It’s just those moments that wasn’t about being Native or not, it was about doing stuff [and just being].
– Richelle Bear Hat, quoted by Angela Marie Schenstead in Brittney Bear Hat & Richelle Bear Hat: Little Cree Women (Sisters, Secrets & Stories)
Friday evening (March 4, 2016) I had he great and long awaited pleasure of experiencing 7: Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. at the Art Gallery of Alberta. This visit to Edmonton is the final stop of the tour of Regina’s Mackenzie Art Gallery‘s magnificent exhibition of works by the “Indian Group of Seven”. Curator Michelle LaVallee writes:
7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. is not a retrospective exhibition, a simple look back, but rather a retro-active exhibition. This is what could have happened , and should have happened, forty years ago.
– from the exhibition catalogue, p. 13.
This is an exhibit that should have toured forty years ago, but its arrival in the time of Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a most well-timed example of “better late than never.”
Anyone who knows me well or has read much of what I have written here knows of my life-long fascination with the art indigenous to the continent that has been home to eight generations of my family. I have written here and here of conversations I’ve had with Alex Janvier. Through acquaintance as a young man with Jackie Bugera of Edmonton’s Bearclaw Gallery I have been fortunate to enjoy the works of a number of indigenous artists, including one of the 7, in my home for over thirty years. 7 is the exhibition I have been waiting for for half a century, since I was a child, since before PNIAI was incorporated.
Two of the three living members of PNIAI were present at the opening reception. It was good to see Alex Janvier again and to tell him of my excitement when I heard of his commission for the Iron Foot Place mosaic in Edmonton’s new arena. Mr. Janvier was resplendent in a personalized Edmonton Oilers Jersey and his signature white cowboy hat. After a moment of chatting (about hockey), I moved away to let others have time with the artist. Joseph Sanchez, in contrast to Mr. Janvier’s casual-comfortable is a stunningly dapper dresser, with careful moustache curls that forever put the lie to the myth that Native guys can’t rock facial hair! The youngest member of PNIAI, Mr. Sanchez appropriately spent a lot of time posing for smiling selfies with gallery members. After mingling and opening remarks from curatorial staff and sponsors, we made our way upstairs for the main event.
The works included in the exhibition are absolutely stunning. My first impression on walking into the second floor gallery was “they’re bigger than I expected.” Indeed, most of the pieces are quite large, to be measured in feet rather than inches. And the range of styles is remarkable. There can be no confusion over which artist is responsible for which work. Certainly Morrisseau and Ray are of the Woodland School, but Ray’s focus on earth tones instantly distinguishes his work from his mentor’s. Janvier’s curves are, of course, unmistakable, as are Odjig’s sometimes-faceted swirling compositions. Beardy takes a different Woodland direction, largely eschewing the black outlines so prominent in Morrisseau and Ray. Sanchez has a distinctly South West, arid, desert quality, in consonance with his Pueblo and Spanish heritage.
Eddy Cobiness’ work is something remarkable to me. He shows a stylistic variation made more startling by his absolute confidence in each work. Consider the drawing “Wild Rice Harvesting”, the painting “Let There Be Life”, the symmetrical abstraction of “The Four Winds”, the brilliant stylization of “Caribou”, the detailed study in “Two Herons, and the skilful portrait, “Medicine Man and His Vision”. It seems Eddy Cobiness was a consummate stylistic shape-shifter!
Of course, the works must be seen. If you are in Edmonton before July 3, 2016, be sure to visit the Art Gallery of Alberta and spend time with some of the greatest and most important Canadian art of the twentieth century.
Perhaps in my youth I had something of a “Wacousta Complex”, a desire to BE “Native”. How could a bookish Canadian boy with my name escape the possibility? But a comment from a fellow White Canadian when I mentioned my desire to go to the opening of “7” — you remember ur white right?” gave me reassurance that I’m not following in the footsteps of the character in Major John Richardson’s foundational Canadian novel. I’m pretty sure I’ve come to the point where, despite and because of my privilege, I can never forget that I am white.
The night before the AGA’s members’ opening reception for “7” I read the marvellous catalogue for the show. I had ordered it some time ago from the Mackenzie Gallery in anticipation of one day seeing the works in person. It is a magnificent exhibition catalogue with exceptional reproductions of the works, informative (if slightly repetitive) essays, and moving words from the artists themselves. Particularly poignant in our time of attempted reconciliation is Jackson Beardy’s poem “A Main Street Indian” on page 108:
. . . As I walk the dismal streets of this city,
Kicking a tin beer can ahead of me,
I think bitterly of that invisible government
That took me away from my folks so early,
Only to be used as a psychological sop
To relieve society’s major hang-up.
They denied me the right to experience
My identitiy and my culture.
They denied me the right to experience
The intricacies of the White world,
While they stripped me of my pride and dignity
In a secluded government boarding school
During the crucial twelve years of my life.
I emerged a learned man with a hollow soul.
After a few faltering steps, I fell flat on my face —
I had never learned to walk in either world.
I was born of the noble Indian race,
Bred in the confines of a government test-tube,
And released a zombie.
The seven artists, Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, Joseph Sanchez, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Jackson Beardy, and Eddy Cobiness came together at Odjig’s gallery in Winnipeg in the early ’70s and decided learn themselves and teach others how to walk in both worlds. They rebelled against the “craft” view of “Indian Art”, against the criticism of Odjig that her work was “too influenced by Picasso” and “not Indian enough”. They stood together against pigeon-holing and insisted on being true to themselves and to their art. In short, they insisted on being seen as professional artists, and by so doing, they forced a revision of Canadian Art more radical than the legacy of The (White) Group of Seven.
And yet, just as gallery owners said “you remember ur Indian right?” to Daphne Odjig in 1970, a White guy in 2016 who enjoys the art of Janvier and Morrisseau is asked “you remember ur white right?” Thankfully, the AGA’s Catherine Crowston opened and closed her remarks on Friday night with acknowledgement of Treaty, now a routine acknowledgement at public events in Edmonton.
But still: “you remember ur white right?”
Somehow that question is linked in my mind to something Alex Janvier said to me the first time I chatted with him: “Maybe someday they’ll let us be Canadians.” As long as being excited about an exhibition of the art of some of the most influential Canadian artists of the last (and this) century is seen as “going Native”, as long as there are people not letting indigenous artist be Canadian, there’s a long, difficult road to Reconciliation, to the place where life is “about doing stuff [and just being].”