The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande

Native Art is Contemporary Art

From Balance: Art and Nature, Black Rose Books, Montréal, 1994.
New, updated edition now available from
[ 4,468 words ]

For the European artist and his North American counterpart in the mid-nineteenth century, nature was something infinite and mysterious, separate from man. The landscape literally had to fit the palette to be a worthy subject. The landscape, as idealized by the Romantic painters, fulfilled the Judeo-Christian mandate of revealing God's dominion over man and man's over the earth. Their clientele of nobility and nouveau riche industrialists preferred to see nature as a bountiful global estate presided over by man. When Eugene Delacroix painted The Natchez for the Paris Salon of 1835, he had never been to North America or seen an 'Indian'. Delacroix's painting was based on François-René de Chateaubriand's romantic novel, Atala (1801), about the tragic fate of native peoples which he wrote after a five month visit to America. A passage reads:

We are all that remain of the Natchez, when our nation had been massacred by the French to avenge their brothers...Man thou art but a passing thought, a grievous dream; thy life is all misfortune; only the sadness of thy soul and the unending melancholy of thy thought dignify thee. (1) 

Delacroix's The Natchez portrayed a native mother, father and child with all the humanistic bathos of Rousseau's noble savage, unencumbered by the turmoil of Europe's industrial revolution. The Romantics' appropriation of imagery that depicted the primitive cultures of the world as exotic, somehow more pure than their own, had little to do with genuine respect for those cultures. It was more of a genuflection devoted to reaffirming the colonizers' eurocentric mindset. As the filmmaker Loretta Todd stated in Notes on Appropriation:

The valorization of peripheral cultures is frequently undertaken through acts of cultural appropriation. In an extension of the concept of property and colonial conquest, the artists do not value or respect cultural difference, but instead seek to own difference, and with this ownership to increase their own worth. They become image barons, story conquistadors, and merchants of the exotic. (2) 

The itinerant Canadian painter Paul Kane became famous in Europe virtually overnight when an illustrated folio-style book of his travels and experiences among the native peoples. Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America was published in London in 1859. Kane portrayed natives with the endearing, detached eye of an anthropologist — hunting buffalo, or in their encampments, portaging a river, or in formal portraits — at the same time as they were being decimated, confined to territories and subjugated to colonial power. Kane's subjects were indigenes, not individuals.

For the native peoples, maligned by five hundred years of continuous cultural exploitation, their culture and art still have a sacred, soulful function. Eleonore Sioui Jikonsaseh of the Wendat nation expresses the native vision of the universe in her poem, The Huron are Rich (Oukihouen Wendat):

In the Amerindian
Are found
The tears, smiles, cries
Of the soul of Mother-Earth
For he was born of her —
Made fruitful by the sun —
Amid a rustling of the Spirit
Encircling his brothers
In his new birth

Until well into this century, the art of the First Nations of North America was a celebration of collective tribal culture and had little formal economic value. Native works were ephemeral creations meant to be used. With the passage of time they would eventually disintegrate and return to nature, to be recreated by a younger generation of artisans. Materials were an inviolable part of nature before and after transformation into art forms. Their limited availability made them all the more important.

The Tsimshian of the north-west coast used to create pairs of identical stone masks which fit on top of one another. While the inner mask had holes for the eyes to see through, the outer had none. It was as if one of the masks possessed the power of objective vision — of sight and memory — the other an inner vision — transformational and imaginative. The two fit together to become a material paraphrase for the power of human consciousness.

An art in apartheid or spiritual renaissance?

The spate of shows devoted to native art during 1992 in Canada has exposed the public to a new generation of native artists. These artists are active at a time when the art world is up in arms over questions about the meaning of art. And yet, as the dust begins to settle on these recent shows — Indigena at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Carl Beam's The Columbus Boat at The Power Plant in Toronto, The National Gallery's Land, Spirit, Power, and Pierre-Léon Tetreault's New Territories: 350-500 years after at Montréal's Maison de la culture — has our understanding of native culture truly changed? New native artists have certainly gone far beyond Mordecai Richler's description of an Innu family in The Incomparable Atuk, working furiously, carving out trinkets and trophies in their basement solely to sell to tourists. However, the feeling one has in witnessing the broad variety of installation work, paintings, sculpture, textual and video pieces, and photo-based work by the latest crop of native artists remains a duplicitous one. Canada's younger generation of native artists have gone through art college and university programmes and are well versed in the language of modernism. The cultural gap between our Western formalist traditions and the native tribal heritage has diminished, but at what cost? Many of the West's best artists — Andy Goldsworthy, Hamish Fulton, Ian Hamilton Finlay and David Nash — prefer to produce, document and exhibit their work outside the museum and gallery forum in order to avoid the pitfalls of formalism and to reflect a more open, interactive language for expressing the subject of nature as culture. Today's younger generation of native artists are working furiously to swim upstream and get into those same ideologically and historically hamstrung institutions.

