Urban Shaman Elevates Indigenous Voices

Urban Shaman Gallery bridges tradition and contemporary Indigenous art.

Urban Shaman stands as a vibrant artist-run centre and a beacon for Indigenous art in the Exchange District and beyond. Since its inception, Urban Shaman has been dedicated to showcasing and celebrating First Nations, Métis, and Inuit art and artists. With roots dating back almost three decades and a mandate to support the Indigenous artist community, Urban Shaman boasts a future as vibrant as its history.

In 1996, Louis Ogomah founded Urban Shaman Gallery after recognizing the need for a space dedicated to exhibiting emerging Indigenous artists.  In its early days, Urban Shaman functioned as a collective of artists who came together and found spaces in the Exchange District to exhibit. They eventually settled in their own space in Exchange, a neighbourhood chosen for its accessibility and thriving arts scene. With artist-run spaces like Martha Street Studio, Ace Art Inc. and Plug In ICA already nearby, it was the perfect place for a new gallery to thrive.

Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery at 290 McDermot Ave

Since then, the gallery has become nationally and internationally recognized for honouring the history and future of Indigenous art in Canada. Even its name has a story, the origin of which comes from Indigenous Canadian artist Norval Morisseau. Norval was a member of the Indigenous Group of 7, a collective of artists in the 1970s that advocated for Indigenous artworks to be displayed in fine arts spaces and built an international lens on Indigenous fine arts. The group was pivotal in cultivating recognition for and reshaping the dialogue around Indigenous art in Canada and beyond. Norval is known as the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art and as a dedicated spiritual practitioner. His work often spoke to healing, uplifting not just the art itself but the community and their spirits — a legacy Urban Shaman continues to build on.

Norval Morrisseau, Androgyny, 1983

This legacy is the heartbeat of Urban Shaman, which is newly helmed by Artistic Director Justin Bear L’Arrivée. With a background in artist-run centres, social services, and graphic design, Justin has always straddled the line between community and art, providing him with a unique intersection of skills to inform his work. Justin, an artist himself, was a member of Urban Shaman before he took on the role of Artistic Director a few months ago. Like Justin, many artists benefit from the programs and community support Urban Shaman provides.

The mandate at Urban Shaman is to create space for Indigenous artists to thrive, with the goal of exposing Indigenous art to a local and international audience. Alongside providing a platform for artists to showcase their work, they offer resources to support them in creating it. Emerging artists can come in with a pitch or proposal, and the team at Urban Shaman will help them turn their idea into an exhibit. They offer artist residencies, internships, and mentorship programs that connect newer artists with more established ones. Urban Shaman also supports elder artists and established commercial artists who may have faced barriers to showcasing their work in fine arts spaces.

“At the root of it, Urban Shaman is a space for artists to feel safe,” says Justin. He shares that a lot of academia around art and the fine arts world is designed to exclude people and elevate colonial narratives. Urban Shaman helps to break these barriers and provide accessibility for Indigenous artists to exhibit their work in a gallery space, including artists that operate outside of more traditional forms of Indigenous art. This access allows Indigenous arts to be recognized in the gallery world and academia. “Artists can come to Urban Shaman and learn how to navigate the system in a safe space that’s decolonized and free from bureaucratic barriers that keep Indigenous people from thriving.”

Artistic Director Justin Bear L’Arrivée

Urban Shaman has a bright future ahead as they continue to grow and evolve. In two years, they’ll be celebrating their 30-year anniversary with a move to the new Arts Cube that is currently under development at Market Lands. “Artist-run centres are central to the culture of the Exchange,” shares Justin, who hopes the change will continue to activate the arts scene in the Exchange. They’re excited to join a hub with other arts organizations like MAWA and Creative Manitoba that will also be calling the Arts Cube home.

For now, you can continue to enjoy their gallery on McDermot Ave. They’re currently showcasing an exhibition by Melissa John titled ‘hand-me-downs’, which is on until July 20th. Melissa builds derivative works featuring hand-me-downs she’s received from her mother and grandmother and translates them into a digital space. She explores themes of using new media to confront displacement and residential schools, citing hand-me-downs as items where culture continues to live.

hand-me-downs by Melissa John’s, on display at Urban Shaman until July 20th

Urban Shaman is taking submissions for new exhibitions to the space, so reach out if you have an idea brewing, are an emerging Indigenous artist looking for support and community, or are interested in learning more.

Visit them in person:
290 McDermot Ave

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