Aboriginal Artists Defying Expectations
Photo by Joe Mabel
“I started to establish myself…as an Indian artist. Pardon me, establish myself as an artist who happens to be Indian.”
– Goyce Kakegamic, late 1970s
Since the mid 1960s, when Woodland School art became widely accepted, contemporary Aboriginal artists have faced many challenges their non-Aboriginal counterparts have not. From lack of resources, to limited recognition and preconceived notions, they are constantly navigating between artistic practice and cultural expectations. For establishing and established Manitoba artists Kale Bonham, Helen Madelaine, Leah Fontaine, Riel Benn and KC Adams, one recurring obstacle they face are the existing stereotypes about Aboriginal artists.
In North America, stereotypes have played a key role in the settlement of the west, as the staged photography of Edward Curtis, and postcards portraying a romantic, bountiful west enticed settlers. Hollywood Cowboy and Indian flicks and dime store novels contributed to the bounty, as interpretations of First Peoples as submissive, savage, mythical, and sexual objects entered North American popular culture. For contemporary artists, misconceptions about the Woodland School Arts movement also prove to be problematic.
In Manitoba, the legacy left by the Professional Native Artists Inc, commonly known as the Woodland School Arts Movement is strong. The seven artists who belonged to the collective were Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez, Eddy Cobiness, and Alex Janvier. They were successful in having their voices heard and talents acknowledged at a time when newly formed Aboriginal rights organizations, like the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood or Manitoba Metis Federation were receiving much needed attention.
The group worked out of Daphne Odjig’s commercial gallery in Winnipeg from the mid-60s to the early 70s. They were collectively concerned with copyright issues, art markets, resources to other Aboriginal artists and the politics of the art world at the time. Their diverse contemporary art visually interpreted oral stories, post-contact history, and world views through painted imagery of stylized animals, spirits, and landscapes. It became recognized in Aboriginal communities as a vital expression of Aboriginality. As well, this movement caused excitement on the Canadian art scene, and a market developed, blazing trails for those who came after.
Due to the wild imaginations of a non-Aboriginal audience, Woodland School artists were often romanticized to be the survivors or revivers of a great and noble past. Their work was treated as ethnographic objects and at times, Woodland School artists received more recognition from history museums than from contemporary art galleries. According to curator and writer Barry Ace, Norval Morriseau, who is considered the Grandfather of Woodland School Art, was involved in creating the mythic construction of himself as a contemporary primitive. He suggests that this construct “has not only served as a mask to shelter undesirable influences of modernity, but also as a strategic marketing ploy that was incredibly successful in stimulating a lucrative art buying public, by offering them a rare opportunity to own a fragmentary glimpse of a mythical past.” This does not suggest that Morrisseau was not genuine about following spiritual doctrine, but that he chose to self-define in a way that gained him access to galleries, agents, and buyers. He was both role model and role-player.
Ideas about what contemporary art is within Aboriginal communities became concreted to Woodland style art. Curator Lee-Ann Martin asserts that art existed in Aboriginal communities historically, but it “was framed, integrated, and discussed in ways that differ greatly from Western categorizations. Contexts for art were, and are, those of the everyday and of the religious, of the celebratory and of the ceremonial.” Even though Woodland School art was, and is contemporary art, to many First Peoples, it is considered traditional art, because there are concepts that are inspired by spirituality and traditional cultural practice. This makes it emblematic of honouring the past, and affirming our presence. For artists who emerged later and whose work sways from this movement, their own communities often do not respond with as much enthusiasm, even if their work reflects their Aboriginality.
A side effect has been the expectation placed on contemporary artists to be an authority on Aboriginal issues, spiritually enlightened, keepers of the past, or paint in the style of Woodland School artists. Over forty years after the seven Woodland School artists made their mark, artists are at times still located as “Indian artist.” Riel Benn, a painter living and working in Birdtail Sioux is one example. Benn was quite young when his talents became recognized with Magazine Series. These works placed Aboriginal historic leaders on the covers of pop cultural magazines, such as People or Time. The paintings were a reaction to the tragic death of his brother, but were mostly celebrated because of the cultural commentary, Benn exemplifying the tenacity of youth, and his natural talent.
