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Robert Houle and Curtis J. Collins

Hochelaga: A multi-media installation
Galerie Articule, Montréal, May 9 - June 7, 1992

from the catalogue
[ 2,910 words ]


Hochelaga is my first exhibition in Montréal since I graduated from McGill in 1975. And what an opportuniity to create a site-specific multi-media installation for Galerie Articule on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of a city whose cultural and intellectual vigour played such an important role when I was still impressionable.

Hochelaga is a post-modern site created specifically using the built-in interior with one major intervention, the construction of a commemorative wall around an existing support column. It is the project of the Enlightenment that has to be deconstructed, the autonomous, epistemological and moral subject that has to be decentred; the nostalgia for unity, totality and foundations that has to be overcome; the tyranny of representational thought and universal truth that has to be defeated; and the herculean task of self-validation within a margin created by industrial capitalism. I have used the gallery metaphorically as an architectonic polemic.

Three of the walls of Hochelaga are transformations from other media; Mohawk Summer was a window installation in my former Queen Street West studio in Toronto during the Oka crisis; Visual Premises for Self-Government was a 1985 suite of four, abstract, acrylic works on paper shown at a National Gallery group exhibition, entitled The only good Indians I ever saw were dead, created in 1985 on the wall of the Brignall Gallery in Toronto as a companion piece for Everything you ever wanted to know about Indians from A to Z, a multi-media installation. The fourth wall, the title piece, and the sweetgrass medicine circle on the floor were created especially for Montréal, with the other works providing an historical and political context, a demarcation of personal and collective interests.

The two dominant coloured walls constitute a pastiche of Baroque melancholy and Romantic irony, the static absolution inherent in Neoplastic purity, postmodernity as only a symptom of political frustration and social mobility rather than a significant intellectual and cultural shift. The marginalized, the First Nations, are reduced to rhetoric because the resulting hologram has only two colours: blue and red.

The wall with the featured map of an ancient Iroquois village overlayed with the cruciform image created by the names of three contemporary Mohawk communities and Hochelaga is not an apocalyptic conception of the final catastrophe of Western civilization; but an appropriation of previous violent eruptions in the linear unfolding of events, redeeming a past dominated by exploitation and oppression. The only intervention to the existing physicality of the gallery is the construction of a wall wrapping around an existing column, the fifth column as it were. This in situ, Extinct / Distinct, done with watercolours directly on the wall is a history painting in memory of distinct First Nations from Canada and the United States now extinct as a result of European diseases, regional warfare and outright genocide. I want to remember them for they are part of an autochthonous spirituality.

Finally, the place on the gallery floor where one's position can be centred has a sweetgrass mandala, a medicine wheel made with the hair of Mother Earth. It symbolizes the holistic view that the centre cannot be occupied by anyone.

Montréal is a city of two founding cultural extremities: the original genocide of the indigenous population by French colonizers who, speaking the language of Christian patriarchy, imposed the spacial logic of the Enlightenment in Québec; and the attempted assimilation of the local French population by the English colonizers. Indeed, Montréal is a site of conquest, negotiation, manoeuvre, manipulation, and discourse.

Robert Houle, April 1992, Toronto.


The multi-media installation Hochelaga is a testimony to the aesthetic and social commitments of Robert Houle. Each site-specific piece functions as an article of evidence in a case that the Saulteaux artist builds for the demands of aboriginal people in Canada. Galerie Articule provides Houle with a four-week platform to confront Montréal's public with the art of his convictions. The exhibition is composed of a series of Western signs empowered with meanings that communicate a contemporary First Nations' ideology. This publication equips viewers with copies of Houle's symbols, and serves as a record of an artistic declaration in Québec.

The exhibition's title piece Hochelaga is located on the gallery's north wall, and it addresses the issue of First Nations' autonomy from a local perspective using text and an image. Yellow letters on a white surface communicate the names of four Iroquoian communities from the past and present. (1)  Kanehsatake, Kahnawake, and Akwesasne are Mohawk locales that have been at the centre of recent sovereignty disputes with municipal, provincial, and federal governments in Canada. Houle supports their rights of independence by linking them to Hochelaga, an ancient Iroquoian settlement which was located on the island of Montréal.

The communities' names are executed in vinyl letters arranged in a cruciform configuration which transforms their identities into a Western symbol. This cross is a sign of the Christian religion, a belief system which local native people adopted and placed their faith in. Mohawk reserves in the Montréal area became enclaves of Christianity during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the religion is part of their modern development as a culture. Houle authorizes the cross with the names of local aboriginal places, replacing the Crucified. The artist insists that the dominant society put its trust in a symbol that represents a people's struggle to gain freedom.

