1 of 3
Daphne Odjig. Photo Courtesy Martin Lipman, Canada Council.
2 of 3
"Harmony and the Universe"
Daphne Odjig, "Harmony and the Universe," 1986, Phillip Gevik, Gallery Gevik, Toronto. Photo Courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.
3 of 3
"From Mother Earth Flows the River of Life"
Daphne Odjig, "From Mother Earth Flows the River of Life," 1973, Canadian Museum of Civilization Collection, Gatineau, Quebec. Photo Courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.
A WIDE BRUSH
With a retrospective show opening at the Kamloops Art Gallery, painter Daphne Odjig is celebrated for her far-reaching influence.
By Marlene Milne
Behind the auditorium of Laurentian University in Sudbury, a gravel road cuts through the rocks and foliage of the Canadian Shield. Sealed bags dot the natural canvas of the outdoors at random intervals. Huddled for warmth and shelter from the rain and night chill a committed crowd waits expectantly for Rebecca Belmore’s performance tribute to Daphne Odjig. A car speeds through, stopping on a grassy pitch, the car’s brights go on and the story begins. Breathing, at first soft, escalates to panting as Belmore reenacts the journey in the painting From Mother Earth Flows the River of Life (1973). She rips open a sack, kneels, and in broad circular swipes, merges the red sand with the wet ground. It becomes a struggle, a labour, a ritual, and a metaphor...the layers of crimson mirroring Odjig’s own ripples through the history of Canadian art. At the finish, an exhausted but triumphant Belmore, soaked in red, reaches the car and embraces Odjig, the grandmother of the Woodland School.
The previous night had been a quite different scene. At the Art Gallery of Sudbury (AGS), after ceremonies and speeches under a tent outside, Odjig was seated inside the Gallery’s Tudor-style mansion, greeting people and signing books. Gracious, considerate, attentive, and regal, she acknowledged tributes and gifts of all kinds, while guests took in the show, a remarkable retrospective of Odjig’s drawings and paintings, curated by Bonnie Devine and hosted by the AGS, in partnership with the National Gallery of Canada that opened last September. It was the first time that the artist had reconnected with the full span of more than 40 years of work.
In the catalogue copy for Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers (Art Gallery of Ontario, 1984), Elizabeth McLuhan and Tom Hill perceptively wrote about the petroglyphs and pictographs that were the basis of the X-ray style that seeped into the Canadian art market through the 1960s. Triggered by Morrisseau’s 1962 sell-out show at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto, a new awareness of the imagery, myths, legends, and iconography of Woodland art began to be appreciated by collectors. Although rooted and working in this direction, Odjig was not drawn into the vortex of commercialism. In Winnipeg, she worked on developing her own style (The River of Life is a good example of work she was doing in that period) and created a group called The Professional Indian Artists Inc. to market images. Reasonably priced, they were sometimes original, sometimes numbered, sometimes unlimited edition expressions of Native life, tradition, and belief. The collaboration provided Aboriginal artists with a sounding board for ideas, strategies, possibilities, and styles that richly watered the seeds of creativity.
Odjig had reconnected with her 1919 birthplace, community, and culture in 1964 on Manitoulin Island in Ontario while attending a pow wow. She returned in the early 1970s to mentor emerging artists while her own practice continued to grow, bringing her important commissions and participation in group and solo shows.
The triptychRoots(1979) traces Odjig’s youth and early years, reflecting on the stories she soaked up from her grandfather while she adapted to life in Toronto, away from home. It is a more personal echo of The Indian in Transition, (1978) commissioned two years earlier and now in the collection of the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. The point is that this artist was always working on her own development as she nurtured a new way of creating art — assimilating, incorporating, and internalizing legends and oral histories, attending carefully to personal growth and feeding her own spirit. Organized by Devine to accompany Odjig’s retrospective in Sudbury, an in-depth symposium on Woodland art called Witnessjustly honoured and defined her contributions to our collective cultural community.
Among other topics, the presenters addressed the roots of collaborations between artists that took place in the late 1960s and 70s in Winnipeg, comparative history — a talk by curator Greg Hill on the Morrisseau show at the National Gallery, and a look ahead at work by emerging artists. In everything, the lingering brush of Odjig’s work and influence is apparent. At the retrospective show, each of the works evokes a visceral response — it may be from the fluidity of her line, so organic it invites the viewer into the picture. It may be the graphic intensity she uses to address any subject, or it may be the colour. For the viewer, it is likely all these elements in combination. The art speaks with passion and honesty about history, legends, eroticism, ritual, and Odjig’s own life.
At the Kamloops Art Gallery this summer, The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig will showcase works that are in public and private collections, mostly in Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec. Among the unusual works exhibited are the sexual but legend-based original paintings from Odjig’s illustration of the 1974 book Tales from the Smokehouse, and L’Amour Fou (1986), which references Picasso’s influence on her work. In it, ironic references are made to the famous cubist sense of space, and influences from African art, while exemplifying the artist’s fluid re-appropriation of line and imagery. Odjig holds the brush, and the cycle continues.