Wed. May 25th, 2022

The half-century-long career of the famous Saulteaux and Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle is in focus for a new larger retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario entitled “Red is Beautiful.”

Named after one of Houle’s earliest works, the exhibition features more than 100 works, including monumental paintings, intimate drawings and large-scale installations, as well as personal and archival photographs.

Putting together the show has been two years in the making, but a dream for Houle for a long time. The 74-year-old artist would make a retrospective before turning 75 next year. His work has been part of two other major exhibitions, but this is the largest exhibition to date.

“It’s a little scary. Makes me realize how old I am,” Houle said with a laugh during a phone call.

“You still get [goosebumps] and anxiety, no matter how many professionals help you set up your paintings, your installations, your objects. It’s still very nerve-wracking. “

The retrospective opened Friday in Toronto.

A woman stands in front of a painting at the exhibition ‘Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful’ at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Thursday. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press)

Houle is often considered one of the most influential First Nations artists since breaking into the modern art scene in 1970. The Art Gallery of Ontario’s website describes his work as mixing abstraction, modernism and conceptualism with First Nations aesthetics and history. His work explores themes of indigenous sovereignty, Ojibway spiritual traditions, major resistance movements, and residential schooling.

Houle grew up in the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation in southern Manitoba. As a young boy, he was forced to attend a community school, and as a teenager, he was sent to another school in Winnipeg. Like many other native boys and girls, Houle says he was deprived of his language and culture and subjected to abuse while attending institutions.

Later in life, Houle began using art as a way to heal the wounds of the past.

Partly prompted by nightmares from his time in private school, Houle spent 50 days in a row illustrating his dreams. These drawings would eventually make up his Sandy Bay Residential School Series.

“It took me a while to recover or actually to see and acknowledge what I had experienced. The abuse, the humiliation, to be punished for talking Saulteaux and other things,” Houle said.

“[Art] gave me the incentive. It gave me courage, and I knew that if I did something visual that was painful, it would be a form of release. “

A set of paintings titled ‘Sandy Bay’, named after the residential school that artist Robert Houle attended, hangs as part of the exhibition ‘Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful’ at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press)

Houle pays tribute to the Oka crisis in an oil painting called Fyrrens. Three panels show a scene from a wooded area that was the subject of a land dispute between Mohawk and the town of Oka, Que.

The 78-day standoff, which began on July 11, 1990, between the Kanien’kehá: ka (Mohawk) community in Kanesatake, the Sûréte du Québec provincial police and later the Canadian military, was over a disputed territory known as Pines northwest of Montreal.

Houle studied at McGill University in Montreal and spent much time in the nearby Kanien’kehá: ka communities in Kanesatake and Kahnawake.

“It gave me a lot of courage politically. Not to be shy about protests. Not pale to analyze what was going on there and in the rest of our country,” Houle said.

Wanda Nanibush, curator of native art at the gallery, first became aware of Houle’s work in what she describes as a “life-changing” moment as a 16-year-old in 1992.

She visited a Houle-curated exhibition called Land, Spirit, Power at the National Gallery of Canada.

Artist Robert Houle is among his works at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Thursday. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press)

“It was the first time I had seen art by our own people that was modern … I just felt like he was presenting a completely different idea of ​​who we were,” Nanibush recalls.

“It showed me a completely different way of being an activist in the arts and thinking about social justice from a very different point of view.”

Nanibush had to contact more than 30 lenders to get them to agree to lend Houle’s work for the show.

Luckily, she says none of them said no. “They want Robert to have the recognition he deserves.”

The exhibition runs until April 17, 2022 and will then tour Calgary and Winnipeg.

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