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This article was published 27/8/2014 (727 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
'I don't want to see young artists of native ancestry paint themselves into a box in search for authenticity," Daphne Odjig writes in the catalogue for 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. "It is within you."
Sound advice from an artist who's lived by example.
Odjig, 95 next month, and the six other like-minded artists who first convened at her Donald Street print shop in 1972 stand as models of inventiveness, integrity and self-determination. Supporting one another's work in an openly hostile climate, they rejected limiting ideas about what "Indian art" could be, asserting their place as equal players on the national cultural stage. With their work, they forged powerful new esthetic traditions that built on history while embracing contemporary indigenous experience and diverse artistic influences.
Dubbed "the Indian Group of Seven" (a moniker that stuck), PNIAI members would eventually join the Order of Canada and win Governor General's Awards, but 40 years ago, their accomplishments were more often met with indifference or worse. Closing at the WAG Monday after a four-month run, 7 assembles 84 works from the 1970s, a vital early period when ideas and styles were still in flux and many members were at their creative peak.
Norval Morrisseau is justifiably well-represented. In the 1950s and '60s, the painter worked in relative isolation to synthesize traditional Anishinaabe forms, crafting a distinctive style that mirrored the liberated flatness of modernists like Picasso and Matisse (both of whom drew on indigenous art for inspiration). A self-described "shaman-artist," Morrisseau worked across artistic and spiritual traditions to explore cultural memory, religious conviction, personal history and inner conflict.
In the show, we see Carl Ray and Jackson Beardy adapt and refine Morrisseau's Woodlands Style, whose supple linework, bold colour and cutaway perspectives remain hallmarks of Anishinaabe painting and design. Beardy in particular exploited the "x-ray style" to vivid effect: snaking outlines weave together imagery and themes of nature, society, transformation and rebirth.
Trained in the late '50s at what is now the Alberta College of Art and Design, Alex Janvier pursued abstraction more single-mindedly than any of his peers. Drawing on centuries of Dene abstract design, including quillwork and beading, he crafts serpentine mosaics of colour that unfurl across the canvas with the graphic lyricism of a Mesoamerican codex or Kandinsky painting. Occasionally flirting with representation (a motif from a beaded medallion, the suggestion of a winding river system), the paintings seamlessly fuse disparate esthetic lineages, while Janvier's titles and statements about the work locate the within a principled, politicized worldview.
Though best known for her swirling, flatly graphic take on Woodlands painting, Daphne Odjig's work from the '70s reflected a wider range of influences (but was no less distinctive), marrying sinuous contours and traditional subjects with fragmentary form and shading inspired by early cubism. Dreamlike compositions explore ceremonial, mythological, and personal themes, their gestural handling strongly evocative of abstract expressionism's surrealistic early days. Also inspired by surrealism, Joseph Sanchez's drawings and prints have a distinct apocalyptic tenor, interweaving messianic visions of the Ghost Dance and Biblical Revelation with harrowing scenes of sexuality and violence.
Things have improved in 40 years, but even today, indigenous artists risk having their work dismissed as irrelevant on the one hand and inauthentic on the other. It's an impossible standard, and 7 triumphantly demonstrates that we're all better off when artists ignore it.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.