Friday, September 25, 2009

Canada Native Art

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To date, however, the oldest surviving artworks (excluding finely crafted, aesthetically significant stone tools) are datable to no earlier than approximately 5000 years ago in several parts of Canada (for example, decorative and depictive carvings from the earliest periods in the Lower Fraser region of British Columbia). The development of Native art is in many ways more complex than that of the relatively recent European settlers, and may be divided into 3 distinct periods: prehistoric art, contact or “historic” art, and contemporary Native art.

While historians of Native art must rely to a large extent upon archaeological finds in the study of the prehistoric period, the work of ethnographers, ethnohistorians and historical archaeologists is of vital importance for knowledge of historic Native art. Ethnographers have shown that a correct interpretation of the function and meaning of Native artworks depends upon an understanding and appreciation of the ways of life, aesthetic values and principles of the peoples themselves.


Ethnohistorians have examined early visual sources and written documents such as maps, paintings, captains’ logs and accounts by explorers, traders and travellers, and from these documentary fragments have traced the history of Native peoples from initial contact to the 20th century. Historical archaeologists have excavated postcontact sites which give precise, chronological evidence of the interaction between Native and European peoples, and also give evidence of the introduction of new materials, techniques and working methods to Native artists and crafts people.

Prehistoric Art

Prehistoric art is the period of Native art least known in Canada, and its terminal date varies from region to region across the country. While initial contact with the French in the Maritimes and St Lawrence Valley took place in the 16th century, the Natives of the West Coast did not see Europeans until the late 18th century.

Discovery, knowledge and relative dating of prehistoric works of art depend upon meticulous excavation and careful interpretation. Recent important discoveries include a diminutive but sophisticated carved human figure from the Glenrose site near the mouth of the Lower Fraser R in BC. This tiny antler figurine, which may have served as the handle of a carving tool, dates to approximately 4000 years ago and already gives evidence of formal characteristics typical of historic period Northwest Coast art. Other discoveries include the location in NW Ontario of what may be Canada’s oldest artwork, a petroglyph site perhaps 5000 years old; a carving of a smiling human head, 5000-3000 BC, from the Coteau-du-Lac site on the St Lawrence R in SW Québec; and the verification that the spectacular art forms of coastal BC – most notably the TOTEM POLES – are not the product of European contact as formerly believed, but have a continuous on-site development dating back at least 2500 years. Since the moist, acidic soils of much of Canada’s northland do not permit the survival of artworks in wood, fibre, hide or other perishable materials, much of Canada’s prehistoric art has been lost. One major exception has been rock art: paintings in red ochre and carvings incised upon natural rock surfaces (see PICTOGRAPHS AND PETROGLYPHS).

Prehistoric art varies not only in genre, style, function, imagery and meaning from region to region, but has undergone changes from period to period. These changes accelerated almost everywhere in Canada after about 1000 BC as a consequence of a variety of influential factors: the introduction of pottery, agriculture and settled village life from the eastern woodlands of the US and ultimately from Mexico, where New World civilizations developed independently from those of the Old World.

There are several outstanding manifestations of prehistoric art in Canada. The Marpole culture, 500 BC -500 AD, which was centred on the Fraser R delta and the surrounding Gulf Is of the southern BC coast, produced an abundant variety of stone and bone carvings (ceremonial bowls, effigies and utensils) that in many ways anticipate the style and iconography of postcontact NORTHWEST COAST NATIVE ART.

Precontact Iroquoian culture, 900-1600 AD, in southern Ontario (the ancestors of the Huron, Petun, Neutral) produced a pottery of high technical quality and visually pleasing effects decorated with representational and geometric designs. Iroquoian art in the Upper St Lawrence Valley is noted for its clay and stone effigy pipes of fascinating shape and iconographic variety. Both pipe bowls and stems were carved or modelled in high relief or incised with human and zoomorphic images of lizards, turtles and birds, all important power animals in the iconography of Great Lakes religious art. These tiny masterpieces had a sacred function – the ritual smoking of tobacco in the context of FIRST NATIONS spiritual beliefs (see CALUMET).

Postcontact Art

Postcontact or “historic” art is well known, mainly because examples have been collected, sketched and written about by explorers, traders, missionaries, artists and scholars for over 300 years and are now deposited in museums throughout the world. The various regions into which Native art is customarily divided are based upon the distribution and cultural character of Native groups in the early contact period, but this emphasis on the “ethnographic present” has resulted in a frozen time perspective, an erroneously narrow view of the great time depth, and of the diversity and richness of Native art history.

