Although Steven Loft has been described as a “Mohawk-Jewish curator,” he doesn’t like labels and doesn’t understand why people feel compelled to slot others into neat little compartments.
Steven Loft discusses a painting at the National Gallery.
Loft – who is completing a two-year position as curator-in-residence for indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada, the Ottawa gallery’s first ever – believes we’re all a combination of identities and experiences, although his a particularly interesting mix.
Born in Hamilton in 1960 to a teen mother whose parents were Holocaust survivors, Loft spent his early years living with the Jewish side of his family. He was only three years old when his parents separated, leaving him and his mother to move in with his grandparents. For the rest of his childhood, he never saw or heard from his father again. He later discovered that a drinking problem – later overcome – led to their estrangement.
“Both of my grandparents were born in Germany, but they met in London, where my mother was born. She was seven when they came to Canada and settled in Hamilton. Most of their families died in the Holocaust,” said Loft.
“My grandmother was from Bonn and was very cultured… when they later moved to Montreal, I used to spend my summers with them, and we would go to galleries and plays together. She took me to Stratford. She was the one who got me interested in the arts… my grandparents were very important in my formative years.”
In terms of career choice, however, Loft was looking in another direction.
His goal was to become a chef, but fate intervened in the form of a debilitating illness that left him unable to use his hands. Progressive systemic sclerosis, a rheumatic disease, can be life-threatening. Fortunately for Loft, he went into remission, but was forced to change careers.
While studying sociology at McMaster University, he worked as a restaurant manager, but he knew that was not the long-term career for him. He loved to write and began to learn more and more about his Mohawk heritage, leading him to find a way to combine the two.
Up to that point, Loft had not had any contact with his father or anyone else from that side of his family. In an indirect and winding way, the illness led him to rediscover the connection.
Determined to earn his living writing, Loft freelanced, wrote for an aboriginal newspaper out of Manitoba and applied for what would be a life-changing job at an artist-run centre called the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers Association (NIIPA.)
Not only did this launch his new career, but the centre’s director introduced Loft to another employee with the same last name who turned out to be his uncle from Six Nations.
Through the uncle, Loft was able to reconnect with his father and meet other family members.
As he continued to learn about and become immersed in his Mohawk heritage, Loft found what he considered to be a common horror of the Jewish and aboriginal peoples – the faceless numbering system used for the Jews during the Holocaust and Canada’s assigning of Indian status numbers.
He had his own Indian status number tattooed on his arm, as “an act of defiance to the numbering of aboriginal people in Canada. Putting it on my arm was a subversive, political act,” he said.
He also created a performance piece that became a video work called 2510037901, Loft’s Indian status number. The piece was shown at various film festivals with very varying reactions.
“When I showed it at a Jewish film festival in Hamilton, the response was quite different. Even being Jewish, I had to talk about my family history and have a discussion about what has happened to aboriginal people. We had an interesting discussion about genocide and the kinds of acts that are committed against people,” he said. “When I show it to aboriginal audiences, they just see the status number.”
Loft sees such works as a way of confronting tough issues.
“Oppression and genocide are things that occur, even today. As creative people, one way we deal with them is to make art. That is one of the reasons I love what I do… art has to challenge us to how we see each other. Culture is the foundation of who we are, but it has to acknowledge difficult, disturbing things… and it can also be joyous, celebratory, just beautiful,” he said.
Loft used his time at the National Gallery to create two new travelling exhibits for the National Gallery’s On Tour program. “Steeling the Gaze” was created in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. It will begin touring in 2010. “Back to the Beginning” will go on tour in 2011. Both will tour across Canada, but schedules and venues have not yet been confirmed.
What’s next for Loft? There are several possibilities for 2010, but right now, he says he’s just looking forward to some time to relax, regroup and get ready for his next adventure.