Benn exists in a dichotomy between private artistic process and the public presentation of himself and his work. In the confines of his home where he creates, Benn does not ponder whether his subject matter is culturally appropriate or how to deal with public perceptions. In the public sphere, Benn faces the pressures of being a recognized youth role model, and the expectations that go with that title. He also admits to a bit of role-playing initially in his career (at the urging of managers or curators) for the sake of his audience and potential buyers. In order to “not be rude” or burst peoples romantic bubbles, Benn rarely challenged the expectations of him being spiritual, the voice of the youth, or an authority on all Aboriginal issues. This exemplifies how stereotypes or cultural expectations can be silencing.
Recently, Benn paints what he defines as “humorous and human situations… I focus on screwed up things.” The Best Man series is an example. These painted narratives contain his alter ego, the eccentric, cynical Best Man. They reflect upon Benn’s fascination with celibacy while dealing with ignorance, loneliness and jealousy at the same time. The work only marginally references Benn’s cultural background, but focuses on internal dialogues that are relatable to many. With this work, it is impossible to locate him as an “Indian artist.” He is more role model than role-player.
According to Australian artist Jacqui Katona, examining the land is reflective of Aboriginal art (Aboriginal art, not “Indian art.”). She suggests, “Our land cannot be transformed as a resource, our land is part of our family, it reflects our relationships with each other, it connects our souls, it feels as we do and it grieves – as we do – when our connection with it is impaired. These are the issues which are central to Aboriginal art.” Helen Madelaine, a painter living and working in Brandon, Manitoba, concurs with Katona. She creates abstract paintings that reflect a spiritual connection to the land, and what she considers spiritual dreams.
A soft spoken yet politically driven woman, Madelaine is concerned with our loss of connection to the land. She suggests, “Our connection to the land is being lost, because of what is considered progress…On reserves, there is no room to move. You can’t hunt too far off the reserve, because if you go too far, then you’re on white man’s land.” Madelaine’s vibrant paintings merge Aboriginal figures or animals with landscapes, reminding viewers of how integrated the land and beings should be, and the disconnect that exists.
Despite her subject matter being culturally relevant, Madelaine’s abstract translations of the land do not fit the Woodland Style model. Getting support for her work and being taken seriously as an artist has thus been challenging. As well, living in rural Brandon means missed opportunities that one would find in larger cities like Winnipeg. Although she studied Fine Arts at Brandon University, Madelaine is now studying Community Development, with the hope to use art as a healing tool with her people. She suggests that by adding it to an already accepted field, those who do not value contemporary art in her communities may recognize its’ importance.
Leah Fontaine, an artist based out of Winnipeg, also references spirituality in her work, and utilizes art for community development purposes. She has worked on a variety of projects that promote mental health awareness, suicide prevention, and women’s rights. Fontaine explores cultural ritual, and how we connect with our natural environment. Fontaine sights residential school as one of the causes for the lost connection with nature, as well as technological progress. In the mixed media series Elements (2004), she digitally merges photographs taken from a “ceremonial environment” with imagery from nature to represent the four elements. She ironically utilizes computer technology, something that has removed us from nature, to reconnect with land and spirit.
Fontaine suggests that she is “a walking political statement in two categories. First, I am a First Nations person and secondly, I am a woman. This to most could be two strikes, but I look at it as two pulses.” Since the early 80s, artists like Robert Houle, Edward Poitras, and Joane Cardinal Schubert continued with the momentum initiated by the Woodland School artists, and made artwork that put a spotlight on the impact of colonization. However, theirs was not as subtle as the work Odjig, Janvier, and Morrisseau made that reflected post-contact history. Creating work that makes strong cultural and political statements, these artists and their peers blazed their own trails for artists to gain access to fine arts training, funding bodies and art galleries. In a contemporary artistic milieu, art that reflects cultural and political concerns is considered the accepted norm.
Fontaine’s piece Five Bucks, Five Bucks, Five Bucks, Five Bucks (2004) overtly exemplifies her political consciousness. Treaty cards are an annoyance that drastically altered the existence of many Aboriginal communities. They carry stigmas of being wards of the state, or misunderstood to be a privilege – some lottery win for access to “government hand-outs”. Fontaine, tired of enduring a government that feels free to label, created her own version of treaty cards for Euro-Canadians. With a wry sense of humour, she bestows the honour of a treaty card upon non-aboriginal viewers, showing them how it feels to be labeled. Fontaines’ work, whether it reflects her political consciousness or not, exemplifies the impacts made by Woodland School artists and those who began creating very politically charged artwork in the early 80s.