Native art in Canada may be divided into 7 regional subdivisions: Eastern Subarctic (eastern Canadian Shield); Western Subarctic (western Canadian Shield and Mackenzie drainage area); Southern Great Lakes and Upper St Lawrence Valley; Prairies (southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta); Plateau (interior southern BC); Northwest Coast (BC coast); and Arctic (arctic coastline and offshore islands eastward to Newfoundland).

Eastern Subarctic -

The art of the Eastern Subarctic may be the most archaic in Canada, the majority of prehistoric and early contact rock art sites being located in this region. The largely Algonquian-speaking peoples – the Ojibwa, Cree, Algonquin, Ottawa, Montagnais, the Naskapi of Ontario and Québec, and the Micmac and Maliseet of the southern Maritimes – continued a nomadic way of life based on hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild foods well into the 19th and even 20th centuries.

The art of the MICMAC and MALISEET of NS and NB remained distinctive until well into the 20th century. The Micmac are noted for their moosehair embroidery and porcupine quillwork on birchbark and basketry containers, hide and textile clothing. Glass beads introduced by European traders were welcomed early by Micmac and other aboriginal women artists as substitutes for the more difficult quills and moosehair.

The use of beads, with their richness of colour and diversity of size and transparency, inevitably changed the aesthetic character of Micmac design. Micmac women’s art in quills, moosehair and beads was largely 2-dimensional, secular in function and abstract in style, in contrast to that produced by men who worked in 3 dimensions with harder, more resistant materials such as wood and stone.

A well-known characteristic of Micmac design is the so-called “double-curve” motif, a bilaterally symmetrical arrangement of 2 opposing spirals or curves that is suggestive of plant forms. It appears as the basic, underlying pattern in much 2-dimensional design throughout the Eastern Subarctic and becomes highly elaborate among the central Algonquians and Iroquoians of the Great Lakes area. Although this elaboration may have been influenced by young Native girls taught needlework by Ursuline nuns, the pattern was rooted in an existing culture, for plants and their medicinal and magical properties played an important role in subarctic aboriginal belief and shamanistic herbal practice.

The art of the nomadic Naskapi is also remarkable for its 2-dimensional design. Especially noteworthy are caribou hide coats incised and painted with linear geometric patterns and with the double curve motif. Throughout the subarctic and Great Lakes areas, the colour red plays an important symbolic role, expressive of life’s renewal and the continuity of the life force in both animals and men.

The OJIBWA of subarctic Ontario and Manitoba are noted for a number of distinctive sacred art forms. The artwork of Ojibwa women was similar in technique, function and genre to much of that produced throughout the subarctic area: quillwork and beadwork on clothing, bark and basketry in both geometric and floral patterns. Ojibwa men, responsible for works of sacred, ceremonial function, produced an art that was largely symbolic, representational and documentary. Sacred art was intended to embody specific meanings, to portray spirit helpers and record ritual and mythological events and experiences.

This division of artistic labour appears to have been the general pattern throughout Native America: men producing public art for religious and ceremonial functions, women producing personal art, largely for the sake of sheer visual pleasure or “beauty,” but often using motifs symbolizing spiritual and cosmological concepts such as the Four Quarters or the zigzag lightning of THUNDERBIRD. Ojibwa medicine men (or SHAMANS) were responsible for much of the rock art produced in Ontario and Manitoba, recording their visionary spirit encounters well into the 20th century.

One of the most important forms of Ojibwa religious art in the historic period was the sacred birchbark record – rectangular pieces of bark measuring from several centimetres to over 3 m in length which were incised in an almost imperceptible, fine-line technique with highly esoteric and symbolic images. These records served as documents of sacred lore or as memory aids for ritual, and the most detailed, extensive and valued were those produced by the MIDEWIWIN or Grand Medicine Society.

Least studied to date has been the art of the subarctic CREE. Aesthetic expression among the Cree is highlighted by exquisite quillwork and moosehair embroidery, noted for its perfection of technique and delicate colour harmonies. As nomadic hunters living a precarious existence in a harsh climate from east of James Bay to northern Saskatchewan and Alberta, the Cree had to carry their goods on their person, so items of clothing, especially their painted and embroidered coats, moccasins and mitts became a focus for personal aesthetic expression. Sacred art, eg, shamans’ painted drums and ceremonial animal hides executed with symbolic motifs, are lesser known but equally important as aesthetic objects among both Cree and Ojibwa.

