Guide to Touring: Early Days: Indigenous Art from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Walkthrough Notes
Dewayne Matthews

These notes reflect my own ideas and understandings and not those of the Heard Museum or Guild. Please let me know immediately of any errors or misconceptions you see, plus any corrections, suggestions, additional information or insights you can share. 

What is the exhibit? Early Days is an overview of art by Indigenous artists from (as Canadians say) sea to sea to sea. The exhibit includes contemporary art by emerging artists, work by key figures in the history of Canadian and indigenous art, and pieces produced as early as the 18th century. The works are from the permanent collection of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection located just north of Toronto.

What is the exhibit about? According to Sarah Milroy and Bonnie Divine, curators of the exhibit, much of the art can be thought of as autobiographical. They explained that many indigenous artists (like all artists) use their art to explore who they are, where they come from, and what is important to them. Several of the younger artists come from mixed indigenous and European (settler) backgrounds and are explicitly exploring their indigenous roots through their art. But even those artists who lived their entire lives in traditional environments lived though times of great change, including severe trauma, in which indigenous identity had to be reinterpreted and redefined. All this is reflected in the art.

What is the story that exhibit tells? In her curator’s walkthrough, Bonnie Devine made the exhibit come alive by telling stories about the artists. I would encourage all guides to identify works that speak to them, do a little research on the artists, and find good stories to tell. Here are some of mine.

How will you tour the exhibit? Thanks for asking! An excellent place to begin is with Headdress—Shadae, the photo at the entrance by Dana Claxton, which shows a woman completely obscured by a spectacular array of beads and other cultural items. Devine said that Claxton told her she was inspired to produce the series (one of five similar works) by the experience of wearing a necklace to a public event. A non-indigenous woman came up to her and gushed about how beautiful the necklace was and then without asking reached in to pick it up and look at it. Claxton said the experience made her wonder if the woman even recognized her as a person or whether she thought she was just another interesting artifact. The photo shows the beautiful items collected by this woman named Shadae, but since her face is obscured one can’t help but wonder who she is. In an interesting sidenote, Claxton’s family are Lakota descendants of Sitting Bull’s followers who evaded the US Amy and escaped into Canada in 1876 after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Next, it’s hard to overlook the provocative pieces by Kent Monkman, and Wedding at Sodom is classic Monkman. He uses classic tropes of North American history—in this case, the rendezvous that took place in the West in the 1800s to—in his words—“challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples.”

Alex Janvier, a Dene artist from northern Alberta, is one of the most famous and influential indigenous artists from Canada. He is represented by two works: The Doggone Weakbacks and The Bureaucratic Supremist which are both abstract compositions of airy lines and shapes that are reminiscent of aerial photographs or maps. Like many of his generation, he was forced to attend boarding schools, which was a traumatic experience for him. However, one art teacher recognized his talent and encouraged him to paint. Being abstract, his paintings were recognized by some but dismissed by many others as not being authentically indigenous. But in much the same way as Oscar Howe, Janvier always insisted that his art was firmly based in traditional Dene imagery and reflected a uniquely Dene worldview.

Continuing on through the front room, we come to another young artist, Nadia Myre. She is Algonquin from Quebec through her mother and French Canadian through her father, and she explores this complex background through her work. The Scar Paintings on the wall are part of a large body of work she did over several years called The Scar Project. In that project, she invited people to embroider a scar on a small square canvas and then write the story of what it represents. Over a ten year period, The Scar Project produced over 1,400 canvases and stories.

On a trip to London, Myre went “mudlarking” on the Thames and found a large number of clay pipe stems that had been tossed overboard by sailors in the 16th and 17th centuries. She realized that many of those sailors voyaged to North America, and further that the pipes were used to smoke tobacco, a New World product. The pipestems looked like clay beads, which inspired her to make Untitled (Study for Country Where Beavers, Deers, Elks and Such Beasts Keep), which explores the intersection between European and indigenous North American worlds. In it, she used the pipe-like beads to make a wampum belt, which were often made to record agreements between indigenous groups or between indigenous peoples and Europeans.

