On his journey from residential school to art school and to boardrooms and museums worldwide, Robert Houle has changed the way we see contemporary Indigenous Art. This winter, the Art Gallery of Ontario
celebrates his ongoing influence with a major career retrospective. Bringing together more than 100 artworks from the past 50 years, including large-scale installations, paintings and drawings and as well as personal and archival photos, Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful is curated by Wanda Nanibush, curator of Indigenous Art. The exhibition is free for all visitors aged 25 and under and Indigenous Peoples.
An award-winning artist, writer and curator of Saulteaux Anishinabe descent, Houle (b. 1947) has been advocating for Indigenous Arts place in contemporary culture since the 1970s. Blending abstraction, post-modernism and conceptualism with First Nations aesthetics and histories, Houles artwork pushes the limits of modern painting. Beginning with his well-publicized resignation from the Museum of Man in 1980 over the desecration of ceremonial objects and his curation of Land, Spirit, Power, the first contemporary Indigenous art exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Houle has been a force for change in Canadian art.
Houle is a pivotal figure in the emergence of contemporary Indigenous Art, and his work has served to bridge the gap between contemporary Indigenous art and the Canadian art scene, says Wanda Nanibush, the AGOs curator of Indigenous Art. With the materials and insights of the oldest art traditions of this land to guide him, he became a new voice in modern abstraction, valuing immediacy, gesture, the earth and the sacred. Always, Houle turns toward the spiritual power of the ancient ones to provide a new vision for an Indigenous future; one that holds the complexity of contemporary First Nations identity in its grasp.
Centered in the Sam & Ayala Zacks Pavilion on Level 2, the exhibition features more than 100 works from 1970-2021 covering topics as wide as nuclear fallout, residential schools, Indigenous sovereignty and the birth of Canada.
Houles earliest works are marked by his interest in abstract expressionism and geometric forms. Among these is Red is Beautiful (1970) the exhibition namesake and the first artwork made by Houle to be acquired by a museum. In 1983, Houle began to assert the importance of Indigenous spiritual traditions in his work, as seen in Parfleches for the Last Supper (1983) a group of 13 acrylic paintings representing Jesus and his apostles. Painted on handmade paper and stitched together with porcupine quills, each is comparable to a saddle bag (parfleches). Houle wanted to create a continuum between traditional naming ceremonies and Catholic baptism, both of which informed his upbringing. The work is on loan from the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Stretching more than seven meters wide, Kanata (1992) is a monumental reimagining of Benjamin West's famed painting The Death of General Wolfe, one of several works that aims to centre Indigenous peoples in North American history. On loan from the National Gallery of Canada, in Houles rendition, it is the contemplative Delaware figure who takes centre stage caught between opposing colour fields of red (French) and blue (British).
Reflecting Houles ongoing engagement with issues of cultural appropriation and sovereignty, I Stand (1999) juxtaposes a 1947 Pontiac automobile with a quote by the 18th century Indigenous leader Pontiac, I will stand in your path until dawn. Premises for Self-Rule (1994) is a series of five works, each of which juxtapose lush painting and text and images. Each work reproduces text from a different legal document testifying to First Nations right to self-government in Canada. Photographs of attendees at a Blackfoot ceremony overlay these texts as reminders of the legal ban on Indigenous ceremony that was in place until 1951.
One of the first artists to capture his personal experience of the residential school system, Sandy Bay (1998-99) is a monumental work, recalling the turmoil Houle experienced as he remembered his trauma. The artworks five panels move from documentary photography to abstract colour, mirroring his own emotional journey from pain to insight through artistic form and gesture. After 2008, triggered by the Government apology, Houle began to process memories of the physical and sexual abuse he survived. Sandy Bay Indian Residential School series (2010-12) is a faux school room installation where his experiences are distilled and named, and ultimately enact a letting go. Houle, a master colourist who understands their spiritual qualities, shows how the act of painting can be healing.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a gorgeous fully illustrated hardcover catalogue, featuring essays by his niece Ala Goodwill, Gerald Vizenor, Mark Cheetham, Michael Bell, Jessica Horton and Wanda Nanibush, as well as, intimate recollections and tributes from fellow artists Kay WalkingStick, Duke Redbird, Jamelie Hassan, Ron Benner and Faye HeavyShield and curators David Penney and Stephen Borys. The catalogue is co-published by the AGO and DelMonico Books/D.A.P. and will be available at shopAGO later this fall.
From growing up in Sandy Bay First Nation (Gaa-wiikwedaawangaag) and attending residential school to pursuing extensive academic studies and becoming an internationally recognized artist, Robert Houle (b. 1947) has played a pivotal role in bridging the gap between contemporary Indigenous art and the Canadian art scene. As an artist, curator, writer, educator and critic, he has created change in museums and public art galleries, initiating critical discussions about the history and representation of Indigenous peoples. As a contemporary Anishnabe artist, he has played a significant role in retaining and defining First Nations identity and has drawn on Western art conventions to tackle lingering aspects of colonization and its postcolonial aftermath. Relying on the objectivity of modernity and the subjectivity of postmodernity, he brings Aboriginal history into his work through the interrogation of text and photographic documents from the dominant society.
Houle's considerable influence as an artist, curator, writer, educator and cultural theorist has led to his being awarded the Janet Braide Memorial Award for Excellence in Canadian Art History in 1993; the 2001 Toronto Arts Award for the Visual Arts; the Eiteljorg Fellowship in 2003; membership in the Royal Canadian Academy; distinguished Alumnus, University of Manitoba; honourary doctorates from the University of Manitoba and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology; the Canada Council International Residency Program for the Visual Arts in Paris; the Governor Generals Award in the Visual and Media Arts in 2015 and most recently, the 2020 Founders Achievement Award from the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts. Additionally, Houle has served on various boards and advisory committees including those of The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, A Space, The Power Plant and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.