Western Subarctic
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What has been described for the Cree of the eastern subarctic is largely applicable to the western subarctic, a region of similar environmental conditions occupied by Athapaskan-speaking peoples. Although linguistically distinctive from the eastern subarctic Algonquians, the DENE NATION, as the Athapaskans prefer to be called, share a similar culture and art with their subarctic neighbours. Decoration of personal gear and clothing was the major form of artistic expression, as caribou and moose hide was embellished with porcupine quills, moosehair embroidery, beads and commercial threads in geometric and floral patterns. Compared to southerly groups such as the Ojibwa and Iroquois, the subarctic peoples revealed in their embroidery their delicate colour sense and exquisite precision in design.

Southern Great Lakes and Upper St Lawrence ValleyFrom the late prehistoric to the early historic period, the Iroquoian-speaking peoples of this region – the HURON, NEUTRAL, PETUN and later the IROQUOIS proper – underwent more rapid changes than Natives in any other region in Canada. Because they were farmers, living in relatively permanent villages, their political and social institutions found expression in suitable works of art. By the 19th century, however, many of the First Nations had migrated westward or eastward, or were settled in reserves throughout the area. Art came to have a new purpose, as a commodity for sale to outsiders – to tourists and collectors of aboriginal “arts and crafts.” In prehistoric times this region was already subject to outside influences. The Iroquois in particular had trade connections to the south with the highly complex and economically advanced “Mississippian” cultures of the eastern woodlands, which in turn were stimulated by Mexican cultural innovations (ceramic technology entered Canada from this source). In the early contact period, they made alliances with Europeans through the FUR TRADE.

False Face Society Mask
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Wood False Face Society mask, mid-19th century, Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, Iroquois (courtesy ROM).The history of art in this region is too complex to detail, except for a few highlights. While on the whole there is considerable homogeneity in quillwork and beadwork throughout the subarctic and Great Lakes area, Huron work is distinctive in the later historic period. Huron “personal art” favoured moosehair embroidery in floral motifs of exquisite beauty on black dyed hide.

The quality of trade goods, unmatched elsewhere in Canada, had peaked by 1830, long after the Huron had left western Ontario to settle at Lorette, Qué. Hide and yarn shoulder pouches and bags, executed with a wide variety of geometric, naturalistic and mythological motifs, were the predecessors of the more recent loom-woven and heavily beaded “Bandolier” bags of the western Great Lakes area. The most common motifs were Thunderbird and the Underwater Panther, finely rendered in quills, moosehair and beads.

Typical as well were finger-woven sashes interwoven with white beads, burden straps of twined Native hemp, wooden ball-headed clubs incised and carved in high relief and elaborately decorated knife sheaths. The noted Assomption Sash was a trade item, although, as with silver work, the aboriginals adopted European techniques and designs. Even the splint baskets, prized by collectors as a typical Native craft, employed a technique learned from Swedish settlers in the Delaware Valley.

The Iroquois proper, or Six Nations, did not settle in Canada until after the American Revolution. The most noteworthy art forms of the historic Iroquois are the False Faces, wooden masks with metal eyes and sometimes horsehair, which were carved by the men for use in curing ceremonies (see FALSE FACE SOCIETY). Strongly sculptural in character, with a variety of mouth types and painted in red or black or both, they are sacred objects believed to contain the life force of the living tree.


The masks represent mythological beings, the most notable being “Crooked Face,” the one who challenged the Creator and had his nose broken. Other masks, plaited from dried cornhusks, were worn in agricultural ceremonies and represent a second group of earth-oriented supernaturals, those who taught mankind how to grow crops.

In addition to personal art (clothing) and sacred art (False Faces), the Iroquois produced another kind of art object of “political” function and meaning. WAMPUM strings and belts of several centimetres width and sometimes metres in length were made of purple and white shells traded in from the Atlantic coast. In the absence of writing, yet with the high degree of political sophistication these Iroquoian-speaking peoples had achieved, these wampum belts with their symbolic motifs served as a visual record of particular treaties and events. As such, the wampum belt became a symbol of friendship and cooperation between political groups, both First Nations and European.

Prairies
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Prairie Native culture, as it emerged in the 19th century, was a synthesis of Native and white cultures, the product of postcontact European influences such as the horse and the gun, which provided increased mobility and effectiveness in the BUFFALO HUNT. The art produced by the BLOOD, BLACKFOOT and ASSINIBOINE is similar to that of their eastern subarctic and western Great Lakes neighbours in techniques, materials and motifs, as westward migration, the consequence of new hunting opportunities, the fur trade and advancing colonization brought eastern influences into prairie culture.

