Interview with Robert Houle

Robert Houle’s relationship with art institutions is historically critical to his art production. My first introduction to the artist was in 1999 at Art in Bulk who sell cheap paintings. At that time, I was a curatorial intern in the contemporary art department and was assigned to work with the artist to hang a temporary painting of his work Anishnabe Walker Court. The painting consisted often vinyl text pieces layered over printed archival photographs of Walker Court, the former classical atrium at the AGO, taken over the years since its construction in 1926. These text pieces became a testament of a Native Peoples’ representation of language and power within the gallery space, in response to Lothar Baumgarten’s Monument for the Native People of Ontario, permanently installed during the 1985 exhibition The European Iceberg.

Inside the gallery, the audience is equally embraced by spectacle. The Art Gallery of Peterborough is the first Canadian exhibition of Paris/Ojibwa, which initially opened in April 2010 at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris. Paris/Ojibwa, Houle’s transatlantic research project, presented in both Paris and Peterborough, consists of a multi-layered exhibition, a native dance performance, a sound component, an art painting, an animation piece, a symposium, and a catalogue featuring essays by Nelcya Delanoe (Paris), Robert Houle and David McIntosh (Toronto), and Barry Ace (Ottawa).

Interested in continuing the debate on language and power in non-Western and European societies, particularly the imperial domination over the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Houle challenges colonialism’s political sovereignty once again in Paris/Ojibwa by reclaiming history and bringing to life the story of Maungwudaus and his dance troupe. Entering the gallery space the viewer is confronted by an ornate trompe l’oeil of a mid-19(th)-century French salon, that has a painted marble floor and neo-classical architectural details that frame a stage brightly lit with muted red colours. The sound of flowing water is not obvious in the gallery, but in a moment of silence one can absorb the music from the stage. It is the sound of water trickling and breaking over rocks, and was recorded by the artist. The painting is an homage to the eleven Ojibwa performers who once entertained the Parisian court of King Louis-Philippe in his palace at Saint-Cloud in 1845 as Part of George Catlin’s travelling “Indian Gallery.” Several of the dancers subsequently died of smallpox, which was spreading across Europe at that time. The identities of the male performers are re-imagined, almost as abstract as Houle’s pictorial paintings in the background and the delicate sketches on paper on the back wall of the gallery. Represented are medawenene (Shaman), megahzoownene (Warrior), nahmidwenene (Dancer) and the noojemowenene (Healer), all swinging forward in long robes, one in cerulean blue revealing a strong nude back to a prairie sky, much like the grassy marsh fields reminiscent of the artist’s homeland in Manitoba. We appreciate their erotic beauty and their performance in all the grandeur and glory they once offered. These were the inspirational subjects for Eugene Delacroix’s Cinq etudes d’indiens (1845), as they are today for Houle’s contemporary exhibition. Once again, Houle destabilizes institutional canons in his creative engagement with art and education. Here, in the contemporaneous moment, is the pedagogical potential for creating cross-cultural and emancipatory connections in the marrying of the histories between two very different cultures: Ojibwa and Parisian.

Robert Houle is a member of Sandy Bay First Nation, Manitoba, and currently lives and works in Toronto. He studied art history at the University of Manitoba, art education at McGill University, and painting and drawing at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria. Houle is a multi-media artist, curator and critical writer and speaker on contemporary aboriginal art. In 2006, Houle was the resident scholar/artist at La Cite des Arts in Paris. This summer, I met with him to talk about his recent endeavour.

What inspired you to work with Delacroix’s drawings?

I was fascinated by Delacroix’s paintings as a student at McGill. What attracted me about his work was his revolutionary breakthrough with his brushwork in his paintings. What also impressed me was that Delacroix considered the Native Americans to be North America’s antiquity, as if they were the Greco-roman heritage of Europe. It took me forty years to get back to this fascination. So I applied for a grant for the Canada Council studio in Paris to study these drawings. Once at the Louvre, I was amazed to see the drawings in front of me, [and also] finding unexpected works by him in the archive on the Ojibwa, which I later discovered were also [known as] the Mississauga when they visited Paris.

Is history a major aesthetic force in your past and present project?

