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Clara Hargittay

Robert Houle: Identity and Multiplicity

from the catalogue for Real Fictions: Four Canadian Artists
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia
[ 1,586 words ]


Robert Houle is one of Canada's leading artists. As recently as ten years ago this statement probably would have read, 'Robert Houle is one of Canada's leading native artists.' The dropping of the native adjective in an international context is possible not because Houle abandoned his fundamental identification with his Plains Indian, Saulteux (Ojibwa) heritage in favour of increased participation in contemporary art discourse, on the contrary. What it does signal, however, is a confident artistic stance due to increasing national and international recognition. His identity as a treaty Indian is so secure, it can remain unsaid.

Artist, teacher, curator and political activist from the beginning of his career, and especially as curator of contemporary native art at the Museum of Man, (1)  Robert Houle was an outspoken critic of museum policies that treated the work of native artists first and foremost as material culture, and presented artefacts as sterile objects, denying their meaningful spiritual connection to living cultures. Following his resignation in 1980 from the Museum over these very issues, he aimed through his work to rehabilitate some of the powerful symbols of his native spiritual heritage, such as the parfleche (medicine bag used to carry sacred and personal objects) and warrior staff (sign of male masculinity). (2) 

When he began to paint seriously in the mid-197Os, Houle was attracted to the sublime, spiritual qualities that he discovered in the work of Mondrian and the Abstract Expressionists. Although always comfortable with his own self-definition as an abstract painter, since the early 1980s his work has been progressing steadily in postmodern directions that incorporate an awareness of the art object and investigations into semiotic concepts and Western systems of classification: taxonomies, structures and language.

In important works, such as Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians From A to Z (1985), Lost Tribes (1985) and The Only Good Indians I Ever Saw Were Dead (1985). Houle had been exploring the tensions between native traditions such as the sacredness of speech and contemporary artistic expression that uses language and European systems of classification. His aim was to assert identity as an artist through an honourable synthesis, without comprising native traditions or surrendering the memory of the 'ancient ones'.

Much of Houle's work from this period dealt with issues of contemporary native identity in a post-colonial, post-industrial society, issues similar to those addressed by German artist Lothar Baumgarten in his work with indigenous peoples in South America, albeit from a European perspective. Houle was both intrigued and deeply disturbed by Baumgarten's viewpoints and ideas, whose complex and ambitious program was cited by critics as 'a challenge to the European project of visualizing the Other.' (3) 

Robert Houle was afforded closer scrutiny of Baumgarten's work when the German artist was invited to create a site-specific installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1984. (4)  Houle admired the elegance and sophistication of Baumgarten's Monument to the Native People of Ontario, and recognised that it was well meaning rather than malicious in its attempt to deal with the destructive effects of colonial expansion on indigenous societies. However, as a native North American he could not reconcile himself with the 'Eurocentric, non-objective knowledge' represented by the 'improper names' that Baumgarten inscribed on the walls of the AGO's neo-classical Walker Court. (5)  For Houle, they signified false, sanctioned identities created by 'a power structure outside the cultures described.' (6) 

In 1992, Robert Houle was invited by the AGO to respond directly to Baumgarten's installation on the occasion of the opening of the newly renovated Walker Court. In a symbolic act, in reference to the naming frenzy of European colonizers, Houle 'took possession' of the Walker Court for the duration of the exhibition, naming it Anishnabe Walker Court: Anishnabe being the name by which his people refer to themselves (as opposed to Ojibwa, the name given to them by Europeans). (7) 

Mirroring Baumgarten's Monument, in Anishnabe Walker Court (a three-part installation) Houle inscribed the same 'improper names', but this time on the inside walls along the court, in lower case letters and in quotation marks. As in an earlier work, Lost Tribes, he listed the names of the extinct tribes (Beothuk, Mohican, Natchez, Neutral, Timucua, Tobacco and Yamasee) in quiet reverence, in a memorial column, ghost-like and barely discernible. Confronting the 'European project' from his native perspective, Houle's installation quoted, questioned and haunted Baumgarten's Monument. His statement was simple, elegant and powerful.

