Both Canadian and international art communities have largely assigned Indigenous art to the field of anthropology, believing that its place is in the museum. It is a severe lack of cultural understanding that has placed the creative expressions of Indigenous peoples, along with many other icons of our culture, within museum spaces. A serious problem arises from this representation: If our culture is only shown in the museum, then it becomes easy for viewers outside of the Indigenous realm to assume that our peoples have been long dead, successfully assimilated into Western culture. For certain, it seems that some individuals are more comfortable viewing a drum through glass than attending an open gathering to physically experience the drum’s heartbeat.
The art of Indigenous peoples has undergone many transformations in the past and will continue to enlighten its viewer, reinforcing the truth that Indigenous peoples are here, present, and participating in modern society. As we continue to move forward as contemporary inhabitants of this land (termed North America for some and Turtle Island for others, including myself), Indigenous art is becoming more widely experienced and accepted by Canadian and international art communities. Jane Ash Poitras has come to the forefront of the art world at a time when Indigenous perspective is necessary to change the established foundations of the fine arts community. While many Indigenous groups experience a lack of acceptance, for the purposes of this paper, the work of Jane Ash Poitras will be discussed as an instance of a Turtle Island artist who defies previously imposed categorizations of Indigenous art.
There is a struggle to define all areas of art, but not many efforts bear the tension of understanding Indigenous art. The Indigenous artists of our time have stepped forward in a peaceful manner, demanding a critical analysis of the history of Turtle Island. These artists are ever questioning the current celebrations of this biased history, which encourages dominance over an imagined lesser human and reinforces inequality judged on social standing, race, and gender. Alfred Young Man, the Department Head of Indian Fine Arts at the First Nations University of Canada has written: “It would not be stretching credulity by much to say that graduates of most, if not all, universities in North America and Europe still harbor a child’s awareness and feelings on North American Indians, their art, and metaphysics, if they have an awareness at all.” It is unfortunate, but many people would agree with this statement. The Indigenous viewer and artist alike are often inspired and liberated when Indigenous perspective is brought to light, particularly through creativity. The realities of our romantically documented history may cause those of other cultural backgrounds to feel uncomfortable when faced with potentially offensive and accusatory subject matter. Non-Indigenous viewers will hopefully gravitate towards understanding and will reevaluate their attitudes, which will eventually enable change. Although a misconception is not always easy to accept, it is important for the real to enter contemporary Western society, in order for good relationships to form. Indigenous peoples have a brilliant history that warrants recognition and for which they should feel no shame.
The artist is an extraordinarily powerful source for the promotion of change; however, the influence that they hold on many levels of society is often overlooked. Jane Ash Poitras embodies an abundance of talent and solid academic achievement that has enabled her to build a successful career as an artist, lecturer, writer, and philosopher. Her list of academic achievements includes a B.Sc. in Microbiology, a B.F.A. in Printmaking from the University of Alberta, and an M.F.A. in Printmaking from Columbia University in New York City. She survived a disheartening and humble beginning, and with some background information, the viewer can gain a better sense of her perspective as an Indigenous woman.
In her birthplace at Fort Chipewyan and later at the northern logging camps where her mother passed on, Poitras could have easily fallen through the wide cracks of a system that had no room for Indigenous children. When her mother died in 1957, no one bothered to tell her. She had been in foster homes for some time, and she was dismissed by the local nuns as mentally disabled and was therefore not allowed in school. This so-called disability was the result of severe neglect; she suffered from malnutrition, infected ears, a hernia, and severe eczema. Social Services happily gave custody to a 65 year-old woman “without ever checking the girl’s treaty Indian status or the fact that she had relatives in Fort Chipewyan.” Remembering this caretaker, Poitras says, “She was a saint really.”
Although her upbringing had taken a positive turn, as a young adult she was faced with a severe identity crisis. Poitras knew that she was of Indigenous descent but knew nothing of her own culture. For years she denied the Indigenous ancestry that was written all over her face until a crucial individual took notice and questioned her heritage. Poitras was working as a microbiologist and taking art classes at night to fulfill her creative needs; this is where she met Nora Yellowknee, who helped her connect to an anxious group of relatives who were unsure if she was alive. This time in her life is where her journey comes into focus as an artist.
Poitras is an integral part of a group of Indigenous artists that placed their feet on a new path in the 1980s. This group of artists was and continues to be some of our most respected role models, armed well and ready to express their Indigenous perspectives. Poitras’ skill in contrast and composition often take the viewer by surprise; this talent as well as her skill in printmaking is demonstrated in her collage of mixed media titled Shaman and Eagles (2004). There is a relationship between the manufactured line of the print and the more fluid and organic forms that frame it. In a very aesthetically pleasing manner, this play of softness and hard line relays the struggle of balancing our Indigenous culture with our contemporary lives as Indigenous peoples. It pulls us in two different directions, depicting Indigenous culture using classical European techniques like printmaking.
Jane Ash Poitras is part of a generation of Indigenous artists that are well educated and comfortably aware of the politics, social, and cultural issues of our time. In the past there has not been much room for comfort concerning such issues. As Indigenous women, our voice was not acknowledged by non-Indigenous peoples holding positions of power, while within our own culture our opinion and perspective is highly valued. Poitras’ work has become well known through her potent use of mixed media, bringing together painting and collage techniques to create harmonious relationships that command attention and enable constructive contemplation. When she was emerging as an artist during the 1980s, her creative use of mixed media and fresh concepts were appealing to the art scene, with its voracious appetite for the newest flavour.