Art produced by prairie people was essentially 2-dimensional, in which painting on hides was the major genre. Large TIPIS that required the hides of up to 40 buffalo were their major architectural form. Among the Blackfoot of southern Alberta, tipis of important men were often lavishly painted with naturalistic and geometric motifs. Dream images depicted on rawhide shields rival contemporary surrealist paintings in visionary and aesthetic impact. As images of the warrior’s personal guardian spirits, they were believed to protect him in warfare and help in the hunt. Painted buffalo robes were another major art form, with motifs ranging from the abstract, concentric “sunburst” pattern to representational images.

Personal art was the focus of aesthetic attention, as deer hide moccasins, jackets, dresses, leggings and shirts were embellished with porcupine quillwork and beads. Painted PARFLECHES, rawhide containers of various shapes and sizes, were unique to this area, and no design was exactly the same as another.

Plateau
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The plateau region of central BC is often ignored in surveys of Native art but is unique in many ways. The interior SALISH left behind a major body of prehistoric pictographs. The Lillooet, Thompson, Okanagan and Shuswap of the historic period are noted for their finely crafted, watertight baskets made by the coiling technique and decorated with geometric motifs. Little research has been done on the art of the plateau peoples, on their blankets woven of mountain goat wool, their clothing or the religious beliefs that provide the context for art interpretation in many First Nations cultures.

Northwest Coast and Arctic
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The historic art of the Northwest Coast and of the Arctic has been the subject of considerable attention in recent years. (For more detailed accounts of these 2 artistic traditions, see NORTHWEST COAST NATIVE ART, INUIT ART, and INUIT PRINTMAKING.)

Aboriginal art of the prehistoric and postcontact periods is “traditional” art. Even though Native art was strongly affected by European materials, techniques and motifs during the historic period, it was still largely shaped by the context of First Nations cultures. In contrast, contemporary Native art, like contemporary art the world over, fulfils entirely new purposes from that of the past, among them those of self-expression and, even more recently, that of sociopolitical activism.

Contemporary Native Art
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Contemporary Native art is that which has been produced from about 1945. Since that time, three major “schools” of Native art have dominated the contemporary art scene in Canada: Inuit art, West Coast Native art and the so-called “Woodlands” school of “Legend Painters.” As well, a more widely scattered group of artists work independently, in the context of mainstream Western art, and may be described as internationalist in scope and intent. The first “school” to rise to prominence, however, was contemporary INUIT art, with sculpture appearing in the late 1940s, and then INUIT PRINTMAKING in the late 1950s. Both were encouraged and supported initially and to a large extent by the Toronto artist James A. Houston and by the Canadian government.

Inuit sculpture and prints remained the most popular and most successful in the marketplace during the 1960s and into the 1970s, when original drawings by individual Inuit artists came to be more fully recognized and valued. In the late 1960s and early 1970s what some have termed a “renaissance” of Northwest Coast art in British Columbia occurred as well, with the appearance in abundance of traditional forms of woodcarving, metalwork, painting, prints and textiles at first among the “northern” nations (Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakiutl) and more recently among the “southerly” Nootka and coast Salish.

Somewhat later, the Woodlands school gained recognition in the 1970s with the rise to fame of Norval Morrisseau, an Ojibwa from Northwestern Ontario. The majority of Woodlands artists working from the 1970s into the 1980s have been inspired and influenced by Morrisseau and as a group are also known as Legend Painters for their depiction of imagery taken from spiritual and mythological traditions. Independent Native artists gained attention first in the 1980s and in the 1990s have come to dominate the contemporary art scene, to the point, in fact, that many of them are now ranked among the leading visual artists working in Canada today.

All the while, however, what has come to be labelled “tourist,”"souvenir” or “airport” art is a category of both traditional and contemporary Native art and craft production that came into being to satisfy the EuroCanadian market for “Indian souvenirs.” Such products first date mainly from the mid-19th century, as the sale of traditional forms of Native art to European travellers and colonists gradually gave way to new kinds of objects produced specifically for sale as souvenirs. These included argillite carving by the Haida of British Columbia; beaded pouches, moccasins, pin cushions, and other Victorian-style “whimsies” made by Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples for sale at agricultural fairs and at Niagara Falls, Ontario; and carved ivory cribbage boards and other miniature genre carvings by the Inuit in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Tourist art by both Inuit and Native people continues in production today alongside all four of the above-mentioned tendencies, and is found for sale at souvenir counters in large department stores, airports, and in specialty shops on reserve lands run by Native entrepreneurs. To a large extent, tourist art “pretends” to represent authentic Native culture, catering as it does to the stereotypical expectations of the non-Native tourist market. While aiming to represent traditional Native culture, however, tourist art has been shown more often to misrepresent that culture.