Caroline Monnet is a Franch and Algonquin sculptor, filmmaker, and visual artist who did a series of works using construction materials to call attention to the poor quality of housing on Native reserves across Canada. The piece in the exhibit is titled We Come in Numbers, and is made from black Tyvek, a building material used in roofs as a replacement for tarpaper. In other words, it quite literally suggests a tarpaper shack. But the piece is also quite delicate and elegant in terms of texture and form, which gives it a somewhat hopeful feel as well. Another of Monnet’s pieces (not in this exhibit) made of building materials is titled We Shape Our Homes and Then Our Homes Shape Us, which is taken from a quote by Winston Churchill and captures this idea that better physical spaces can be part of healing and rebuilding lives. Here is a quote from Monnet: “Sometimes people ask me, how is my work Indigenous? I like that I can contribute to Indigenous esthetics without being overtly culturally specific. The thematics, concerns, research are rooted in Indigenous identity and social context, therefore the work is Indigenous.”

Going into the next room, we come a large number of works by Norval Morrisseau, another of the seminal indigenous artists in Canadian history. Morrisseau was Ojibwa (Anishinaabe), and as was traditional among the Anishinaabe, was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a traditional medicine man and knowledge keeper who taught him the stories and legends of his people, while his grandmother was a devout Catholic. Throughout his life, his art had a focus on spirituality and mysticism. He was sent to boarding school at the age of eight, where he was physically and sexually abused. At the age of 10, he left school for good and worked odd jobs, but continued learning from elders and spent time alone drawing, including things he had seen in visions. He was discouraged in this by some in his community, but he continued.

His Self Portrait reflects many of these themes. He portrays himself as a shaman, which is one way he thought of himself.  The quote by Morrisseau on the label copy shows how he saw his art in some ways as an extension of his work as a healer. As he said, “All my painting and drawing is really a continuation of the shaman’s scrolls.” He also said, “These paintings only remind you that you’re an Indian. Inside somewhere, we’re all Indians, So now when I befriend you, I’m trying to get the best Indian, bring out that Indianness in you to make you think that everything is sacred.”

The next room has a fine collection of Pacific Northwest art, including many beautiful older pieces and three spectacular masks by Henry Speck, Jr. (There are also two paintings by his father, Henry Speck, Sr..) Hank Speck lives on an island off the north end of Vancouver Island. The masks depict three stages of transformation of the Hamatsa raven and were designed to be used in ceremonies as well as displayed as works of art. A dancer himself, the masks are designed to be used—they are carefully engineered and lightweight. The beaks can be opened and shut by the dancer to make a loud clacking sound, which is part of the ceremony.

Downstairs is devoted to Inuit art, particularly drawing. Inuit drawing became an important art form after the success of the Cape Dorsett (now Kinngait) community of artists. Kinngait is a small community on Baffin Island north of Hudson’s Bay. Beginning in 1959, Kinngait Studios has issued a series of highly anticipated prints from local artists. The pieces on display are all original drawings made by artists from Kinngait and other Inuit communities in the Far North.

One such artist is Tim Pitsiulak, who is represented by five pieces. Pitsuliak was a hunter as well as accomplished artist, and inspired many younger artists by his approach to art and life. Tragically, he died at the age of 49 from what should have been a routine chest infection. His work shows incredible powers of observation, as well as a wide range of subject matter and styles. Iceberg Ice is one of a series of pieces he did shortly before his death.  Looking at it from across the room, it’s hard to believe it was executed with color pencils on black paper.

Also on display are four pieces by Annie Pootoogook. Rather then draw scenes of traditional life and nature (which the art market would probably have preferred), Pootoogook depicted the reality of everyday life in the arctic. The four pieces on display show pleasant scenes, among them Bringing Home Food in which family members bring home a freshly killed seal while the TV plays in the background. But she also drew work that showed other sides of her life, including suffering from domestic violence and addiction. In spite of her success and international fame as an artist, Pootoogook died at the age of 46 under what the police termed suspicious circumstances. The circumstances of her death were never adequately investigated or resolved.

Upstairs are several more pieces by women artists, including Vuntut Gwitchin artist Jeneen Frei Njootli. The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation is in northern Yukon and can only be reached by flying in, but the wider Gwitchen people extend across northern Canada and into Alaska. Njootli lives and works in Vancouver, and produces performance art, video, and installations as well as sculptural pieces like Ache. The piece is made from animal skins, wolf fur and a wolf paw, and ratchet straps. The whole thing has been dipped in concrete. What does it all mean? Who knows, but it is haunting and speaks to place and memory.

Some resources

Kent Monkman

Alex Janvier

Nadia Myre

Caroline Monnet

Norval Morisseau

Henry Speck Jr.

Tim Pitsiulak

Annie Pootoogook

Jeneen Frei Njootli