Winnipeg based artist Kale Bonham, a recent BFA graduate from the University of Manitoba, has felt the pressure to paint in the Woodland style, and create art that is overtly politically-charged. At this point, she is interested in neither. Bonham paints twisted narratives with cartoon-like animals and women’s faces that are reminiscent of characters one might find in an animated film. She asserts, “My ‘Aboriginal-ness’ is not the focus of who I am as an artist. In the past I felt pressure to address my ‘Aboriginal-ness’ in my artwork so I made an effort to.”
An example is The Tortoise and the Hair. Against a ready-made background a feather wearing turtle wearily jumps rope. Two possibly intoxicated bunnies hold the ends of the rope gleefully enjoying their role of making the turtle jump. This piece convincingly exposes the pressure to role-play –to be at the mercy of others when deciding what to create. It seeps frustration about cultural stereotypes and artistic expectations. Bonham, who has moved away from allowing cultural pressure to dictate her work, states, “I don’t make that effort anymore. I think that side will come out by itself, whether consciously or not.”
Winnipeg artist KC Adams can relate to Bonham in feeling pressure to create culturally themed artwork. Adams works with a wide range of mediums, including photography, installation, and performance. While studying fine arts, Adams “faced stereotypes from both students and teachers, many of whom viewed me either as the romantic Indian Princess or the mythical Noble Savage. Not only was I considered an exotic beauty; I was elevated to a sphere of goodness and believed to be possessed of a spiritual connection to the land, and my work was often subjected to these romantic stereotypes during critiques.” At the beginning of her professional career, Adams also endured assumptions that she was an authority on Aboriginal issues, and pressure to create artwork with Aboriginal content. Despite this, Adams refused to conform.
It’s only been in the last few years that Adam has chosen to explore her cultural identity on her own accord. Cyborg Hybrids (2003-2006) is a photo series that challenges stereotypical views towards mixed race categorization, examines the relationship between nature and technology, and explores concepts of identity and community. Adams presents artists of Aboriginal and European ancestry that are forward thinkers and plugged in with technology. They are wearing beaded slogans on white t-shirts illustrating common Aboriginal stereotypes, such as “Authority on all Aboriginal Issues”, or “Dirty Little Indian”. The defiant expressions of the artists in the air-brushed glamour shots challenge viewers to culturally locate them. These artists do not allow the slogans on their t-shirts to define them, and their captured strength exposes the absurdity of common stereotypes. Adams successfully challenges the stereotypes that Woodland School Artists first endured and that have continued for those who came after. Cyborg Hybrids becomes an opportunity for contemporary artists to address them, and move forward without them impacting their art or everyday lives.
When Goyce Kakegamic asserted in the late 1970s that he was an “artist who happened to be Indian”, instead of an “Indian artist”, he was defying the box artists with Aboriginal ancestry were put into, and foreshadowing future struggles for artists to come. Kakegamic reacted to peoples’ romantic ideas of him as an artist, while trying to be recognized as a contemporary artist. Artists like Benn, Madelaine, Fontaine, Bonham and Adams still navigate within and around these definitions, which can impact their art, and viewer reactions.
This is not to say however, that any categorizing or connecting to their culture is viewed as restrictive. All five artists affirm that they are artists first who happen to be Aboriginal. Their cultures impact their work whether it is about the loss of connection to nature, feelings of isolation, the impact of government policies, or stereotypes about Aboriginal art. Their work and experiences affirms that culture is inherent within us, and can be shaped in a variety of ways.
Although responses to Woodland School Art has dictated to an extent how they are perceived, the strong legacy left by this movement, has given artists many opportunities they would otherwise not have had. As Joane Cardinal- Schubert asserts, “Aboriginal artists in this country, in particular, have been the first liners; their hard work and dedication and commitment have made a difference. They have carried the voices of the ancestors forward, acknowledging and demonstrating a cultural continuum, unknown to others, that is not ‘lost’.” Some struggles continue, but new ways to face them are constantly found, making the road ahead layered with new awareness, and privilege to create, and the freedom to be artists who happen to be Aboriginal.