Poitras’ work deals with identity and relationships by exploring historical perspectives and relating them to contemporary life. Patricia Vervoort, an Associate and Chair Professor in Visual Arts at Lakehead University writes: “Together, each of these compositions, contributes to a new ‘history,’ a history that has no boundaries in regard to tribe, location, date, or other historical references.” While Poitras maintains this focus, she never limits herself to a specific topic. She explores a myriad of themes, including colonization, assimilation, spirituality, culture, and hope, allowing her work to consistently acquire a fresh audience. She suggests that, despite our histories, we have at lot in common as human beings.
Poitras’ style has a spontaneous quality executed with an excellent use of form and colour. There are whispers of Abstract Expressionism within her work, and she often inserts vibrant colour spaces that translate the idea of spirituality and its life force. This is demonstrated in her work Healers (2004). It is a powerful image that keeps the eye moving. Her well-balanced compositions such as this one are made by juxtaposition and layering to create depth, enticing viewers and allowing them into another space beyond that of reality. She wants to educate the viewer about herself, Indigenous peoples, culture, and life. In this work, Poitras shows Indigenous women as a vital life force, a common thread in many of her pieces. She moves us away from stereotypical abuse and poverty, enabling the viewer to change their perceptions of current Indigenous peoples. With works such as Fort Chip Dog Show (1989)from the “Fort Chipewyan Breakfast Club” series, we get a sense of the constant activity and routine of communities. This activity and routine creates an infinite strength that has allowed the continual existence of our peoples. She challenges the concept that Indigenous peoples do not exist in contemporary society, that they have been absorbed by Western culture, defeated. Allan J. Ryan holds a PhD in Anthropology and lectures frequently on this topic as well as art history and Native studies. He comments, “There is nothing static or unchanging about her work.” Like her culture, her work is in a constant state of flux.
The titles that Poitras’ uses are not to be overlooked. They are an important part of the work, and they have purpose. She puts considerable thought into her titles, and they speak of her perspective and personality. With a title such as the above-referenced Fort Chipewyan Breakfast Club (1989), Poitras ventures into the uneasy area of irony, commenting on the affluent equivalent of the club within another culture. Allan J. Ryan again has a comment: “Poitras, however, is not content merely to rehabilitate stilted archival images. In a mischievous turn that reveals a most imprudent Trickster personality, she adds an unexpected critical edge by giving the paintings ironic titles that satirize white society’s custom of institutionalizing leisure activities.” By employing these techniques the work of Poitras speaks loudly but in a gentle manner, portraying the real, which is indeterminable using spoken word.
The movement in which Poitras is taking part in is certainly not restricted to Indigenous artists of North America. There are also controversial artists such as Kara Walker, of mixed African American descent, who are raising hairs. In the case of Walker, this hair-raising occurs more so among her own cultural group than among those outside of it. Walker creates art using stereotypical antebellum figures of African American and Caucasian caricatures interacting in strange, perverse, and humourous ways. For the viewer, these forms of expression help to bridge many parallels between the race and identity politics of different cultures. Walker attempts to shake the foundations of the contemporary identity of African Americans by asking the viewer to recognize and accept the true histories. Poitras also wants to show the viewer that race politics and identity can be approached from a different angle, a non-Western perspective.
She approaches this alternate perspective often when incorporating the somewhat controversial photos taken by Edward S. Curtis. She asks viewers to question their previous knowledge and to be open to accepting some truths along with it, out of respect for another culture. The photos of Edward S. Curtis have been very popular among non-Indigenous groups, admiring the imaginary stoic, forsaken “Indian” of his work. For Indigenous writers, he is often a target, accused of misrepresenting many Indigenous cultures and only focusing on the downfall of the people. Many individuals believe that Indigenous identity cannot be challenged by using such derogatory and inauthentic materials, but other people see these images as the perfect fit for the messages that artists like Poitras try to communicate.
The misconceptions of a long-accepted history will not be corrected overnight. As we place one foot in front of another along the parallel paths of diverse cultures, creative expressions will continue to play a major role in allowing the understanding of one another. The art of Indigenous peoples here in North America will persist in its constant transformations, enabling acknowledgment and promoting greater understanding. Jane Ash Poitras, along with many other talented Indigenous artists, will persevere, driven by the desire to express their thoughts in order to contribute to change. The contemporary Indigenous members of society will be able to further step out of the museum, to be recognized and accepted, but only with the open minds of peoples the world over.
1. Alfred Young Man, "Towards A Political History of Native Art," in Visions of Power: Contemporary Art by First Nations, Inuit and Japanese Canadians (Toronto: The Earth Spirit Festival at Harbourfront, 1991) 12, quoted in Nancy Marie Mithlo, Our Indian Princess: Subverting the Stereotype (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2008), p.ix.
2. The real is that which we cannot control. It surprises and shocks us into the situation of reality.
3. Gillian MacKay, “Lady Oracle: Jane Ash Poitras and the First Nations phenomenon.” Canadian Art 11(1994): 74.
6. Isabelle Massé, Jane Ash Poitras: Primordial Memories. (Ottawa: Galerie d’art Vincent,Château Laurier Publishing, 2005): 25.
7. Patricia Vervoort, “Edward S. Curtis’s ‘Representations’: Then and Now,” The American Review of Canadian Studies 34 (2004): 480.
8. Massé, Jane Ash Poitras, 17.
9. Allan J. Ryan, “Postmodern Parody: A Political Strategy in Contemporary Canadian Native Art.” Art Journal 51 (1992): 61.