Art that heals, art that discomforts

This week’s writer is Janessa Mann, new advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office. Janessa is from Ottawa and is working on a Master’s degree in International Development Studies. 

This winter, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is hosting a retrospective on Alex Janvier.  Described as “one of Canada’s most acclaimed contemporary artists,” Janvier is from the Cold Lake First Nation in Alberta.

Janvier explores Indigenous experiences in his art, including his own personal experience at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School. Janvier is important to the construction of Canadian culture because he has been able to bring Indigenous experiences into the public eye, especially in light of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which concluded in 2015.

“My art is truly North American . . . it has its Indigenous roots. Some of my artwork is healing for myself and for anyone who wants to accept it that way.” –Alex Janvier

Normally when I go to the art gallery I take my sketch book, possibly my copy of 1001 Paintings You Must See before You Die, and consider colours, shapes, techniques while I relax with the beautiful pictures. When I see art that I don’t like, I challenge myself to consider why I don’t like it. Is it because of the way the content has been captured? Is it from an era that, try as I might, I can’t connect with?

This exhibition was different: I loved Janvier’s art and style. But it also made me uncomfortable because of my “colonial-settler guilt.” I hope that writing about the art exhibit will help me to understand why I was uncomfortable, and see what I can do with that discomfort.

The retrospective highlights the courage and resistance of Indigenous peoples in Canada and, as such, it offers a very powerful challenge to colonial-settler discourse. I find that I often feel strong guilt around the Doctrine of Discovery.  But in my opinion, this was the point of the retrospective: to make viewers feel uncomfortable and show an alternate Canadian experience. For example, in 1967, Janvier was commissioned by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to produce 80 paintings for Montreal’s Expo. Janvier signed his paintings with his Treaty number, 287, to protest Canadian Indigenous policies.

janessa-with-painting

Studying “Intertribal Indians Unlimited” (1990), acrylic on canvas, 175X698 cm (Collection of Glenbow Museum, Calgary).  Photo supplied by Janessa Mann.

One of the most interesting sets of paintings was “Intertribal Indians Unlimited” (1990) and “The Apple Factory” (1989) because of their beautiful colours and the style of abstraction, and because they were very poignant in their critique of Canada’s history. One of the plaques explained that Janvier was challenged by Indigenous communities, and called a “red apple” for his success, which meant he looked “Indian” on the outside, but acted White on the inside. Rather than be hurt by this critique of his artistic success, Janvier painted the concept that the Residential Schools were “apple factories,” because they assimilated Indigenous children.

Janvier’s pieces, while beautiful and skillful, manage to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery and make one feel uncomfortable for Canada’s role in enacting intergenerational trauma on Indigenous children.

What the retrospective lacked, in my mind, was a challenge  to viewers of Janvier’s art to respond. In James Schellenberg’s post on this blog some months ago, he says that “It is one thing to acknowledge an injustice, and another thing entirely to put things right. What was done in the past cannot be undone.” At the end of the gallery was a bulletin board where we could post our reactions, but there were no resources to learn more about Canada’s colonial legacy in general or the Residential Schools in particular.Moreover, there was no challenge for visitors to do something with their new knowledge. Without a “call to arms,” the exhibit cannot really succeed in creating change.

What can I suggest?

Organizations like KAIROS and MCC have provided opportunities for people to learn about Canada’s history from an Indigneous perspective through the Blanket Exercise, an experiential teaching tool to work through the “historic and contemporary relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.” Find out if Kairos is hosting a Blanket Exercise near you, and consult their resources. Look into other expressions of Indigenous culture. Contact  your MP about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And, if you are in Ottawa before April 17, 2017, I encourage you to explore Alex Janvier’s art! On Thursday evenings, all museums in Ottawa are free, and currently there is no extra cost for this special exhibition.

Further Reading:

Constructing a reconciliation response: understanding the UNDRIP by Claire Maier

A settler encounters the Doctrine of Discovery by James Schellenberg

Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery by Rick Cober Bauman

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