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A new retrospective at AGO explores the 50-year career of First Nations artist Robert Houle

The half-century long career of famous Saulteaux and Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle is the subject of a new major retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario entitled “Red is Beautiful”.

The exhibition, named after one of Houle’s first pieces, features more than 100 works, including monumental paintings, intimate drawings and large-scale installations as well as personal and archival photos.

Putting on the show lasted two years, but Houle’s dream was longer. The artist, who is 74, wanted to do a retrospective before turning 75 next year. His work has been part of two other major exhibitions, but it is the largest exhibition to date.

“It’s pretty scary. It makes me realize my age,” Houle said with a chuckle during a phone call.

“You always get goosebumps and anxiety no matter how many professionals help you with your paintings, your installations, your objects. It’s always very scary.”

The retrospective opened in Toronto on Friday.

Houle is often considered one of the most influential First Nations artists since entering the contemporary art scene in 1970. The Art Gallery of Ontario website describes his work as a mixture of abstraction, modernism and conceptualism with the aesthetics and history of First Nations. Her work explores themes of Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous spiritual traditions, major resistance movements, and the residential school era.

Houle grew up in Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation in southern Manitoba. As a young boy he was forced to attend residential school in the community and as a teenager he was sent to another residential school in Winnipeg. Like many other Indigenous boys and girls, Houle says he was stripped of his language and culture and suffered abuse while attending institutions.

Later in life, Houle began to use art as a way to heal wounds from the past.

Driven, in part, by the nightmares of his stay at boarding school, Houle spent 50 consecutive days illustrating his dreams. These drawings would eventually form his series on residential schools in Sandy Bay.

“It took me a while to recover or to face and recognize what I had been through. Abuse, humiliation, being punished for talking about the saulteaux and other things,” Houle said.

“(Art) motivated me. It gave me courage, and I knew if I did something visual that was painful, it was a form of release.”

Houle pays homage to the Oka crisis in a gasp in oil entitled “Les Pins”. Three panels depict a scene from a wooded area, which was the subject of a land dispute between the Mohawks and the town of Oka.

The standoff between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian army lasted 78 days. The crisis took place in Kanehsata: ke near the town of Oka. The city wanted to expand a golf course on land sacred to the Mohawk community.

Houle studied at McGill University in Montreal and spent a lot of time in the neighboring Mohawk communities of Kanehsata: ke and Kahnawa: ke.

“It gave me a lot of political courage. Do not hesitate to demonstrate. Do not hesitate to analyze what was happening there and in the rest of our country,” said Houle.

Wanda Nanibush, curator of Indigenous art at the gallery, first learned about Houle’s work in what she describes as a “life-changing” moment at the age of 16 in 1992.

She visited an exhibition organized by Houle entitled Land, Spirit, Power at the National Gallery of Canada.

“It was my first time seeing contemporary art from our own people… I just felt like it presented a totally different idea of ​​who we were,” Nanibush recalls.

“It showed me a whole different way of being an activist in the arts and of thinking about social justice from a very different perspective.”

Nanibush had to contact over 30 lenders to agree to loan Houle’s work for the exhibition.

Fortunately, neither of them said no, “they want Robert to get the recognition he deserves.”

The exhibit will run until April 17, 2022, then tour Calgary and Winnipeg.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 3, 2021


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.