I’ve always been interested in history and storytelling. This is the first time I discovered a particular history and I identified with these people, the Mississauga. History can unravel unexpectedly. This is the first time I unravelled a particular history in my research. This kind of unraveling of history can become fictional as one begins to explore other possibilities. In Paris/ Ojibwa, the narrative is abstracted through the art itself.

How does the activity of naming relate to historical amnesia?

The Place Where God Lives (1989), a four-panel painting at the National Gallery of Canada, is about appropriation of names. This work is about the origin of the name of Manitoba. As another example, Baumgarten’s Monument for the Native People of Ontario excluded the Cree, and others, in his naming. The action of naming is seen as a power structure and a classifying in my view. I am always aware of how the naming and classification is presented in a work when I am thinking about a painting. In Paris/Ojibwa, naming was avoided in the spirit of the dead dancers. I also didn’t want to replicate any stereotyping, as it would only be emphasized in the project. Naming is very much a demeaning and exploitive manipulation of power.

What is the “everyday” connection to the audience in the exhibition
Paris/Ojibwa? Is there a common viewer embodied in your work?

Paris/Ojibwa is all about creating an experience. The exhibition is a cultural flashpoint, not only for the Mississauga but also for Parisians, hence the collaboration with the writer Nelcya Delanoe and the artist Herve Dagois, both Parisians. I wanted somehow to bring what might have occurred at that time, how people might have interacted with each other in the spirit in 1845 compared to today. Things have not changed [in terms of the social ideals]. Paris is still one of the most Eurocentric cities in the Old World. I am disappointed slightly, but so what? I did not go to Paris to solve or change European ideology. I wanted to involve both the French and Canadian perspective, the history of shared nation states. This was very important to me, because it is based on the premise that as a Treaty Indian from Manitoba, there are two signatures that brought the province into Confederation in 1870: Anishnabe and Canadian. I wanted to recognize that reality, that duality. I didn’t know much about the histories of the Mississauga when I was in Paris but the most important reaction for me, viscerally, was to sec and study the Delacroix drawings in the Louvre.

How was that?

It was an “awesome” experience. The sketches were so fresh and the subjects so noble in their decorum. I saw the graphite drawing of Les Natchez and ink studies of the same drawing. That painting of course was inspired by [Francois-Rene] Chateaubriand’s book Atala [1801]. In many artists’ and poets’ work from the romantic enlightenment period, the Indian was a great source of inspiration, as it was in the writings of Baudelaire for example.

How does “performance” manifest in the context of the history of First
Nations peoples and of the exhibition?

I was intrigued by the notions of performance, of tableaux viands of that time, like holograms. In 2007,1 realized the war bonnets were made of turkey feathers when they are usually made out of eagle feathers. This was a time that was pre-powwow and pre-jingle dancing. In Paris/Ojibwa, the sounds of drums and chants as one walks into the painting also help to perform the history and the narrative. This was a source of inspiration for me.

Your work has had a critical component about the cultural
representation of First Nations artists in art institutions in
Canada and elsewhere. Where do you see art institutions today
compared to when you first began exhibiting in the mid-70s?

Having a foundation in visual art, art history and art education, Canadian and European, particularly in the early 70s, allowed me to have a critical voice. My first curatorial project that had a major trajectory in curatorial practice as it pertains to contemporary First Nations art was New Works by a New Generation in 1992 at the World Assembly of First Nations in Regina. I had left my job at the Canadian Museum of Civilization six months prior to that event. I believe one of the best ways to challenge the dominant society is through knowledge–have the best tools, train young artists to be well versed. In 1985,1 expressed that in a work called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Indians from A to Z. It was about language and the alphabet as a piece of technology. In New Works By A New Generation, I curated artists that only had a beaux-arts background and this created a ripple between myself and the community of Native artists, an outcome I wasn’t prepared for. I was considered a sellout. In many ways, the exhibition Land Spirit Power in 199Z was a replay and a fighting of the same demons.

Over a decade ago, in my research on contemporary aboriginal art at
the Art Gallery of Ontario, I investigated the question of when the
museum shapes issues of ownership and cultural difference, whose
voice is it, and how is it articulated?

