Saulteaux and Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle was leading a group of journalists around “Red Is Beautiful,” the new retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario devoted to his half-century-long career, when he stopped in front of his 1998-99 work “Sandy Bay.”
Houle, an uneasy public speaker, took a moment to steady himself before addressing the abstract and figurative piece, which bares his reflections of the residential school where he spent weekdays throughout his childhood.
In viewing “Sandy Bay” in light of the recent discovery of thousands of unmarked graves near residential schools, Houle explained, he now sees in its assemblage of photographs and large canvases a divergent path his life could have taken. “I had tuberculosis,” he recalled, and it was only by the grace of his mother’s connections that he was able to get to the hospital in time.
“Otherwise,” he said, “that could have been me.”
Since 1970, Houle has made the evolving reckoning between Indigenous and Western culture a cornerstone of his work. Throughout the retrospective — titled after the artist’s 1970 abstract painting, his first to be sold to a museum — over 90 pieces offer not only an overview of one of the most important contemporary Canadian artists, but also a unique modernist lens through which to view that ever tenuous bond.
“I think it’s really important that people see the massive contribution (Houle) has made,” said Wanda Nanibush, the AGO’s curator of Indigenous art. “He created a new trajectory in modernism: towards the organic, towards the feminine, towards the Indigenous. That’s something that no one did before him.
“Also, because he’s covered all the major events that have happened in our country, (the retrospective) is a good way to look back at the history of this place,” she added.
As an example, Nanibush points to Houle’s 1992 multi-canvas work “Kanata,” in which he reframes Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” by dulling the scene in bistre wash then reanimating the First Nations figure in red and blue conté crayon, and flanking the image with monochromatic red and blue canvases, representing the British and French, respectively.
“In thinking about how he centres the native figure and stripes everybody else of colour, he gave us a whole new way of thinking about Indigenous understandings of the history of the country,” Nanibush said. “But also the colours are amazing; they’re gorgeous, you could just bathe in them. So it’s also just physically inspiring.”
For his part, Houle says he was skeptical when Nanibush approached him about the retrospective two years back, but the pair found themes, groupings and pairings they felt were representative of the now 74-year-old artist’s artistic evolution, from ascribing a new voice to abstract expressionism to works of historical reclamation and political interaction, all guided by what Nanibush describes as “the way in which (Houle) understands the spiritual nature of colour itself.”
Walking through the finished exhibition, which follows its time at the AGO with engagements at Contemporary Calgary and the Winnipeg Art Gallery before spending a year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Houle said he was finally able to find a well-earned calm amongst his works of turmoil.
“I actually relive the anxiety, the abuse and the racism that is geared toward who I am,” he said. “But (I am no longer the child) that is forced to go to confession for worshipping a false god. I’m an adult. I can talk about it.”
Likewise, Nanibush said, “Red is Beautiful” is proof that the art world has become “more welcoming” of Houle’s and, indeed, Indigenous art in general.
“It’s a completion,” Houle agreed. “It’s a realization that you’ve not only established yourself as a serious artist but also that you can attract an audience who will look, appreciate and understand your work.”
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