Daphne Odjig : Pow Wow at Wikwemikong
Daphne Odjig
Pow Wow at Wikwemikong
Marie Lugli, August 6, 2018
So groundbreaking was her work in the 60s and 70s, fellow artist and friend Norval Morrisseau called her “Picasso’s grandmother.” While Daphne Odjig’s work does embrace Cubism at times, as can be seen in L’amour fou, her colourful and playful homage to Picasso, Morrisseau’s tongue-in-cheek nickname for her claims a rich pictorial tradition of colour, line, rhythm and movement that long predates the art of the twentieth century. Today, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) proudly presents The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig, the institution’s first solo exhibition by a First Nations female artist.

“Daphne Odjig holds an important place among the great artists of Canada,” said NGC Director, Marc Mayer. “She is respected nationally and internationally as a matriarchal figure who has captured her people’s voice, history and legends in a unique artistic style. We are honoured to be celebrating Daphne Odjig’s impressive career in this in-depth exploration of her work.”


Daphne Odjig 2/Daphne Odjig+Mother Earth Struggling for her life, 1975_Collection of Barbara A. Newton Vedan, Vancouver
Daphne Odjig 2/Daphne Odjig+Mother Earth Struggling for her life, 1975_Collection of Barbara A. Newton Vedan, Vancouver


Daphne Odjig’s life and those of her forebears are depicted in stories of migration, flight and endurance. Highlights include: Genocide No. 1 (1971), from the NGC’s collection, a powerful rendering of the battle of Fort Dearborn near Chicago in which Odjig’s great-great-grandfather was a combatant and Roots (1979), a large triptych that depicts the artist’s own story of courage and survival in three stages: the harmonious life she knew on the reserve as a child, the identity crisis she experienced in the city, and the final stages of her life when she found peace in her Aboriginal roots.

Earlier works, such as The Eternal Struggle (1966), illustrate Odjig’s contribution to the Woodland School of Anishnabe painters, while later pieces such as the powerful collage, Thunderbird Woman (1971), start to challenge the dominant conventions of this style and move towards a more fluid and expressive approach.


Daphne Odjig 2/Earth Mother, 1969_Collection of Stan Somerville, Westbank (Colombie-Britannique
Daphne Odjig 2/Earth Mother, 1969_Collection of Stan Somerville, Westbank (Colombie-Britannique


Pow Wow at Wikwemikong

The Pow Wow at Wikwemikong, staged despite the objections of the church, heralded the resurgence of Indigenous cultural and artistic production after years of attempted assimilation and repression. For Odjig this event was the central factor in her emergence as an Aboriginal person, as an artist and as an advocate for the education and economic development of her people. It set the stage for the later works that would define her style, such as the large diptych Spiritual Renewal (1984). In this metaphorical painting, Odjig illustrates as a series of processions, the coming of Christian missionaries and the coming of the drummers, and, at the centre of the second panel, the sweet grass ceremony that was the turning point and culmination of the first pow wow.

Tales of the Smokehouse

A collection of erotica unique to the history of Aboriginal painting, these drawings were created for Dr. Herbert Schwarz’s book of the same title, published in 1974.

Our Land

This is Odjig’s homage to the beauty and power of the forest. Some works, such as People of the Forest (1981), convey her response to the clear-cutting of British Columbia’s forests and the pollution and destruction of wildlife habitat that followed.


Daphne Odjig 2/Rebirth of a Culture, 1979_McMichael Art Canadian Klienburg, Ontario_Donation of James Hubbard and Dennis Jones for the memory of Estella & Stuart Wright
Daphne Odjig 2/Rebirth of a Culture, 1979_McMichael Art Canadian Klienburg, Ontario_Donation of James Hubbard and Dennis Jones for the memory of Estella & Stuart Wright


Our Families

The seven images in this grouping reveal that her work is rooted in a spirit of deep affection and connection to her family as well as the values that were instilled in her by the small community at Wikwemikong. A highlight is Two Ladies Quilting (1982), which portrays the metaphorical and communal act of stitching together remnants of colour and shape and the reciprocal act of telling, transmitting and relating that is central to the reconstruction of a people.

The Artist’s Life

Odjig’s practice has always centred on a spirit of experimentation and this section depicts her influences and the challenges she faced as an Aboriginal living in a dominant non-Aboriginal culture. The works reveal the artist’s struggle and eventual triumph over society’s attempts to colonize and subdue the spirit and creativity that is intrinsic to her work.


