Excerpts from The Power of Renewal by Bonnie Devine, an article published in the fall 2009 issue of Vernissage, the magazine of the National Gallery of Canada.
Seven deeply imagined works in this group document events that shaped Daphne Odjig’s life and those of her forebears. Every picture tells a story. The artist locates and contains within the boundaries of stretched canvas or paper, the chronicles of migration, flight and endurance by which she and her people survived.
The sixteen works in this section set Odjig’s early work within the context of contemporary Aboriginal painting in Central Canada. However, while the earlier works illustrate her contribution to the Woodland School of Anishnabe painters, her later pieces see her challenging the dominant conventions of this style and moving towards to a more fluid, expressive and idiosyncratic approach.
The Pow Wow at Wikwemikong, staged despite the objections of the church, heralded the resurgence of Indigenous cultural and artistic production after years of attempted assimilation and repression. For Odjig this event was the central factor in her emergence as an Aboriginal person, as an artist and as an advocate for the education and economic development of her people. The seven works that illustrate this theme convey the electrifying power of colour and music as a source of inspiration.
A collection of erotica unique to the history of Aboriginal painting portray this theme. They comprise five illustrations created for Dr. Herbert Schwarz’s book of the same title which was published in 1974. In some of the pieces she once again combines elements of legend painting typical of the Woodland style with the strong narrative imperative of Shwarz’s story.
Odjig’s homage to the beauty and power of forest landscape is amply represented in this part of the exhibition. These works are hallmarked by the use of a lyrical and subtle palette and reflect the dappled and densely green atmosphere of her surroundings. Yet far from merely depicting the picturesque, some of these images also convey her response to an environment in crisis and once again show her at the forefront of cultural activism.
The seven images in this grouping reveal that her work is rooted in a spirit of deep affection and connection to her family as well as the values that were instilled in her by the small community at Wikwemikong. The works range from the charming and nostalgic to the iconic and include personal narratives and depictions of her siblings, her parents and the grandfather who taught her to draw.
This section illustrates Odjig’s experimentation and how she was influenced by European modernism. The eight works also show the conflict between the two distinct worlds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal which Odjig experienced as a pervasive religious and personal complication throughout much of her life. They reveal the artist’s struggle and eventual triumph over society’s attempts to colonize and subdue the wellspring of spirit and creativity that is intrinsic to her work.
Copies of the Fall 2009 Vernissage are available at the National Gallery of Canada at the bookstore. You can also subscribe to this quarterly magazine by calling 613-990-1936 or emailing email@example.com.