Are we truly witnessing a rebirth, or merely a reformation of the meaning of native art and culture? Carl Beam, an Ojibway from Ontario, was the first contemporary native to have his work purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1986. His work, The North American Iceberg, was a caustic comment on the Art Gallery of Ontario's The European Iceberg show which brought the European trans-avant-garde to Canada. Beam states:

At the time I felt honoured, but I know I was used politically...Indian art that's made as Indian is racially motivated, and I just can't do that. My work is not made for Indian people but for thinking people. In the global and evolutionary scheme, the difference between humans is negligible...After 500 years, Ottawa isn't supporting native individuals with solo exhibits. The group show of Native art (Land, Spirit, Power at the National Gallery of Canada) is like art in apartheid. We're being kept in an artistic reserve, away from English and French culture. (4) 

Primitive art — a pretext for enhancing modernism?

As the Museum of Modern Art's (M.O.M.A.) Primitive Art show, curated by William Rubin in 1985, and the Centre Pompidou's more recent Les magiciens de la terre (1990) demonstrated, primitive art from all regions of the world is a precious commodity sought after by curators and museum directors alike. Primitive art — exhibited in the world's vanguard venues in blockbuster shows — fulfils a need that our own art cannot. It broadens the meaning of formalist history without actually revising or changing it. Primitive art thus becomes sine qua non — just another decontextualized museological object designed to demonstrate the power of modernism, not vice versa. In M.O.M.A.'S Primitive Art show, primitive became a pretext for enhancing modernism at the expense of primitive culture. Western artists were presented in the guise of seers, adding something extra to the equation of primitivism. In the massive two-volume catalogue that accompanied the show, William Rubin juxtaposed Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror (1932) with a west-coast Kwakiuti mask. He inferred that Picasso's poetic license, his modernist interpretation, was evidence of a superior 'instinctual' capacity to have the same creative insights as a heretofore unknown native carver in painting a split mask form. Rubin states: 'Picasso could almost certainly never have seen a "sliced" mask like the one we reproduce, but it nonetheless points up the affinity of his poetic thoughts to the mythic universals that the tribal objects illustrate.' (5)  In Art & Otherness Thomas McEvilly suggests otherwise:

But most of the world's mythological iconographies have the image of the face with light and dark halves. Picasso has surely encountered this common motif in a variety of forms — as the alchemical Androgyne, for example. There is, in other words, no particular reason to connect his Girl Before a Mirror with Kwakiuti masks, except for the sake of exhibition. (6) 

This perspicacious kind of tinkering in art history couches a cultural bias in vague, unproven comparative analyses between works from different times and places, decontextualizing culture.

To the advantage of art history and the detriment of anthropology, Les Magiciens de la Terre, exhibited at France's flagship museum the Beaubourg in Paris, literally juxtaposed contemporary works from underdeveloped countries alongside the West's postmodern stars, providing a postcolonial perspective on both. While works from marginal cultures were expansive in their thematic and material approach, the Western superstars, including Canada's own Genevieve Cadieux, Barbara Steinman, Jeff Wall and John Massey, with the advantage of their greater global knowledge of art were given top billing. Primitive or tribal ideas could be appropriated by the Western artists because they had greater access to historical and contemporary examples of 'primitive' stereotypes. Third-world artists simply created works as a response to their indigenous culture. Our aesthetic traditions are so exhausted by materialism that today's curators must look beyond the West's narrow aesthetic traditions in order to legitimate an absence of spiritual values. North American native art has likewise become a subject for Canada's contemporary curators by default. Because it is not modern in formal art history terms, native art becomes contemporized by comparison with Western modernism. Art with a small a — Native with a capital N.