Further justification for Mohawk liberty is presented in the form of a European historical record. Giovanni Ramusio's 1563 plan of Hochelaga is transcribed in graphite directly on the north wall's white surface, acting as a backdrop for Houle's cruciform. The Italian cartographer's sixteenth-century image is based on the French explorer Jacques Cartier's account of his encounter with the Iroquois who inhabited the island of Montréal in 1534. This map operates as a visual deposition which establishes the sovereignty of the area's original inhabitants, and validates the claims for independence that have been expressed by the communities of Kanehsatake, Kahnawake, and Akwesasne.

The potency of the message of Hochelaga is achieved through a deft manipulation of materials and symbols. Colour, texture, and line are applied to the wall surface in a manner that resembles the assemblage techniques of modern European art. The artist combines a Christian cross with an Italian map to manufacture an installation which affirms the local indigenous population's call for self-rule. Houle penetrates Western aesthetic concepts to create a language that the public of Montréal can easily access, and which serves as a sign of his political directives.

Visual Premises for Self-Government retrieves four crucial dates from Canadian history which the artist utilizes as legal precedents for First Nations' rights and freedoms. The dates 1763, 1867, 1876, and 1982 are translated into Roman numerals which form a border along the lower half of the east wall. Each white number on the installation's crimson surface marks critical British and Canadian legislative acts that identify the constitutional privileges of Canada's indigenous peoples.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 (MDCCLXIII), by King George III of Great Britain, declared that:

And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with Whom we are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds.


It was this piece of legislation which established the concept of aboriginal liberties, that was adopted by the Canadian government in the British North America Act of 1867 (MDCCCLXVII), the Indian Act of 1876 (MDCCCLXXVI), and the Constitution Act of 1982 (MCMLXXX1I). These acts are the constitutional basis upon which First Nations' leaders are currently negotiating self-government for their constituents.

The historically significant pieces of legislation are also part of Houle's history as an artist. In 1988 he created an oil-on-masonite painting titled Numbers which depicted the four crucial dates in arabic numerals. The same dates were employed by Houle in a 1991 oil-on-canvas work called Aboriginal Title. It was specifically created for Contemporary Rituals, a national touring exhibition organized by the White Water Gallery in North Bay, that focused upon the land claim controversy surrounding the Teme-Augama Anishnabai of Bear Island, Ontario.

Visual Premises for Self-Government presents dates that behave as beacons for the Indians, Inuit, and Metis of Canada in their fight to acquire freedom from foreign rule. Houle's use of Roman numerals bestows a sense of antiquity upon each date, and heightens their collective historical significance. A frieze-like effect is achieved through the orderly arrangement of the white plastic numbers in a single row. The wall's red surface echoes the crimson of Britain's Union Jack, augmenting the installation's European symbology. Its design is comparable to the paintings of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. His compositions from the 1930's examined the effects achieved by the placement of pure colour areas against each other on a rectilinear grid. Houle's large red rectangle relates to the white and blue surfaces of the other walls in a manner that emphasizes their geometric plastic qualities.

The Saulteaux artist serves the public with a visual affidavit that is forged from European documents, symbols and aesthetic techniques, however its content reveals a decidedly non-Western perspective. Robert Houle plays the role of a constitutional lawyer, insisting that the Canadian government respect the First Nations' inherent right to self-government.

Mohawk Summer 1990 is a painfully clear depiction of recent events in Québec that placed Canada under international scrutiny for its treatment of aboriginal people. Houle cites the Oka crisis as fresh evidence of an oppressive act that has been committed against a native culture. Articule's public is confronted with a sign of a disturbing episode in Montréal's recent history. The words, 'sovereign', 'longhouse', 'landclaim', and 'falseface' appear in reverse on the blue south wall, functioning as metaphors of contemporary Mohawk life. Their inverted positioning symbolizes the diametrically opposed stances of the Indians and the dominant society during this crisis.

Houle appropriates a Western language and transforms its symbols and definitions into an artistic document, which corroborates the actions of peoples fighting to remain distinct. Sovereign: the desire of indigenous people in Canada to be free from external controls imposed on their land by federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Longhouse: an Iroquoian belief system based on the teachings of the early nineteenth-century Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. Landclaim: the legal process in which native communities across Canada have negotiated the return of lands that were appropriated by European and Canadian authorities. Falseface: a spiritual being from Iroquoian mythology who lives on the rim of the earth.

The concept for this installation was originally presented in the form of four banners. In the spring of 1990 Houle rendered the words sovereign, longhouse, landclaim, and falseface in black block letters on violet, pink, red, and blue silk standards. These works hung in windows of his Toronto studio for the duration of the Oka crisis, as a memorial to the Mohawk people. The banners prevented light from entering the artist's space. Robert Houle produced no art during this period as an aesthetic boycott in support of the Warriors.

The artist's selection of French ultramarine blue to cover the south wall's surface alludes to the blue in the French monarchy's flag. Using this colour he makes reference to the historical relations between France and the Iroquois. Houle creates parallels between Québec's past and present, using a colour that refers to a time when the original inhabitants of this region were an independent society.

