Robert Houle

"Art has the capacity to lift people's spirits. Culture is an essential ingredient to any improvement in social and economic conditions. For that reason the special status of native peoples must be acknowledged and protected not only in a constitutional but also in cultural context."

Robert Houle, 1990

Robert Houle is a contemporary artist, curator, and critic who has played a significant role in the recovery of Indigenous heritage. He draws on Western art conventions to tackle lingering aspects of European colonization of First Nations people. He relies on the objectivity of Modernism and the subjectivity of a postmodernism to bring text and photographic documents into his work.

During his formative years Houle was immersed in native spiritual practices and was influenced by Catholicism. The dual experiences of these traditions are present in his work where native symbols and ritual objects are combined with Western sculptural and painting techniques. Houle studied art history at the University of Manitoba, and graduated from McGill University in Montreal with a degree in art education. He has been exhibiting in group and solo shows since the mid-1970's. He was the curator of Contemporary Indian Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from 1977 to 1980. During his tenure, he opposed the relegation of contemporary Native art to anthropological or ethnographic artifact. This experience resulted in his introducing themes of Native ceremonial objects into his art, such as the parflèche, or medicine bag, and the warrior spear and shield.

The Place Where God Lives (1989), oil on canvas, refers to a sacred site of spiritual pilgrimage and is the actual meaning of the Saulteaux word Manito-waban, the word that later came to be known as the province of Manitoba. Shortly after this, Houle began work on Seven in Steel (1989). In this work, seven highly polished steel slabs, each commemorating an extinct Native American tribe correspond to a work by the Group of Seven. Houle incorporated small abstract painted vignettes into the slabs. All seven panels are marked by narrow strips of red, yellow and blue, colours specific to First Nations spiritual and cultural life. Seven in Steel refers to the losses that occurred as a result of European treatment of First Nations people, and their relationship to the land and territory.

Houle's concern for the status of First Nation's historical identity is raised in Kanata (1992), a reworking of Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe (1770). It depicts a solitary Indian man as a passive witness to the battle of the historical painting. Houle traces the scene of West's painting, draining it of colour, and shifts the focus to the crouching man by painting his ceremonial attire. The red and blue of this clothing is echoed in the monochromatic border panels, physically and symbolically re-framing the work.

Robert Houle teaches at the Ontario College of Art and has collaborated on projects that seek to establish awareness of First Nations contemporary art such as the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992.

Photo: Greg Staats