blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The artist from Cold Lake

Morning Star by Janvier, at the Canadian Museum of History
This season's special exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada is a retrospective of the works of Alex Janvier. Born on a reservation by Cold Lake in 1935, he belongs to the Dene people, but at the age of 8 he was obliged to live at a residential school. The school staff recognised his artistic talent and encouraged him to go for formal art training at the Alberta Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary whence he graduated with honours in 1960. During his education he came across the art of Kandinsky, Klee and Miró, which was to have a big influence on him, although his style is all his own.

Fishy Flowers Talk
The exhibition in the National Gallery is not laid out chronologically, so I picked up Janvier's life story by degrees as I went through the rooms. (I had only intended to walk through for 10 minutes, out of curiosity, but actually spent over an hour there, which indicates how fascinated I became.) The first gallery is full of circular paintings from the artist's gallery at Cold Lake, an unusual format but one that appeals to someone whose native culture and beliefs have a lot to do with circles. Many are watercolours on paper; some are linen canvasses stretched drum-skin like over a circular frame, painted with acrylics. One of these is called Drum Talk (2011). Native drumming was banned at one point in Canadian history, although the people say that this sound represents their heartbeat. Eagle Song (same year) includes the likeness of an eagle's head and wings, the eagle denoting spirituality for North American native peoples. The colours are what strikes you first. October Sun revels in the many colours of autumn; Fishy Flowers Talk incorporates dots of colour like the dots in Australian aboriginal art.

Janvier's most famous work of art, Morning Star (see above) is based on a circle too. I had assumed that the four sections around the circle represented the four seasons, but I was wrong. The yellow quarter stands for the old days, when native tribes lived in harmony with nature. The blue segment stands for the turmoil that resulted when the European settlers began to interfere with them. Red symbolises the struggle to preserve the native languages and culture in the face of opposition. In other paintings too, Janvier's use of red is a way of expressing anger. White, the final quarter, represents the recent healing and reconciliation that has taken place, or is taking place.

Now in his 80s, Janvier has been awarded the Order of Canada. When he was 50, already famous, he was part of Pierre Trudeau's delegation to China which I mentioned in a previous blogpost, and (like me) was enamoured by the public gardens of Beijing. His life was not always so happy. He suffered a great deal at the residential school, partly from empathy with the other children. One little girl died there and he never forgot her, bringing references to her into his paintings. Apparently her body was sent back to her parents on a train, in a cardboard box, delivered to the wrong station. (Such injustices and disrespect rankle with the First Nations to this day.) One of Janvier's earlier pictures was a representational one of a native woman holding a young-old boy on her lap who is crying. After being sent to school, the artist rarely had the chance of a reunion with his mother. When he was 15 he did a large and, to me, garishly grotesque painting of Jesus with a bleeding heart, for the Catholic missionaries. The Vatican took notice and gave him an award for it.

Until the late 1970s, Alex Janvier signed all his artworks with his Indian Act number, "287". Then he went on a work-related trip to Sweden and realised that such numbers mean absolutely nothing to the international community, since when he has just used his name. Inevitably, some of his paintings are charged with political implications, such as Coming of the Opposite (i.e. the European church and system of government) and Lubicon Lake (1988), to which he added a bright red background in a fury against the injustices dealt out to the Cree of that region. Quite recently (in 2005) he did a rare, representational painting of a flowering plant in close-up, called First Call, distressed that Dene lands were going to be appropriated by the military as a bombing range. The oil sands around Fort McMurray displease him too.

Other paintings are more serene. He has used all kinds of media: watercolour, tempera, acrylics, inks, chalk pastels and oils. At one point in his career he became a member of the so-called Group of 8 (an oblique reference to the more famous Group of 7) –– a group that also included Morrisseau, Odjig, Reid... One of the works Janvier displayed in their exhibition was Alberta Rose (1977), its predominant pinks and pale greens inspired by that wild flower. There's a wonderful abstract blue painting done in 1994 which he entitled Cold Lake Air as a tribute to the clear skies of his home. Big Fish Waters is a huge painting that also represents Cold Lake and records the idea that whales swam there in prehistoric times (bones have been found that give this legend some substance).

North Primrose, a circular, mixed media painting, looks like a satellite image of merging rivers on the Alberta plains. Grand Entry, similarly, could be seen as a bird's eye view of the start of a Pow Wow ceremony, the Elders, dancers and youths swirling in to join the circle from all directions.

Janvier's most recent creation is a very large scale piece called Tsa Tsa Ke K'e. It is a mosaic spread out on the floor of a public space, a stadium in Edmonton. At the end of the exhibition you can watch a short documentary video about its installation, featuring the artist himself at its opening, looking very proud and moved, while people of all denominations and origins join the circle dance on top of it.

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