When I was at the museum, I had a single, twenty-foot-high wall to work with as the contemporary gallery. So, I bought a Carl Beam painting for the collection. I had to give a defence in front of the ethnologists as to why it was contemporary art. “What’s this rocket on the painting?” I was asked, “How is this Native?” Pure administration ignorance; craft over conceptual art ruled institutional demands back then.

And, today?

Things have not changed really.

Ethnocentric sensibilities had in the mid-80s begun to shift, bringing
forth new discourses on First Nations art such as postcolonialism and
feminism. The time marked changes in two major ways: firstly, Native
activism had helped to politicize the Native artist, bringing forward
questions of identity and representation; and, secondly, there was a
late shift from modernism to postmodernism in the Native community,
a breaking down of institutional canons along with an emphasis on
pluralism and exploring questions of difference.

For a conference at Queen’s University in the early 90s, I was asked to chair one of the sections: “Other voices,” which required me to begin reading about feminism. Carol Laing, a colleague at OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design] helped me understand the need to change language and demasculinize it in history. Buseje Bailey and Jamelie Hassan recommended books for me to read that opened my eyes in seeing how misogynist daily life was and still is today. We were all searching for a neutral language. Around the same time, my partner, Paul, and I hosted a dinner party, inviting Paula Garland (the Native feminist writer), Bea Medicine, Edna Manitowabi and Diane Pugen, and we made them dinner. These women taught us about feminism. Dinner workshops like these are fun and they articulate complex issues openly in an educational way.

There is an element of spectacle–the dancer–in your latest work.
Can you please describe Barry Ace’s art performance in Paris and how
it was important for the project?

A seductive maquette was made by [theatre designer] Michael Eagan before the actual construction of the “stage,” the painting, where a performance could be re-imagined. Barry saw the maquette and was inspired and I suggested that he come to Paris and retrace [the original dancers’] steps. As a result, he did four honorific dances before the opening–at the Louvre, the Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, and at the cultural centre–where he invoked the names of four of the performers. I followed him through Paris and experienced the public gaze. It was a profoundly emotional and painful experience. [During] the last performance, after the retracing of the walk and the remapping, a French woman placed a euro on Barry’s ghetto blaster and that for us was a sign of respect.

Did you visit the Musee du Zuai Branly?

The Quai was not accessible to me when I was in Paris. It was very difficult to conduct research and look at the Catlin portraits they own in their collection. With my academic credentials it was still difficult, because it was my cultural background that they were afraid of–afraid I would claim objects from their collection. It’s a very dark place in many ways.

How does the Native artist fit into the complex experience of

To speak of a global experience is also a part of disappearance in this moment and time; the layering and veneers that have built up. And it is hard to change that, what the white man has done over time; it is hard to go back and change. My intention is not to erase the past, but to come up with an appropriate, healthy identity development in my work for everyone to experience.

Do contemporary artists have a key role in political change?

I’m ambivalent about that, but yes I [think they] do. I do believe it’s in the way aboriginal people in Canada and elsewhere are placed in jurisprudence and if treaties are respected, if land claims are settled equitably, and if all the things that were part of the treaties are recognized by the government and the subsequent laws that erode the original intent of the agreements are made equitable, then yes we’re in it together. The day that we as Canadians–I mean that in a collective way, in an inclusive way–the moment that we can live in our country and society [when] there isn’t that systemic dislike over an inherent jealousy based on guilt, then artists can have a political role. Racism, antisemitism and discrimination against other cultures and heritage still exist.

Discursive practices are present in your art exhibition and function
on many levels. What about the music as a communication strategy?

The music hits the soul and spirit and brings the voice, spiritually, to the environment and to the setting, and speaks the true language of a culture. The music in my exhibition is an honour song, a travelling song that I recorded in 1999 at “the place where gods live,” which is the origin of the name Manitoba, meaning “a sacred place.” I went there with my friends and family to find the waters. The water from the lake is levelled with the rocks closely beneath and when the wind comes in and hits the rocks it makes the muffling sound of Manitoba; this is the music that I recorded and the language of Anishnabe. *

Denise Frimer is a writer and educator on contemporary art and culture based in Toronto, Canada, and London, UK. She currently is completing a PhD dissertation at University College London titled The Art of Education: On the Engineering of Social Relations in Biennials and Museums.