The Canadian Art Database

Clara Hargittay [in conversation with Robert Houle]

The Struggle Against Cultural Apartheid (1988)

Muse, Autumn 1988
[ 2,480 words ]

One summer morning in 1980, Robert Houle, a Native Canadian of Saulteaux Ojibwa heritage, walked into the display area of North American Indian artifacts at the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization). Such a visit to the Victoria Memorial Building in Ottawa by the young curator of contemporary Indian art at the museum was not in itself unusual, except, that morning he brought along an artists' sketchpad and lingered longer than was his custom. He spent most of the day sketching in the gallery: he drew a parfleche, a warrior staff and several other artifacts in the display cases. That afternoon, returning to his office, Robert Houle handed in his resignation.

CLARA HARGITTAY: Can you recall what went through your mind that day? What was the reason that compelled you to resign such a challenging position, in fact, the first curatorial position for contemporary Indian art at the museum, if not in the whole country?

ROBERT HOULE: It was not a sudden decision. I thought about it very carefully for almost a year. But I found it intellectually impossible to stay. It became clear that my hands were tied, and that no matter what I did nothing was going to make any difference or change the entrenched attitudes towards contemporary Native art at the museum. I became passionately involved with the issues surrounding contemporary Native expression, but, that day I realized that, for me, perhaps the best way to promote this cause was not as a curator, but as an artist. To answer your first question, when I was standing in that gallery surrounded by all those objects, presented in a context that isolated them from life and reality, all I could think of was that I wanted to liberate them. How do I do that? I am leaving. What can I do to breathe life into them, to show that they still matter? In desperation I sketched these lifeless objects, and decided that this would be my project for the next little while. Up until last year I concentrated on making parfleches and warrior staffs, trying to rehabilitate those objects I left behind.

Hargittay: You were hired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) in 1977 as curator of contemporary Indian art. The fact that this major national institution made the commitment to create such a position was significant at the time and must have been encouraging in itself. What went wrong?

Houle: Yes, it was very exciting. It was a challenging new position. I was the first one to hold it. We were basically starting from scratch. Despite the limited budget I was optimistic. At that time I did not know much about Indian art, I did not yet see it as a community, as a world unto itself. I began to familiarize myself with the subject, travelled a lot, wrote hundreds of letters, and made every effort to meet as many artists as possible. Then slowly I began to see many odd things at the museum. I began to realize that the people who worked there, from the director down, did not see these works as standing on their own merit at all. They were seen as extensions of the ethnological collections, without any appreciation of their esthetic values. I was also astonished by the naiveté with which many of the ethnologists approached contemporary art. And I was taken aback by the sheer horror these people expressed when I bought a beautiful Bob Boyer painting or some excellent pieces by Carl Beam. But, I think what really hit me was when I began to see how they were handling Northwest Coast art. I approached Northwest Coast art with the idea of allowing artists to try new mediums and start manipulating, stretching some of the conventional design elements that they use in such strict formalism. I was not against tradition, but I felt that this artistic tradition was sophisticated enough and strong enough that it could be challenged. At this point I came to be seen as a renegade. I had my hand slapped very gently for suggesting such heresies and I was pushed away from that field. I realized then, that the museum had other priorities when it came to contemporary Native art. They mouthed the words 'contemporary Native art' but did not deal with it intellectually, simply because, the word Native made its contemporaneity somehow suspect.

Hargittay: Are you hopeful that, with the spectacular expansion and its magnificent new building, the CMC will also change its attitude towards contemporary Native art?

Houle: Not one bit. From what I've heard its going to be some kind of Disneyland. They are going to bring in Native people fully dressed in traditional costumes and act out scenes from the old way of life. The CMC will be able to show more of its vast collections, and the roof will not leak in the storage vaults, but I am sceptical about any meaningful change toward contemporary works. To answer you more directly: the budget for acquisitions of contemporary Indian art has not increased at the museum, in fact it has been frozen for two or three years if I am correct. Oh, there is a lot of contemporary material being collected, particularly Northwest Coast materials, but let's call them just that. They are artifacts, echoes of old traditional pieces. Some are more exquisitely done, but they are copies nonetheless. The CMC does not own any contemporary Native art installations.

Hargittay: In recent years the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) began to acquire, in a modest way, works by contemporary Native artists. Is this perhaps the answer? Are you encouraged by that?

Houle: Not really, I'll tell you why. First of all it is not their making. They were forced into this position. The issue is also political. Can aboriginal Canada be given a special status next to works from English and French Canada? Is the NGC in the business of collecting art, or is it in the business of collecting art with adjectives before it? The issue becomes political because historically Native affairs have always been handled by a separate federal department jurisdiction.

Hargittay: Who must then shoulder the responsibilities for the lack of cultural policies regarding the Native community? Are the national museums to blame?

Houle: The problem is not with the museums. The CMC will continue to expertly analyze the material cultures it is interested in. The NGC does an excellent job in collecting and interpreting art in general. When we are talking about Native art we are talking about art that is created by Native people and it becomes the affair of the Native community. The government department that is responsible for that is Indian and Northern Affairs. That is the target. That department failed to come up with a policy to deal with contemporary Native culture.

Hargittay: It is well known that Indian and Northern Affairs have been collecting contemporary Native art more or less indiscriminately since 1966. They amassed two huge collections of Inuit and Indian art that vary from very good quality to some appallingly poor examples. It is rumoured that Indian and Northern Affairs intends to transfer these collections to the CMC. How do you feel about such a move?

