A Quick Guide To Contemporary Aboriginal Art

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

I recently wrote an article on contemporary Aboriginal art and artists for Canadian Cowboy Country Magazine, and the depth and variety of work that is available in this genre of art is incredible. 

I have been aware of, and wildly impressed by, the incredible talent of both historic and contemporary Aboriginal artists (see my piece on Alex Janvier here) for as long as I can remember, but what surprised me was some of the traditional techniques that are still employed to create art that even I had never heard of.

For example, did you know that incredibly intricate designs are made on birch bark by folding up this fragile material and then biting it? Or that traditional embroidery on clothing and moccasins was done with moose hair (not glass beads) using a technique called tufting

The tradition, work, and talent that went into creating historic pieces — and goes into new contemporary creations — are coveted, both by private collectors and museums all over the world. 

Living in Canada, I have had the privilege of having fairly easy access to this work all over the country. Work by the "Indian Group Of Seven" is showcased in art galleries regularly, there are totem poles in public spaces, and even fashion designers are using traditional colours and language in their clothing. 

My personal favourites are the stunning carvings, masks, and sculptures that are created by Haida artists from the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. According to the Canadian Museum of History, "The decorations on the objects they created were statements of social identity, or reminders of rights and prerogatives bestowed on their ancestors by supernatural beings, or of lessons taught to them through mythic encounters with the animals, birds, fish or other beings whose likenesses were embodied in the crests passed down through generations."

Whether you prefer paintings, sculpture, prints, masks, clothing, or something completely different, you are sure to find an Aboriginal artist somewhere in North America that is creating a masterpiece guaranteed to take your breath away. 

Images from the top, left to right: Detail of "Sun Shines, Grass Grows, River Flows" by Alex Janvier ; "Spirit Being" by Jackson Beardy, 1978; contemporary Haida sculpture and masks from a gallery in Vancouver, BC; a historic Haida costume in The MET, New York City

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The Life and Work of Celebrated Canadian Artist Alex Janvier

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

Alex Janvier may be a prolific and significant Canadian Aboriginal Artist, but there are no teepees, totem poles, or feathered headdresses in his portfolio.

His impressive 50-year artistic career and his contribution to the art world caused him to receive the Governor General Award in 2008, but there was once a time when the Canadian government was ready to hinder, rather than help, the progression of his career.

Intrigued? So was I. 

After some research, attending a few lectures, and speaking directly to the artist himself, here is what I’ve discovered.  

The Beginning 

Janvier’s father was the last of the hereditary Chiefs in the Dene line (an Aboriginal Band that resided in the Northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada). When he was a child, missionaries and colonizers trying to integrate the Aboriginal people into their society, broke this line by sending him to the Blue Quills Reservation School. At this school, away from his community, he was taught that the ways of his people were evil, and he suffered indescribable physical abuse at the hands of priests and teachers. 

At the age of 17 (in the 1950s), he left the reservation and began studying at the University of Alberta Faculty of Extension before registering in the Fine Arts program at SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology). At the time, he was the ONLY Aboriginal student in the school.

When the Indian Affairs department of the government caught wind that they were paying for him to receive a fine arts education, they threatened to pull funding unless he switched to a trade more suited for "Indians". Luckily, his instructors stood up for him and managed to convince the department to let him remain in the fine arts program, but only with reduced funding(!).

When he completed his studies, the department took some of his work from him as payment for his education.  Pieces that are speculated to be those taken as "payment" have recently surfaced and are pictured above. 

His Work

Another issue that the Department of Indian Affairs had with his work was that it wasn’t "Indian" enough. They expected to see totem poles, paintings of Chiefs, and dream-catchers that could be used to advertise the "Indian" culture to the outside world. 

Janvier’s work instead draws influences from surrealism and automatism, looking abstract and almost dreamlike. Though there are Aboriginal influences in his work, they are influences that will only be recognized by people who actually know anything about his culture.

For example, the Dene people use lines and dots made from rocks and sticks to communicate when on hunting trails, both of these symbols can be found in Janvier’s works. As well, the idea of automatic drawing links back to the hunter’s dream which is revered in his culture. He also uses patterns in his pieces drawn from the traditional beadwork and birch-bark artistry of his mother. 

Political Background

Coming from this background, it is not surprising that some of Janvier’s work has been somewhat political. For example, on some of his paintings, the number "287" is painted near his signature. This is his treaty number (a number assigned to him as an identifier when he was young) and was his way of protesting how Indian Affairs looked at his people as numbers instead of human beings. 

When I spoke to the artist — after he had kissed me on the cheek and tried to set me up with his grandsons — he told me that when he first started working, there was a group that included him and other Aboriginal artists that were referred to as the "Indian Group of Seven". To me, this is a label of reverence considering the Group of Seven is a celebrated group of Canadian painters whose work is known all over the world. 

Alex, however, told me that they were called this “in a mocking way” — basically being told that they could never live up to the real Group of Seven.

Other than their cultural background, there was another big difference between the two groups. Janvier and his colleagues received NO funding for the government.

The reason? They were not taxpayers. 

This funding disparity is something that the artist has continued to lobby for, along with his attempts to break through the line that separates Aboriginal Art from Canadian Art.

Right now, the two are considered different things, and Alex hopes, one day, they will be one and the same.

I couldn’t agree more. 

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The Life and Work of celebrated Canadian Artist Alex Janvier

Artist Profile: Canadian Aboriginal Sculptor Stewart Steinhauer

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

According to Canadian Stewart Steinhauer, though he makes his living creating beautiful stone sculptures, he is not an artist but simply someone who “inadvertently makes stuff.”

Mother Bear Preys for Earth Healing, 2007     Stewart Steinhauer

Identifying with his Cree/Anishnabe/Mohawk Aboriginal ancestors, Seinhauer follows their belief that his ability is not a ‘talent’, but a spiritual gift; 

creative individuals become conscious of the swirling pool of creative forces, and recognize their place in it

This sculptor became conscious of his ‘gift’ when he went on an aboriginal fast/spiritual journey into the back-country mountain wilderness. While on this journey he had a vision of a bear who transformed from a small, playful bear, to a large and powerful spirit bear, and finally to a stone bear that seemed to ripple as it moved.

According to this ‘non-artist’, the bear made a 3-D imprint on his mind which appears when he is creating his sculptures. 

Mother Bear Preys for Earth Healing, 2007     Stewart Steinhauer

The bear is an incredibly important symbol in aboriginal culture but has almost contradictory meanings — representing both tranquil, nurturing motherhood, and the protective power of a fierce warrior. It is only fitting then that the contradictory Steinhauer, an ‘artist’ yet at the same time someone who just ‘makes stuff’, uses the bear as the subject of some of his most impressive works. 

Steinhauer began sculpting in 1973 and since then has produced 21 exhibitions worth of new works in shows all across Canada. His works are also in private collections all over the world.

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