Contemporary Native art, then, ranges widely between two poles, depending upon the degree to which each artist’s work is founded in either indigenous Native or EuroCanadian aesthetic and cultural traditions. From this perspective, contemporary Native art in Canada today may be clustered into three broad orientations: (1) expressions that adhere closely in style, technique, and imagery to traditional Native arts; (2) those that combine traditional stylistic elements, images, and themes with EuroCanadian artistic techniques and stylistic traditions; and (3) expressions that are entirely in the contemporary Western mainstream, but which are informed and conditioned by the spiritual and cultural values of the respective Native traditions of each individual artist.

Traditional art work, for example, continues to be produced for use within still vital or newly revitalized Native communities. This is the case in British Columbia, where the carving of totem poles, masks, and other traditional genres has increased since the lifting of the potlatch ban by the Canadian government. That infamous 1884 Federal Bill 87 had prohibited performance of the potlatch, an all-important social and religious feast that required a host of artworks for the dramatic re-enactments of oral history and traditions. Recently, West Coast artists such as Tony HUNT, Bob DAVIDSON and the late Haida artist Bill REID (1920-98) among many others, have worked within the framework of traditional Northwest Coast art styles and imagery, a tradition that had been kept alive during the potlatch ban by such notable figures as Haida Charles EDENSHAW (1839-1920), Willie SEAWEED (1873-1967) and Mungo MARTIN (1879/82-1962) of the Kwakiutl Nation.

Contemporary art is produced on the coast today for use in Native villages, but more often such traditional items as masks, rattles, boxes, bowls, textiles and jewellery are adapted to EuroCanadian techniques, materials, and functions for sale in Native art shops. During his lifetime Bill Reid best exemplified the adaptation of West Coast Native traditions to contemporary purposes.

First known for his silver and gold jewellery – bracelets, rings, and brooches engraved with Haida crests such as Bear, Raven, Frog, and Killer Whale – he became recognized nationally and internationally for his monumental public sculpture. His large wood-carved “Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clamshell” (1983), for example, stands in the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology; a large bronze, “Killer Whale,” (1984) is a centrepiece of the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park; and his most famous “Spirit of Haida-Gwaii” (1991) is located at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C.


This last monumental sculpture, measuring some 6 metres in length by 4.3 metres in height, depicts Haida mythic animals on a spiritual canoe voyage. With its black patina, the sculpture resembles argillite, the traditional stone of 19th century Haida carvers. The production of this work for the Canadian embassy was temporarily halted by Reid as a form of protest against logging by commercial interests in the primeval coastal rainforest of the Queen Charlottes. Reid’s protest illustrates the increasing frequency with which Native Canadian artists have moved toward sociopolitical activism, signifying not only a shift toward new functions for Native art, but also increasing participation in the democratic processes of Canadian society at large.

Contemporary work produced on the west coast continues to be decidedly traditional in orientation. Artists may deviate radically from traditional imagery, forms, and composition, but their work is nevertheless produced within an established range of visual elements and motifs known as the “classic style” of Northwest Coast art, a style which reached its most characteristic development among the Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit artists in the 19th century.

Traditional, too, is the contemporary art of the Inuit. In spite of the oft-cited arguments of purist scholars who insist that contemporary Inuit art is largely a product of governmental influence, clever marketing, and deliberate EuroCanadian aesthetic influences, Inuit stylistic expression and iconography today remains expressive of Inuit culture as lived in both past and contemporary cultural settings.

Contemporary Inuit sculpture, prints, drawings, and textiles may often employ Western artistic techniques and cater to an outsider market. At the same time, contemporary Inuit art exhibits numerous points of continuity with traditional Inuit culture, values, and world view. Among the best-known individuals have been Ashoona PITSEOLAK (1907-1983), Ashevak KENOJUAK (b 1927), Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974), Jessie OONARK (1906-1985) and Ruth Annaqtuusi Tulurialik (b 1934).