Houle: It angers me, but it does not surprise me. It is a well known fact that Indian and Northern Affairs has been looking for ways to relinquish political and administrative responsibilities regarding the support of Native artists. Their excuse for not dealing professionally with the collections has always been that as a government department they do not have the mandate from the Treasury Board to collect art. This ill-conceived argument goes directly against their mandate and responsibilities stated in the Indian Act, which makes Indian and Northern Affairs the administrator of moneys collected or held on behalf of individual Indians or bands. Being aware of the mandate of the CMC, which was clearly spelled out in the 1951 Massey-Levesque Report, these transfers will only reinforce what the Applebaum-Hebert Commission Report in 1982 called the 'unfortunate and unnecessary connotation that works of contemporary Native art are understood best as artifacts, and somehow are neither contemporary nor art.'* In such a context the museum can only be thought of as a reservation guided by cultural apartheid.

On a more personal note, as a practising and exhibiting artist I'm enraged and saddened by the thought that my work at the museum will be curated simply as material culture and not as a legitimate contemporary work of art, and public perception of it will be labelled as ethnic. As always it is the artist who suffers as a result of this political football. The quality of contemporary Native art production has been going downhill for years, and only Indian and Northern Affairs can be blamed for that. They have been denying Native artists the opportunity to show their work in serious professional contexts. They exhibit the collections in shopping malls or use them as propaganda machines. Most of the time the artists do not receive hanging fees, nor are they notified about exhibitions, whether in Germany, the U.S., or anywhere else.

Hargittay: In 1982, on the occasion of the World Assembly of First Nations in Regina, you briefly returned to curating with the exhibition, New Work by a New Generation at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery. Six years later that excellent, radically different show still serves as an exemplary model for the presentation of contemporary Native art. What were the most important criteria for your selections?

Houle: I was simply guided by the quality of the work. All of the artists were professionals with legitimate fine art backgrounds. They were artists of North American Indian ancestry who were applying contemporary art concepts and styles to their work, but retained either imagistical or philosophical connections to their personal heritage. The inclusion of equal numbers of Canadians and Americans also acknowledged the irrelevance of political boundaries in the Amerindian context. In some instances artists were using contemporary materials with Amerindian content. At other times traditional materials were used in a thoroughly contemporary way informed with the knowledge of current events and ideas. But the most important and most revealing factor was how the old Native people responded to these contemporary works, how they recognized the significance of the given juxtapositions. This is what the White administrators of our cultural heritage seem to forget, that we are still living these cultures. But somehow we are not allowed to come into the 20th century. We are not allowed to interpret our own reality, the way our communities respond to everyday life. We are regarded as living museum pieces. This is perpetuated by even the most lavish, most knowledgeable, professional representations of our cultural heritage. Neither the From the Four Quarters exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 1984, nor The Spirit Sings at the Glenbow Museum earlier this year, made even the slightest reference to things past the prereservation era. To my knowledge these institutions did not involve Native people as consultants, as resource people when assembling these exhibitions. Unfortunately most people who work with these materials have very little contact with the Native community. At the same time, many anthropological dissertations are so misinformed, you have to wonder. Why is it that time and time again the opportunity is lost to show that these cultures still exist — that those wonderful objects in those exhibitions still speak to us, they still have power, we still respond to them? Instead the White man seems to be saying 'these people have existed. We conquered them. There are no more Indians.' This is why I don't blame the Lubicon for using The Spirit Sings the way they did. They have a legitimate case. So they used this exhibition to have their voice heard, and why not?

Hargittay: Without absolving the national museums from their responsibilities regarding the collecting and presentation of historical and contemporary Native art, it is obvious that the complex problems surrounding the issue reach far beyond the museum community and stem from the fundamental failure of our society to integrate the Native population into the fabric of contemporary Canadian life. What can the museums do?

Houle: Art museums and cultural institutions can do a great deal. They can help by allowing Native artists to express themselves, to make their voices heard, to have their work presented in serious, professional contexts, and to encourage young creative talent. This is the only hope for our cultures to survive. Our languages are disappearing; we are on the bottom of the economic heap; we have the highest of everything: suicide, alcoholism, disease, violence. Art has the capacity to lift people's spirits. Culture is an essential ingredient to any improvement in social and economic conditions. For that reason the special status of Native peoples must be acknowledged and protected not only in a constitutional but also in a cultural context. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Government of Canada to implement a cultural policy that has the capacity to deal with the issues of heritage, culture change, and the realities of the 1980s as they impact on the Native community. There has been some progress made over the last few years and a few smaller galleries have done some enlightened work in curating and interpreting contemporary Native art. While their contributions are important, by the nature of geographic location and size, their visibility and effectiveness is unfortunately limited. As an immediate measure, I would like to see Indian and Northern Affairs make the necessary funds available to the NGC for the purpose of hiring professional staff to help sort out the sorry mess of the collections of Indian and Northern Affairs. Those collections belong to the Native people of Canada and thus remain the responsibility of Indian and Northern Affairs. The department must put its house in order and get on with the job it was entrusted to do.

*Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, (Applebaum-Hébert Report), Supply and Services Canada, Ottawa, 1982, p. 149.

Text: ©Clara Hargittay. All rights reserved.

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