Back in the 1940s, a young Daphne Odjig would tell people she was Spanish, rather than aboriginal, to increase her prospects for housekeeping or factory jobs. She even temporarily adopted the surname of Fisher to hide her background as the daughter of a Potawatomi police constable on Manitoulin Island in Ontario’s Lake Huron.
But when Odjig died Oct. 1 in Kelowna at age 97, she was proudly indigenous and well-respected. This so-called grandmother of contemporary aboriginal art had a resume that included the Order of Canada and a Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts. She also had the distinction of being the only First Nations woman to have a large retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada.
“She’s a great icon,” Lee-Ann Martin, a prominent aboriginal curator and former chief curator of Regina’s MacKenzie Gallery, said at the time of Odjig’s 2009-10 National Gallery exhibition.
As a young artist, Odjig experimented with abstraction, cubism, surrealism and other genres not normally identified with aboriginal art. But over the years, aboriginal iconography appeared increasingly in her painting. She created her own hybrid reflectingboth European and aboriginal aesthetics. Her unique style and growing acclaim gave permission, in effect, to other aboriginal artists to blend indigenous and European styles.
Odjig believed in helping other aboriginal artists. In 1973, she founded Professional Indian Artists Inc., along with some others, including Norval Morrisseau. That group became known as the Indian Group of Seven and considerably raised the profile of contemporary aboriginal art in Canada and abroad. The next year she established the New Warehouse Gallery in Winnipeg. It was the first native-run art gallery in Canada.
The crown jewel of Odjig’s oeuvre is a mural, 2.4 metres by 8.2 metres called The Indian in Transition. The mural is normally on permanent exhibition at what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. The mural tells the often tragic story of Canada's indigenous peoples from pre-contact to the present. The large work is akin to the celebrated murals in Mexico by Diego Rivera that adorn the walls of that country's parliament.
Well into her 90s, while living in an assisted care home in Kelowna, Odjig continued to draw, often exploring the theme of mother-daughter affection. These drawings continue to be sold in various galleries across the country. Drawing, she felt, kept her vital, even when confined to a wheelchair. Just talking about art evoked a warm smile and sparkling eyes.
You might say Odjig was “discovered” by former prime minister Lester Pearson, who saw an exhibition of aboriginal art she had organized for the Wiki Pow Wow on Manitoulin Island in 1964. Pearson was so impressed with the work, including Odjig’s paintings, that he arranged for the federal government to buy the entire exhibition, laying the foundation for what is now a massive aboriginal art collection owned by the federal Department of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development.
At that same pow wow, friends coaxed a reticent Odjig to join a dancing circle. “I began to dance to the drum” Odjig told curator Bonnie Devine in 2007. “And I became an Indian.”
Find previous articles in Galleries West about Daphne Odjig here.