assured us that the labour was progressing slowly and we had lots of time, so I went. I told the director of NIIPA that I might get a call because my partner was in labour. She said ‘What? What are you doing here? The only reason I called you is because I don’t like to tell people they got the job over the phone!’
“Then, as I was leaving the centre to go back to the hospital, she introduced me to another employee, whose name was also Loft. It turned out that he was my uncle from Six Nations.”
Steve got to know his uncle, and learned that his father had stopped drinking and become an addictions counsellor. “My father had taken back his life, so we met. It was very awkward and emotional. When he got his life back together, he tried to find me, but he didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. It is typical of a lot of Aboriginal people who are separated from their heritage – that loss. It was difficult. It was a turning point to meet my Dad. It helped me prove to myself that I am Aboriginal. I never felt I had to prove it to others.”
Steven Loft’s term at the National Gallery wraps up in January 2010. He is still mulling over what he wants to do next.
“Part of me would like to go back to artist-run centres like the Urban Shaman, but part of me wants to be in another big institution. When I started at the National Gallery I didn’t think it could ever be at the forefront when it comes to Aboriginal art. Now I am more hopeful. One day it could become a world leader in Indigenous art.”
Jennifer Dales is a writer living in Ottawa. She has reviewed art, poetry and non-fiction for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine and The Danforth Review. Her poetry has appeared in several journals, including Prairie Fire. Her interest in First Nations art, literature, politics and health spans more than 20 years.