Canada's own recent shows presented works by natives as art with a small a and native with a capital N. The Indigena show at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull was a predictably orchestrated assault on traditional ethnographic attitudes to native art by the Museum's curators. Comprised of works by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Jane-Ash Poitras, Domingo Cisneros, Lance Belanger, Eric Robertson, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Mike MacDonald and Carl Beam, the show presented a kaleidoscope of politically and historically engagé works by natives — genre postmodern. Traditional native art got a short shrift. There were no works by Norval Morriseau, Kenojuak or Bill Reid. Political and cultural truisms of the postmodern variety were given the most attention. Some luminaries of the new conservative curatorial ethic such as Jean Fisher feel free to say that:

It must be admitted from the outset that Native Americans are peoples about whom we can have nothing to say that is not totally fatally contaminated by Eurocentric patterns of thinking. The vast body of 'objective' data, scientific or literary, that purports to evidence indigenous Americans almost invariably constitutes a mirrored reflection of our own psychic demons instead. For 'knowledge' is a matter of interpretation, which is in turn a property of the subject who assumes it, not of the object itself. (7) 

However, they offer few solutions for the native and non-native cultural impasse but politics with a capital P. While natives may occupy curatorial positions at the Museum of Civilization, how many curate at M.O.M.A. or the National Gallery of Canada? Instead of gaining greater insight into the new generation of native artist's links with their predecessors, Indigena set them apart from their native cultural context and put into the ahistorical box of modernist aesthetics — the non-native paradigm of formal history that drives our museums. If belief structures must indeed be political, then we must not forget that the basis of Western politics is no longer culture, but our economic structures. As such, the Indigena show read like a postmodern parable on post-colonial and post-native America.

In Indigena, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun's near-surrealist Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky (1990) combines fluorescent and bright, unnatural colours with Coast Salish design motifs embedded in the mountain background of a three dimensional landscape scene. A skeletal caricature of a native person looks on in an otherwise empty foreground. To the right, two men in white lab coats have emerged from a hole in the earth to stand precariously on a quasi-mechanical contraption. They are trying to replace a hole in the sky with a patch of blue. Like repairmen for God, these ludicrous scientists are a symptom of a rational, technocratic society whose reasoned efforts to solve problems inevitably create a new found set of problems.

Joane Cardinal-Schubert is an Alberta-based artist whose work inadvertently questions our culture's need to appropriate primitive and third world culture into our art, music, theatre and writing. She presented an installation piece for Indigena titled The Earth Belongs to Everyone II (1992). Expressing her belief that all specific cultures must strive to maintain their own distinct identities independent of economic tautologies, the piece alludes to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Cardinal-Schubert's hybrid narrative on this tragedy is illustrated by a Utopic landscape whose skies are engulfed in flames, encased in an artificial dome of blue sky. The four painted plaster 'stones', superstitious talismans or site specific markers that support the main canvas, make this appear an endemic, not a mediatic experience. A second canvas on the floor adjacent to the main wall piece reverses the order of sky and earth present in the main piece.

Eric Robertson's superbly crafted copper ceremonial hats and surveyor's measuring table in the Indigena show were an aesthetically readable recipe for our historic malaise of human cultural and resource exploitation. A force de Terre 1 (1991), Domingo Cisneros's installation was created from the hides and bones of animals he hunts for food near his home in Québec. Hanging from rusting chains and sitting like carcasses on the floor, these remnants project an unsettling energy, a ritualized representation of the endless cycle of life and death. Jane Ash-Poitras, a Cree from Fort Chipewyan in Northern Alberta hurls a postmodern mix of media symbols, painted slogans, pictographic animal representations and abstraction at us in a pot pourri of half-baked styles and incanted political redundancies that are as didactic and copious as they are schooled in the white culture's formalist language of art. Lance Belanger's Lithic Spheres (1991) — an agglomeration of mysterious gold and silver balls placed within a dissembled, gilded picture frame — is a haunting, yet beautifully poignant work. The exhibit recalls the mysterious lithic spheres found in the burial sites of the Taino people from Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic. The Taino were decimated through starvation, genocide and slavery within fifty years of contact with European culture. Lithic Spheres becomes a two-fold comment on the European colonizer's so-called Romantic sensibility in art and their utterly duplicitous insensitivity to the culture of the indigenous Taino peoples — one of the best works exhibited at Indigena.

