Celebrating fifty years of art and advocacy, the exhibition features more than 100 works including monumental paintings, intimate drawings and large-scale installations
TORONTO — On his journey from residential school to art school and to boardrooms and museums worldwide, Robert Houle has changed the way we see contemporary Indigenous Art. This winter, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) celebrates his ongoing influence with a major career retrospective. Bringing together more than 100 artworks from the past 50 years, including large-scale installations, paintings and drawings and as well as personal and archival photos, Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful is curated by Wanda Nanibush, curator of Indigenous Art. Opening in Toronto on Dec. 3, the exhibition is free for all visitors aged 25 and under and Indigenous Peoples.
An award-winning artist, writer and curator of Saulteaux Anishinabe descent, Houle (b. 1947) has been advocating for Indigenous Art’s place in contemporary culture since the 1970s. Blending abstraction, post-modernism and conceptualism with First Nations aesthetics and histories, Houle’s artwork pushes the limits of modern painting. Beginning with his well-publicized resignation from the Museum of Man in 1980 over the desecration of ceremonial objects and his curation of Land, Spirit, Power, the first contemporary Indigenous art exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Houle has been a force for change in Canadian art.
“Robert Houle has expanded the field of Indigenous art by defying popular expectations, experimenting, and critiquing our collective dispossession,” says Wanda Nanibush, the AGO’s curator of Indigenous Art. “With the materials and insights of the oldest art traditions of this land to guide him, he became a new voice in modern abstraction, valuing immediacy, gesture, the earth and the sacred. Always, Houle turns toward the spiritual power of the ancient ones to provide a new vision for an Indigenous future; one that holds the complexity of contemporary First Nations identity in its grasp.”
In anticipation of the exhibition opening, Houle’s installation Paris/Ojibwa (2010) will go on view in the AGO’s Leonard Rotunda on Oct. 23.
Admission to Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful includes access to the AGO Collection and requires the advance booking of a timed-entry ticket. As of Oct. 22, all visitors to the AGO over the age of 12, will be expected to show proof of vaccination on arrival. For more information about the Gallery’s health and safety measures, please visit the AGO’s visitor guidelines web page.
Being a part of the AGO Community means experiencing special exhibitions like Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful and Picasso: Painting the Blue Period for free, as often as you like. For more details on how to become a Member or $35 Annual Passholder, visit ago.ca.
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
Centered in the Sam & Ayala Zacks Pavilion on Level 2, the exhibition features more than 100 works from 1970-2021 covering topics as wide as nuclear fallout, residential schools, Indigenous sovereignty and the birth of Canada.
Houle’s earliest works are marked by his interest in abstract expressionism and geometric forms. Among these is Red is Beautiful (1970) the exhibition namesake and the first artwork made by Houle to be acquired by a museum. In 1983, Houle began to assert the importance of Indigenous spiritual traditions in his work, as seen in Parfleches for the Last Supper (1983) a group of 13 acrylic paintings representing Jesus and his apostles. Painted on handmade paper and stitched together with porcupine quills, each is comparable to a saddle bag (parfleches). Houle wanted to create a continuum between traditional naming ceremonies and Catholic baptism, both of which informed his upbringing. The work is on loan from the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Stretching more than seven meters wide, Kanata (1992) is a monumental reimagining of Benjamin West's famed painting The Death of General Wolfe, one of several works that aims to centre Indigenous peoples in North American history. On loan from the National Gallery of Canada, in Houle’s rendition, it is the contemplative Delaware figure who takes centre stage caught between opposing colour fields of red (French) and blue (British).
Reflecting Houle’s ongoing engagement with issues of cultural appropriation and sovereignty, I Stand (1999) juxtaposes a 1947 Pontiac automobile with a quote by the 18th century Indigenous leader Pontiac, “I will stand in your path until dawn”. Premises for Self-Rule (1994) is a series of five works, each of which juxtapose lush painting and text and images. Each work reproduces text from a different legal document testifying to First Nation’s right to self-government in Canada. Photographs of attendees at a Blackfoot ceremony overlay these texts as reminders of the legal ban on Indigenous ceremony that was in place until 1951.