The multi-media installation's large blue, white, and red surfaces function on a level outside of social, historical, and political meanings. The saturated colour of each wall transforms the entire gallery into a vibratory space, comparable to the plastic qualities realized by Guido Molinari in his painting's of the 1960s. Houle juxtaposes large flat rectangles of colour achieving a reflexive result that depends solely on the properties of each wall's exterior pigment. The four words silkscreened at various angles in white acrylic paint float on the blue wall, accenting its surface quality.

Houle faces the dominant society with a sign of cultural persecution that has become a highly sensitive issue to the Montréal public. Moreover, his arguments are formulated in the language of the oppressors. However, the artist's social appeals do not obscure the installation's artistic value, thus he is able to impart each piece with an autonomous aesthetic quality.

Extinct / Distinct is an historical record of North American tribes that have perished due to the genocidal policies of white governments in North America. Robert Houle presents viewers with the consequences of a system that has castigated indigenous people because of their cultural uniqueness. Seven tribal names are rendered in a horizontal fashion one atop the other on the face of a free standing column. This architectural form was specially constructed for the exhibition, and it operates as an intrusion upon of Galerie Articule's public space.

The artist addresses issues of interference by foreign powers on this continent which precipitated the extinction of native cultures such as the Beothuk, Mohican, Natchez, Neutral, Timucua, Tobacco, and Yamasee. In Newfoundland the Beothuk were actively hunted by Scottish and Irish settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the death of Nancy Shanadithit in 1829 marked the termination of a race. The demise of each tribe was initiated by contact with European society, and their terminal fates depict a brutal aspect of North America's history. Houle presents the seven tribal names as a symbol of an inequitable past, and just cause for contemporary actions of intervention.

The piece transcends history in its aggressive charge that contemporary aboriginal people be provided with a place from which to maintain their unique cultural values. This subject is especially poignant in Québec during a time when the province's francophone population is demanding to be considered as a distinct society within Canada. The artist asserts a massive three-dimensional object upon the room's definition, an action that echoes the position of power that native leaders have adopted in the current constitutional negotiations. Houle compels viewers to move around the memorial, and consider the fates of those cultures that have suffered the pains of foreign intrusion.

The idea for Extinct / Distinct first appeared stencilled on the walls of the Brignall Gallery in Toronto as The only good Indians I ever saw were dead. The 1985 installation focused upon the same extinct tribes that perished at the hands of alien governments. A suite of paintings entitled Lost Tribes, produced in 1988, also concentrated on the lost identities of the Beothuk, Mohican, Natchez, Neutral, Timucua, Tobacco, and Yamasee. These names became the material for a series of computer-generated collage images, again called Lost Tribes, which were manufactured between 1985 and 1991.

A concern for technical processes permeates the entire Hochelaga installation, and each piece discloses a collection of skilfully manipulated Western symbols. The column's volume contrasts with the two-dimensionality of the three wall pieces, as well as enhancing the reflexive colour effects established by their large blue, red, and white expanses. Houle uses stencils to execute each tribal name in a violet watercolour wash on the intervention's surface, as a means of distinguishing this text from the vinyl, plastic, and silkscreened words and numbers of the other works.

The simplicity of means that Houle employs to convey this series of conceptual messages attests to his power as an artist. He is able to control the dominant culture's laws, symbols and aesthetic traditions, converting them into an installation of signs which transmit a contemporary native consciousness. Robert Houle successfully represents the interests of his people, and presents the public with a solid case for First Nations' sovereignty in Canada.

The artist expropriates a piece of territory from Galerie Articule for the local indigenous community. A work that takes the form of a cut sweetgrass circle is located in the centre of the floor. Houle uses this space as a power base from which he makes Hochelaga's demands. The mandala is a haven for the artist's spirit in the midst of this installation's Western symbols. Each of the wall pieces and the column depend on the circle for their directional orientation, and its shape contrasts with their rectilinear format. The floor piece is the only work based on North American aesthetic traditions.

The circle, which was commonly used in historic First Nations' art, possesses a number of meanings. In 1989 Houle created a coloured sand circle on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Galley. This outdoor installation was part of a work entitled Zero Hour. The sand work operated as a medicine wheel used to heal the destruction that modern technology has wreaked upon the earth.

Houle's circle in Montreal symbolizes the native culture. Constructed with an organic material used by aboriginal societies for purification, the sweetgrass contrasts with the plastic, paint, vinyl and graphite elements of the other works, providing the installation with a connection to the earth. It forms an eternal link with the natural forces that have sustained this continent's indigenous population for thousands of years. Thus, the sweetgrass circle is a sign of the contemporary First Nations in Canada who are striving to purge themselves of a foreign ideology that has denied their independence.

Curtis J. Collins, April 1992, Montréal


Text: ©Robert Houle and Curtis J. Collins. All rights reserved.

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