Pierre-Léon Tétreault's New Territoires: 350 / 500 years after, exhibited in 1992 at the Strathearn Centre, Loto Quebec, and at four of Montréal's city-run Maisons de la Culture, was comprised of an eclectic mix of traditional and socially relevant works by forty-three Inuit and native artists from Québec, the United States and Mexico. It was the largest exhibition of contemporary Native Canadian artists ever shown. Born out of the ashes of the Oka crisis in Quebec, the event was a serious attempt to reestablish fragile links between native and non-native cultures in Canada. In the midst of the Canadian federal government's constitutional negotiations with native peoples over the right to self-government, the show's timing could not have been better. Though the quality of the works varied greatly, it provided an opportunity to see the very real discrepancies that exist between postmodern and tribal art together at one and the same place.

Peter Morgan's carvings in Nordic activities (1988) shown at the Strathearn Centre for the New Territories exhibit, represents the work of an Innu sculptor at one end of the intra-cultural spectrum, whose people have been in continuous contact with white culture for less than fifty years. Following the form of a set of caribou antlers, Morgan carves reliefs of birds, seals and traditional Innu spirits. His piece is an eloquent, passive interpretation of traditional Innu hunting and gathering culture. By way of contrast, the Apache artist Veran Pardeahtan's abstract triptych of triangles of green stitched canvas titled Self Portrait (1990) seem quintessentially postmodern. The only clue to this work actually being 'native' is a brightly coloured, traditional Apache baby blanket that hangs rolled up and suspended from a cloth loop below. For its formal, triangular composition and simple abstract presentation, Pardeahtan's work recalls the American abstract expressionist Barnett Newman's Jericho (1968-69). The relation is so similar that it causes us to reflect on the West's own abstract formalist traditions in art. Upon seeing an abstract work by an Apache — and being aware of Newman's paintings from the fifties and sixties — abstract expressionism seems less a modernist movement that broke from tradition, and more a cult that sought to recapture the sense of wholeness and spiritual unity that we still find in native cultural objects. While the abstract expressionists ritualized expressions were created for an exclusive elite of museum and business patrons, the traditional role of native art was to fulfil a symbolic function within a collective culture. In present-day terms, do Pardeahtan's works remain native when their purpose and function have changed, mostly intended for gallery and museum exhibition?

Ojibway artist Glenna Matoush's seventeen-foot high totem, Ain't our mother earth no more (1992) also exhibited in the New Territories show — covered in bright, painted canvas sections from top to bottom — is as physically and environmentally immediate as a Pollock painting. The way she works with materials, texture and colour combines the influence of traditional native crafts sensibility, with a sensitivity to colour, light and movement. Unlike Jackson Pollock's abstracts from the fifties, Matoush's art cannot be categorized as subjective or abstract, 'objective' or representational, and embraces an environmental reality. Her work is part of a tradition where working with materials in a creative way is inseparable from lifestyle. The modernist / postmodernist paradigm is averted completely.

Eric Robertson's Mo..ment (1992) presented in a subsequent show at C.I.R.C.A. in Montréal is a purely postmodern parody of the current political and cultural situation in Canada for First Nations peoples. All that remains in Robertson's deconstruction of a historic monument to Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve — the original founder of the city of Ville-Marie (as Montréal was originally called by the settlers) — is the pedestal and de Maisonneuve's boot. The tiny ship sailing off one of the pedestal's corners alludes to the flat earth theory of Christopher Columbus's era. Surrounding the work are four shoeshine boxes (functional sculpture), and pieces of slate with photo fragments of the original monument — obvious references to ongoing cultural oppression in a postcolonial era. America loves its Indians!

The most successful of all the native art shows in 1992, the National Gallery of Canada's Land, Spirit, Power, presented Native art as it should be presented: the best works by the best artists, yet nevertheless postmodernism reigned supreme. Dempsy Bob, a northern British Columbia native whose painted carvings use traditional native transformation symbols — raven, frog, wolf and man — continues to create works for his native friends, even though most of his pieces go to museums and collectors in the United States, Japan, England, Germany and Canada. His works are a response to the characteristics and feel of the wood he carves with. While Dempsy Bob's works are characterized by traditional motifs, he admits that each work must be original, a new form. The idea of simply recreating traditional motifs and symbols has been supplanted by the notion of originality — a Western conception. For one recent work titled Raven Panel (1989) he used a mirror, something a native would not traditionally have used for sculpture, for which he received some objections. His reply was that in the next century it will similarly be considered historic or traditional.

The lines between our own linear, historical archetypes of an art of progress and native people's eternal recreation of heritage are now blurring, and becoming supplanted by an interactive vision. Truman Lowe's Ottawa (1992) is as open in its approach as it is surprising for its economy of expression. The flow and flux of elongated bands of wood that move in undulations down a sloped wood construction recall the movement of water in a stream or a river. Beneath these saw cut pieces — and partially concealed beneath the support structure — are eight stripped tree limbs that hang upside down from eyelets.

In Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun's Inherent Rights, Vision Rights (1991-92), a virtual reality installation, the viewer wears an electronic helmet to see visual recreations of a native longhouse and a mask with a tear on a video screen. A control lever allows the viewer to move through the environment. Synthetic environmental sounds accompany the piece. Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds's Neuf Painting (1991) are interconnected areas of pure, bright colour whose jagged edges suggest the movement and the energy of plant and animal life. Contrasting these purely visual expressions of joy are paintings that link together word associations such as: 'Laterine Hats', 'Your Sport', 'Death From the Top', and 'Relocate Destroy'.

Jimmie Durham's eclectic brand of Cherokee postmodernism was exhibited at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in a show titled The Bishop's Moose and the Pinkerton Men (1991). The centrepiece of that show was a moose head Durham recovered from a trash heap near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York — purported to have been previously owned by the Bishop of the Cathedral. This 'trophy' had only one antler, the other consisted of plumbing pipes. Presented and poised on a constructed wooden scaffold, the moose alluded to a modernist desire to project a 'cultural' vision of nature. This wild animal, killed and then stuffed, exhibited and finally thrown out — this recuperated artifact — reified a colonial attitude to nature.

Never native in the sentimental or nostalgic sense of the word and always contextually current, Jimmie Durham's contribution to Land, Spirit, Power, titled Proceeding (1992), was made up of a series of loosely assembled plastic water pipes whose ends exposed a Duchampian mixture of incongruous, yet mysterious recuperated objects: a glove, bones, porcupine quills, a shoe, shovel, horn, hair and two plastic vanity mirrors. Durham explains:

I am a Cherokee artist who strives to make Cherokee art that is considered just as universal and without limits as the art of any white man is considered. The problem lies within this society's myopic vision of itself and what is universal. My Cherokee use of object, form, space and meaning is as deliberate, sophisticated and universal as are anyone's use of the tools. If I am able to see both Cherokee art and all other art as equally universal and valuable, and you are not, then we need to have a serious talk.  (8) 

For Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for Any Purpose (1992), Rebecca Belmore reconstructed the interior of a kitschy kitchen around which a variety of dilapidated chairs were arranged on a blue plywood floor with flower and leaf patterns sprayed onto it. In the earphones that accompany each chair we hear a native woman recounting her views of life in the community. James Luna's The Sacred Colours are Everywhere (1992) injected an element of Warholian humour into an otherwise serious show by presenting four sets of non-Native underwear in the traditionally sacred native colours on clothes hangers. The display had the distinct look of a Benneton advertisement gone awry. Among many other cultural extravaganzas, Luna's Take Your Picture with an Indian (1991) at the opening of the newly renovated Whitney Museum in New York, involved his wearing, in turn, street clothes, a breechcloth, and a 'war-dance' outfit. Visitors were invited to 'take your picture with an Indian' over the public address system. As Luna says, 'America loves its Indians' — and they did.

The art of the postmodern era perceives culture as something which can not be measured from within culture. Essentially subjectless and self-transcending, its paradoxical viewpoint mitigates against any belief in original culture and favours cultural relativism. Ron Hamilton, a Nuu-chah-nulth poet and artist clearly expresses the postmodern dilemma in native terms:

Lately the rule is, 'Don't interpret!'
It's all art now.
But that's an interpretation,
Not ours.

Postmodernism rejects beliefs in hierarchy, progress and the idea of a centre. As such, it rejects tribalism and cultural distinctions and denounces any real mythology in favour of a saccharine — all too accessible — aesthetic correctness. As Charlotte Townsend-Gault states in Kinds of Knowing, her essay on native cultural perspectives that accompanies the National Gallery of Canada's Land, Spirit, Power exhibition catalogue:

In the end, cultural difference is expressed not by attempting to find common ground, common words, common symbols across cultures. It is finally dignified by protecting all sides from zealous over-simplification, by acknowledging a final untranslatability of certain concepts and subtleties from one culture to another. Despite the immense generosity, the ethical injunction to share, and the holistic, animistic philosophies that are essential to aboriginal societies across North America, self-definitions rooted in cultural distinctiveness must retain their untranslatable difference. (10) 

From Balance: Art and Nature, Black Rose Books, Montréal, 1994.
New, updated edition now available from

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

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