Considering his all-time favourite painting — a six-panel masterpiece by Norval Morrisseau called Man Changing into Thunderbird — artist Blake Angeconeb revealed something of his philosophy on art.
"You know sometimes people will go deep into meanings and everything like that. Well, I just (expletive) like it," he said with a laugh. "It’s just, I’ve always been drawn to it."
Morrisseau’s influence is obvious in Angeconeb’s work. The canvas bursts with bold colours, and broad lines sweep and swirl, so the body of one creature often tangles inextricably with another.
The school of paintings Morrisseau (1932-2007) founded, called woodlands style, integrates the Ontario-born Indigenous artist’s personal vision with traditional Anishinaabe imagery and culture.
The work of Angeconeb, who is Anishinaabe and a member of Lac Seul First Nation in Ontario, now living in Winnipeg, speaks to the dynamism of culture and the ever-changing nature of worldviews. It pays homage to its predecessor, yet blends pop culture into woodlands imagery.
Amid pear-shaped birds with tear-drop plumes, Star Wars character Yoda peeks from a shroud of bird and fish, video game character Mario leaps along flowing hillscapes, and country music singer Johnny Cash salutes with just one finger.
In other words, it’s unapologetically fun.
"I like that old school, retro stuff. Old video games. Star Wars, Legos. I was a big nerd growing up. It’s all this imagery and stuff I grew up with," said the 32-year-old, who creates artwork both digitally and with canvas and acrylic paint.
Not everyone has appreciated Angeconeb’s merging of woodlands-style art with pop culture. Some few have pushed back on it, saying the pop culture icons sully the style, maybe even insult the culture.
These criticisms gnawed at him early on, but the voices of those cheering him on helped propel him forward in his art.
Perhaps the best known of those voices is that of legendary singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, with whom Angeconeb collaborated for a short film called Paddling on Both Sides. The film features Angeconeb’s artwork as Sainte-Marie describes the necessity to discuss not only the traumas of Indigenous cultures but also the triumphs, innovations and joys.
"I learned a lot from her," Angeconeb said. "She said: ‘Your artwork, people are going to see it. And how do you want people to feel when they do?’ I took a lot from that.
"I do want to do angry-looking artwork and stuff like that. But so far I’ve stayed away from it and focused on creating positive artwork that people can resonate with and feel good about."
Angeconeb’s unpretentious and joyful approach to art has resonated with many. His social media following has grown to more than 16,000 strong, and many organizations have taken notice.
In January, TikTok Canada flew Angeconeb to Toronto where he painted a huge mural, about which he couldn’t provide many details.
Athletic wear giant Adidas has commissioned him to design an outdoor basketball court (also in Toronto, and again Angeconeb was hush-hush on the specifics).
Angeconeb will also be designing a mural for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and most recently, he announced a partnership with IKEA, about which — you guessed it — he couldn’t say much, except the home furnishings company wanted to bring an Indigenous voice into the fold.
That Indigenous voice is one that has grown within Angeconeb in the last decade, since discovering a love for his art after painting Hello Kitty with his niece, he said.
Something about the process just felt right to him, and soon he found himself reading up on Morrisseau at a library in Sioux Lookout, Ont., where he used to live.
This was the first step to a new era in his life as an Indigenous person, Angeconeb said.
"I didn’t grow up knowing much about my Indigenous heritage in northern Ontario (mainly Dryden)," he said. "I was the only Indigenous kid in the Catholic school I went to. So, I never really explored my culture very much growing up.
"But diving into art and reading about it and talking to people and meeting people has helped a lot. Lately, it’s opened a lot of doors to exploring and learning about my culture."
Angeconeb said he’s proud to be one of many thriving Indigenous artists, and his connection to the community is displayed around his home.
In a cabinet in his basement, there’s a framed postcard designed by Amy Jackson of Winnipeg-based Nativelovenotes. On his walls hang paintings by Winnipeg-born graffiti artist Cash Akoza and a series of three paintings by Christian Chapman of Fort William First Nation (Ontario).
When Angeconeb describes these pieces, he doesn’t go on about techniques or any such thing you’d hear an art critic spouting. He just says how much he likes them, or how he appreciates the artist’s work, and leaves it at that.
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review West. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies. Email him at email@example.com or call him at 204-697-7206.