KLEINBURG, Ontario — People often generalize indigenous art, confining it to images of totem poles, bears, and eagles. It can encompass those things, but it’s much, much more, as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection proves with its latest exhibition, 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. The show — curated by First Nations curator, artist, and educator Michelle LaVallee, and organized by the Regina-based MacKenzie Art Gallery — is a portrait of a time when First Nations artists wanted their work to be acknowledged as art and not just indigenous objects.
Playing with perceptions of history and culture, seven native artists — Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Carl Ray, and Joseph Sanchez — banded together in 1970s Winnipeg, responding to the overbearing assumption that native art wasn’t “real” art, and directly challenged the established Group of Seven artists that were regarded as the standard of great Canadian art. “The artists didn’t see themselves as native artists but as contemporary artists,” says Victoria Dickenson, executive director and CEO of the McMichael.
The group officially incorporated as the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (PNIAI) in February 1974, hoping to stimulate new ways of thinking about and approaching contemporary First Nations artists and their output. “In many ways, it was a political act,” Dickenson says of the group’s formation. “They were establishing a new way of looking at the work.”
7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc features close to 100 works, and focuses on the decade during which PNIAI’s seven members were active as a group. While many of the works contain the cultural elements most often associated with native art specific to Canada (notably mythologically-based scenes), the artists tackle contemporary subjects like abuse and exploitation, too. Recently, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee released a report that details the decades of abuse native Canadians suffered in residential schools; the pain and suffering contained within that report is often referenced in many of the works in 7, along with outrage and fury.
Organized by theme, the show explores both macro and micro issues in First Nations art, from spirituality and history to personal stories and remembrances. Various elements have been placed under the “Storytelling” moniker, including “History and Narrative,” “Spirit and Ceremony,” “Supernatural Beings and the Spirit World,” and “Personal Narrative,” underlining certain foundational stories that First Nations cultures share.
Each section explores the work in terms of both its native history and artistic merit. The “Duality” section, for instance, features work that isn’t solely dualistic in a mythological sense but sometimes stylistically as well. Carl Ray’s “Conflict Between Good and Evil” (1975), almost medieval in its form and style, depicts a bird and lizard, both leaping off the canvas in a ferocious, energetic clash, forcing the viewer to decide on who’s good and bad. “Storytelling: Supernatural Beings and the Spirit World,” a blissfully unfussy section, includes a two-sided Jackson Beardy work painted on birch bark — playing into the “Duality” theme while also touching on the artist’s cultural relationship to ancient materials. Janvier’s “The Last Joke” (1973), featured in the “Storytelling: Personal Narrative” section, is based on an experience the artist had with his PNIAI colleagues, and how one passed away not long afterwards. Composed of Janvier’s signature swirling strokes, the abstract work, with its yellow, blue green, and turquoise colors, has a playful energy, with some of the finer strokes resembling long-necked birds and outstretched arms, and its tiny dots perhaps serving as eyes, markers, or discs, or simply expressing the clear joy Janvier felt in both painting the work and in being a member of the PNIAI. The political, spiritual, emotional, and creative sides of each artist blend into a satisfying whole here, marking 7 as a balanced look at First Nations’s cultural expression.
Many of the works, especially in the “History and War” section, are searing, angry, and recall broken treaties, corrupt government, and the role of the Church in the destruction of native communities. Daphne Odjig’s “Massacre” (1971) is filled with vivid colors and violent brush strokes and offers the angry energy of Picasso’s “Guernica” and the manic quality of Sol LeWitt’s patterns. In “The Great Flood” (1975) by Norval Morrisseau, animals’ bright yellow eyes have a striking, somewhat eerie effect on the massive work; there’s a sense the viewer is being watched — even, perhaps, judged and challenged in his or her perceptions about history, native art, and even the idea of “native” itself. It’s interesting to note that Morrisseau lived on the McMichael premises before the family transformed its home into a gallery; the McMichaels were benefactors and avid supporters of native art. Today, a full third of the gallery’s permanent collection is comprised of work by native artists.
7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc is a compelling exhibition that raises tough questions about representation and identity in native art, communicated through imagery that frequently forces the viewer to confront both subconscious attitudes toward First Nations peoples as well as the uncomfortable, frequently tragic relationship between them and their conquerors. Still, this is not a show about looking backwards so much as it is looking forward. The styles not only look contemporary but have a corollary in the growing prominence of native issues in the news. You come away from 7 aware and inspired, but troubled and contemplative as well.
7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. continues at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada) through September 7.