The work of Norval MORRISSEAU and related Legend Painters such as Jackson BEARDY (1944-1984), Blake DEBASSIGE (b 1956), and Carl RAY (1943-1978) may be located approximately midway between traditional Native and EuroCanadian aesthetic traditions. Canvases, sometimes very large, are executed in synthetic acrylic paints, a medium favoured as well by EuroCanadian artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the same time, both subject matter and style of these artists is inspired by traditional Algonquian pictography as found in sacred birch bark manuscripts of the Ojibwa and in the PICTOGRAPHS AND PETROGLYPHS of the Canadian Shield region. Morrisseau’s sources include also the stained glass windows of his childhood Catholic church and the beliefs of the Eckankar religion, both of which spiritual traditions appealed to his innate Ojibwa mystic vision of the world, first gleaned at the knee of his maternal grandfather, a traditional Ojibwa medicine man. This syncretistic combination of both traditional Native and Western arts and spirituality resulted in Morrisseau’s work, and in many others of his following, an artistic expression standing between two cultures and appealing to both.

A wide network of contemporary artists of Native ancestry have been producing work that is almost entirely within the EuroCanadian and international “mainstream.” These artists are no longer trained in the traditional techniques of particular First Nations, nor are they self-taught, as was Morrisseau. Instead, they have studied in leading art schools in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. Artists such as Carl Beam (b 1943), Bob BOYER (b 1948), Robert Houle (b 1947), Alex JANVIER (b 1935), Gerald McMaster (b 1953), Lawrence Paul (b 1957), Edward POITRAS (b 1953), Jane Ash POITRAS (b 1951), Joane Cardinal-Schubert (b 1942) and Pierre Sioui (b 1950) are all individualists who see themselves as artists first, for whom their Native background is an important aspect of their identity as persons. Even so, they take pride in their identity and see their role as artists in a traditional way; that is, they use their art to speak on behalf of their people.

Although their works are produced entirely in the Western context of art schools, galleries, dealers, critics, and museums and with the techniques, genres, and modes of expression characteristic of contemporary Western art, their focus is upon making a personal statement about any or all of the social, political, racial, and environmental issues facing both Native and the wider global society at large. While personal and individual in experience and expression, these artists are nevertheless informed by the spiritual and cultural values of their respective traditions.

Critique and sociopolitical activism prevails strongly among these artists, whose works question both the past and present difficult relations between Native and EuroCanadian society. In particular, they bring to the foreground through word and image the current world crises – ecological degradation, poverty, violence, war, AIDS, technological dehumanization – that face humanity at large.

Carl BEAM, of Ojibwa heritage from West Bay, Manitoulin Island, in Ontario, exemplifies the independent contemporary Canadian artist of Native background. Rejecting the label “Indian artist,” his multimedia works speak with Native values to the wider Canadian and international audience of global issues of survival and human injustice. Working in a decidedly postmodernist vein, his work collapses forms and images derived from all of the world’s art history into one space-time frame.

In one work, such as his Semiotica I (c1985-89), Beam combines images of a soaring eagle, pre-eminent symbol of Native spirituality, with those of a Cape Kennedy spacecraft ready for launching, a traffic light and a parking meter. Observers are meant to draw their own conclusions from the work, a feat best accomplished when one becomes familiar with the whole of this artist’s creative output.

In all of his work, he draws not only upon images from Native tradition – bison, eagles, feathers, photographs of Geronimo and Sitting Bull – but also upon those from such ancient civilizations as Egypt and from contemporary newspapers illustrating current events, including the assassination of Egyptian president and peacemaker Anwar Sadat and the debate over Canada’s once-intended purchase of nuclear submarines.

Such images serve as recurrent motifs throughout his work, composed and recomposed in metaphorical juxtapositions that challenge the viewer’s assumptions and complacency. Beam’s vision and technique is both poetic and critical. His work embodies concern for the loss of spiritual values in society as a whole, for the destruction of the natural environment through industrial pollution; for the inhumanity of the human race which abounds in assassination of peacemakers, betrayals of trust and genocide; for the dehumanizing threat of technology; for personal identity; and for the place of the individual self within global history.

Images borrowed from newspapers and photographs are combined with painted representations and with writing, lettering, and numbers that are often superimposed upon each other. Transparency, juxtaposition, and implicit metaphorical associations among and between these disparate images require that his works be read and their meanings interpreted by sympathetic, aware, and sensitive observers.

Contemporary work by artists of Native ancestry is expanding rapidly into new media, into video, and installation projects. As among other Canadian artists of the late 20th century, those of Native background continue to produce works that express concern for society as a whole. As Native persons, these artists help bring authenticity, conviction, and often direct personal experience to the empowerment of their visual representations.
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JOAN M. VASTOKAS



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