One of the first artists to capture his personal experience of the residential school system, Sandy Bay (1998-99) is a monumental work, recalling the turmoil Houle experienced as he remembered his trauma. The artworks’ five panels move from documentary photography to abstract colour, mirroring his own emotional journey from pain to insight through artistic form and gesture. After 2008, triggered by the Government apology, Houle began to process memories of the physical and sexual abuse he survived. Sandy Bay Indian Residential School series (2010-12) is a faux school room installation where his experiences are distilled and named, and ultimately enact a letting go. Houle, a master colourist who understands their spiritual qualities, shows how the act of painting can be healing.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a gorgeous fully illustrated hardcover catalogue, featuring essays by his niece Ala Goodwill, Gerald Vizenor, Mark Cheetham, Michael Bell, Jessica Horton and Wanda Nanibush, as well as, intimate recollections and tributes from fellow artists Kay WalkingStick, Duke Redbird, Jamelie Hassan, Ron Benner and Faye HeavyShield and curators David Penney and Stephen Borys. The catalogue is co-published by the AGO and DelMonico Books/D.A.P. and will be available at shopAGO later this fall.
ABOUT ROBERT HOULE
Robert Houle (b. 1947, St. Boniface, Manitoba) is an Anishinaabe Saulteaux contemporary artist, curator, writer, critic, and educator. For more than fifty years, he has worked to advocate for First Nations artistic representation and sovereignty and has established himself as an essential force within the artistic community in Canada and around the world. Houle studied at the University of Manitoba, McGill University, and the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria, and for many years taught Indigenous Studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design. From 1977 to 1981, he was Curator of Contemporary Aboriginal Art at the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization). As a curator, he is also responsible for landmark exhibitions such as Land Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada (1992).
Houle’s various solo exhibitions include Lost Tribes, Hood College, Maryland; Indians from A to Z and Sovereignty over Subjectivity, Winnipeg Art Gallery; Palisade, Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa; Anishnabe Walker Court, an intervention at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Paris/Ojibwa, Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris, Peterborough, and Windsor; Shaman Dream in Colour, Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto; Looking for the Shaman, John B. Aird Gallery,Toronto; Robert Houle: Pahgedenaun, Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa; and Robert Houle: Histories, McMichael Canadian Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario.
He has also participated in several important international group exhibitions, including Recent Generations: Native American Art from 1950 to 1987, Heard Museum, Phoenix; Traveling Theory, Jordan National Gallery, Amman, Jordan; Notions of Conflict, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Real Fictions: Four Canadian Artists, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia; Tout le temps/Every Time, 2000 Montreal Biennale; We Come in Peace...: Histories of the Americas, Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal; Sakahàn, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and Toronto: Tributes and + Tributaries, 1971–1989 and Every, Now, Then: Reframing Nationhood, both at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
His artistic achievements have garnered him numerous awards and accolades, including the 2001 Toronto Arts Award for the Visual Arts; the 2015 Governor General’s Award in the Visual and Media Arts; and most recently, the 2020 Founder’s Achievement Award from the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts. He has been awarded two honorary doctorates, one in 2014 from his alma mater, the University of Manitoba and a Doctorate of Laws from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in 2016. Houle has also served on various boards and advisory committees, including those of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, The Indigenous Curatorial Collective, A Space, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.
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Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Supporting Sponsor: CIBC
Contributing Sponsor: McCarthy Tétrault LLP
Generous Support: Cecily & Robert Bradshaw
The Delaney Family Foundation
Gerald Sheff & Shanitha Kachan
David Staines & Noreen Taylor
Media Partner: blogTO
Contemporary programming at the AGO generously supported by the Canada Council of the Arts.
ABOUT THE AGO
Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists and European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. In 2019, the AGO launched a bold new initiative designed to make the museum even more welcoming and accessible with the introduction of free admission for anyone 25 years and under and a $35 annual pass. Visit AGO.ca to learn more.
The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors and private-sector partners.
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