Politics, as it is played out in the relationship of First Nations to the Canadian State, has been a significant element in all of Robert Houle's work. Never has it been more clearly articulated than in Premises for Self-Rule (1995), the five paintings included in this exhibition. It is not accidental that these issues should occupy him now. Canada is in the throes of constitutional crisis, and threat of Quebec's separation continues to loom. Caught between the two 'founding nations' as pawns in the process are Canada's first people, who despite recent successes with land-claim settlements and gains towards self-administration, are still denied seats at the table whenever the country's future is debated. (8) 

Inherent rights to self-determination are at the heart of Houle's Premises for Self Rule. The five works in the series refer to five distinct historic dates and documents, agreements that (with the exception of the totalitarian Indian Act) the natives believe to be honour bound, as they were made with the Crown or its lawful representatives, and support the legal status of Indians in this country. They are The Royal Proclamation (1763), The British North America Act (1867), Treaty No. 1 (Manitoba. 1871), and The Indian Act (1876). As a treaty Indian, these laws and their interpretations personally affect Robert Houle in Canadian jurisprudence. (9) 

In aesthetic terms these works are a departure for Houle. For the first time he incorporates photographs in his assemblages — old postcards, images of native men and women taken at Fort Macleod in Alberta in 1907. Chosen for their narrative qualities and strategically placed over excerpts of the above-mentioned legal texts stencilled directly on the wall, the photo-emulsions play an important role in activating both the formal and historical content of each work.

Next to the texts with the overlapping photographs, lushly and gesturally applied colour field paintings complete the works. The colours are chosen for their symbolic and emotional qualities. Rich royal blue to accompany the Royal Proclamation; red for the British North America Act; green for Treaty No. 1. Houle sees these as classical colours with European connotations, which is why they are used alongside the excerpts from treaties and statutes made with the British Crown. Natural 'Indian' colours — red, oxide and ochre — accompany excerpts from the Indian Act and the Canada Act, respectively.

In a 1931 essay, Walter Benjamin spoke about the 'authenticity of the photograph' and the 'historical tensions' that emanate from old images. (10)  He described the aura of the photograph, '[as] a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be.' (11)  In Premises for Self Rule the juxtaposing of emotionally charged paintings, political texts, and old photographs of teepees and groups of natives in festive attire generates a complex story that speaks as much of the past as of the present.

By placing the haunting, old photos in such a way that they obscure parts of the texts, Houle injects an element of frustration and suspicion into our perception of the combined images. Derrida has said that 'deconstruction is first and foremost a suspicion,' (12)  and deconstruction of the visual image is the process that seems to be happening here. The element of frustration persists, however. Parallel to a process of deconstruction, there is a powerful tension between the written word of the texts and the native oral tradition signified by the photographs.

The logocentric concept that regards speech as of higher rank than writing — thinking about writing as a product of speech — is challenged by modern philosophers such as Derrida, who insist 'that writing precedes and follows speech, it comprehends it.' (13) 

As a Saultaux and a contemporary Canadian artist, Houle straddles two worlds of thought. He has respect for both: the sacredness of native oral traditions and progressive philosophical thinking. Although he is aware of the inherent contradictions, he does not attempt to solve the debate — the tension in the work remains unresolved. In Premises for Self Rule the photographs function as what Derrida calls the trace or scar, and 'signify not simply memory from the past, [but] even more, a calling from the other.' (14) 

If Premises for Self Rule invites multiple readings, on aesthetic, political and analytical levels, the work Coming Home (1995) speaks more to the emotions. In this work Houle attaches a photograph of warriors on horseback wearing festive war bonnets to the top left-hand side of a long blue painting with an orange gestural line running across its surface, as if the Indians were looking far into a field. The two shades of blue are sensual in their modulation and texture. For Houle these colours create spiritual tension, the brushstrokes become directional, and the orange line stops the flow just long enough to signify a moment: 'a moment of introspection, when after praying and the offering of tobacco to the four cardinal points, (15)  the self becomes spiritually activated and signified in the fifth dimension.' (16) 

It is in that spiritual space that Robert Houle's identity is anchored.


from the catalogue for Real Fictions: Four Canadian Artists
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia.

Text: © Clara Hargittay. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
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