in conjunction with

The Origins Festival of First Nations

June 9 – June 25, 2017

As part of London’s biannual Origins Festival of First Nations, The Baldwin Gallery curates First Nations Now: between worlds, in which four indigenous Canadian artists, from the Northwest Pacific Coast to the Plains Cree heartland, explore hybridity and autobiography. Traditional art practices and iconography meet remix culture, minimalism, performance art and corporeal narrative, reconstructing personal and shared identities betwixt realities. Lithographs by Robert Davidson, Haida; sculptural photography by Meryl McMaster, Plains Cree; digital interventions by Kwakwaka’wakw Sonny Assu; and panel and hide paintings by Kwakwaka’wakw Steve Smith.

Robert Davidson, of Haida and Tlingit descent, is one of Canada’s most respected contemporary artists and central to the renaissance of Northwest Pacific indigenous art. He has championed the rich art tradition of his native Haida Gwaii, consistently searching ‘for the “soul” he saw in the art of his Haida elders’.  As he works in both classical form and contemporary minimalism, Davidson negotiates a delicate edge between the ancestral and the individual, infusing traditional forms with an evolutionary spirit. Davidson’s awards include National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Art and Culture, Order of British Columbia, Order of Canada, Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, British Columbia Aboriginal Art Lifetime Achievement Award, Governor Generals Award, and the commemorative medal marking the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the Throne as Queen of Canada and honouring significant achievements by Canadians.

Davidson has opened the door for younger artists to integrate their history and longstanding customs within contemporary art movements. Like Davidson, Kwakwakawakw artists, Sonny Assu and Steve Smith are inheritors of the ‘formline’ art tradition, defined by a complex stylistic vocabulary of shapes, geometrics and topographies, historically employed in totem poles, house fronts and transformational masks. Reshaping the formline in the face of the personal and political, Steve Smith individualizes his tribal identity and the practices passed down from his father, while Sonny Assu elides Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakwak and Pop Art, challenging corporate and nation-state colonialism.

In the tradition of mentorship, Steve Smith was originally taught by his father in the Kwakwaka’wakw style of painting. As a painter of his father’s carvings, his work was meant to pass for his father’s, and when his ‘self’ entered into his work, he became a contemporary artist. Today, these origins remain the foundation beneath bold experiments in form and colour. Smith interprets the formline tradition through the changes and challenges of personal history. He credits a recent heart attack and the visions experienced during a triple bypass surgery for altering his palette from the red, green and blacks of Northwest Pacific indigenous art to a polyphony of colour.

Sonny Assu, a graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design in British Columbia, uses painting, sculpture, large scale installations, digital constructions and photography to challenge monolithic commercial culture. ‘Consumerism, branding, and technology are new modes of totemic representation,’ writes Assu. Exploring the effects of colonisation on the Indigenous people of North America – from loss of land to language to cultural resource – Assu deconstructs perceived identities and overturns the myth of the virgin continent and its vanished peoples. At once playful and political, his digital series, ‘Interventions on the Imaginary’, imposes the traditional formline on pre-existing narratives, challenging colonial depictions of the vanishing Indian and the empty continent. Like alien spaceships, neon formlines hover above prints of early colonial landscapes to interrupt the imperialistic tale of the ‘other’ and invert the gaze

Meryl McMaster is Half Plains Cree, half of British descent, with a BFA in photography from the Ontario College of Art and Design. Confronting the fiction of fixed identity altogether, McMaster pits hybrid inheritances and constructed selfhoods – Indigenous Canadian, European, female – against the immediacy of the lived body in the natural world. A sculptural-photographer-performance artist, she inserts and distorts her own body inside a landscape at once familiar and ‘betwixt’. She expresses her heritage as a synergistic strength of unities, rather than a struggle between opposites. In Avian Wanderer, she rides a bicycle through the planes, while birds fly from her head. In Aphoristic Currents, her head is imprisoned in a massive Victorian ruff, constructed from newspapers which entirely fill the frame. In Brumal Tattoo, she is seen bloodied and exuberant and half-subsumed by a massive drum, referencing both the European use of ‘field music’ to control troops in battle, and the beating of the drum that, in her indigenous tradition, represents the beating of the heart.

From abstraction to performance realism, at once political and personal, all four artists extend the traditional and hereditary into the contemporary impulse. Together they redefine (or undefine) history and pre-history, the colonial and post-colonial, and the multiple and liminal self.   

The Baldwin Gallery offers art in context and relationship and forges links between artists with strong place-based practices, whether indigenous North American or contemporary European artists. Founder and creative director Dennison Smith, an internationally acclaimed novelist whose writing draws upon her experiences on the Navajo reservation, was inspired by the Native American understanding of art as who you are and where you live, thus prompting her to create an elegant home-based gallery, where art is a fully integrated experience. The Baldwin Gallery is open by appointment and during launches and interdisciplinary salons.

Press enquiries:

+44 (0)207 620 6744  /

General information:

Baldwin Gallery:

Dennison Smith:


Telephone: +44 (0) 203 620 6744

Address: 35 Eltham Road, London, SE12 8EX


Press enquiries:

+44 (0)207 620 6744  /

Visitor information:

Baldwin Gallery:

35 Eltham Rd SE12 8EX


Telephone: +44 203 620 6744

open by appointment