Daphne Odjig 2/Spiritual Renewal, 1984_Collection du Musée et du Centre artistique de l’Université Laurentienne, Université Laurentienne
Daphne Odjig 2/Spiritual Renewal, 1984_Collection du Musée et du Centre artistique de l’Université Laurentienne, Université Laurentienne


Bio_Express

Odjig was born in 1919 on the Wikwemikong Reserve on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island to an Odawa father and English mother. Her artistic training began when rheumatic fever forced her to leave school at age 13. At home, her grandfather Jonas, a stone carver, and father Dominic nurtured her talent for drawing. Sometimes Jonas told traditional Potawatomi stories while they sketched and painted. Though she would spend her early adulthood disconnected from her heritage – in large part an effort to avoid racism – she never stopped making art. Art would become the most significant line connecting the phases of her life. In the exhibition catalogue, co-published by the Gallery and the AGS, Devine writes that, “The stories as much as the curvilinear drawing style she learned from her stone carver grandfather during her convalescence influenced Odjig’s aesthetic and metaphysical concerns throughout her life.”

Odjig was formally recognized as an artist in 1963 when she was admitted to the British Columbia Federation of Artists. The work that opened this door, the 1962 oil painting Theatre Queue, is telling: it has been described as an expressionist urban landscape depicting Odjig’s cultural isolation. She was once quoted regarding this time in her life in a profile in Equinox magazine: “I so badly wanted to be able to say to you, ‘I’m Indian, I was born on a reserve.’ But because of the situation, I couldn’t do that...”


Daphne Odjig 2/The Shaking Tent, 1969_Colection de la Société du Centre du centenaire du Manitoba, Winnipeg
Daphne Odjig 2/The Shaking Tent, 1969_Colection de la Société du Centre du centenaire du Manitoba, Winnipeg


By the mid-1960s she and her husband Chester Beavon had moved to northern Manitoba where he worked as development officer in the community of Easterville, where Cree from the Chemahawin had recently been relocated. She created a series of highly detailed, pen-and-ink drawings depicting community life. She sketched dog teams, cabins, fishing yawls, and such locals as Verna George and Patsy Wood. In an interview with Tawow magazine, she spoke of her concern over the loss of traditional ways of living: “These portraits are not figments of my imagination, they are real people and actual places. These I want to live forever through the medium of art.”

Her art changed. She began depicting allegories and legends and illustrated a collection of school readers called Nanabush Tales, published in 1971. Tawow magazine suggested that her acrylic painting Thunderbird Woman (1971) expressed “something of the violence and intensity” of the figure in the legend, who is transformed to a powerful creature, half-woman, half-bird, after being slain by a jealous man. During this period Odjig’s style was most closely associated with Norval Morrisseau’s; the two, apparently working at first unbeknownst to one another, were seen as evidence of an “emergence” – a cultural shift, a new consciousness. But Odjig soon turned to history, becoming one of the first Aboriginal artists to address the colonial and post-colonial horrors visited upon her people.


Daphne Odjig 2/Pow_Wow Dancer. 1978_Private collection
Daphne Odjig 2/Pow_Wow Dancer. 1978_Private collection


Odjig would come to create legend paintings, history murals, erotica, abstractions, and landscapes using a range of techniques and materials but settling on acrylic as her medium, the one she would push hardest and furthest. The result: an oeuvre and a voice that cannot be characterized as purely Aboriginal, Canadian, or European in influence. Her work is now in private and public collections across Canada. Odjig is a member of the Order of Canada and widely considered the “grandmother of Aboriginal art” in this country. She ran an Aboriginal art gallery in Winnipeg for many years, and founded the short-lived but influential group known as the “Indian Group of Seven,” which counted Morrisseau, Carl Ray, and Alex Janvier among its members.

Daphne Odjig 2/Défilé solennel, 1989_Thunder Bay Art Gallery Collection
Daphne Odjig 2/Défilé solennel, 1989_Thunder Bay Art Gallery Collection


For Odjig, true artistic freedom arrived as the 1970s came to a close. “She began to exhibit work that didn’t necessarily speak about either her ‘Indianness’ or the history of her people, but about her feelings as a human being,” says Bonnie Devine. This evolution can be seen in such works as Two Ladies Quilting (1982). “There’s a thematic shift here, a different visual language,” says Devine. “The space is metaphoric. The geometric shapes spread over the picture plane suggest people pulling together disparate elements and creating something cohesive.”

It’s the line, of course, always the last element applied to an Odjig, that brings it together in the end, and that Devine wishes she could extract from the paintings to see what tales it might tell on its own. But perhaps divorced from the interiors and colours it encloses, the line would lose its power. Odjig once said that the line brings her paintings to life. “If you looked at my painting before I got my formline on, you probably wouldn’t distinguish what I’m doing. But by the time I got my formline on, everything is in balance, and it’s there.” Without the pieces of the painting – the pieces of life – to connect, the line has nothing to accomplish, nowhere to go. Odjig must know this better than anyone.

www.gallery.ca