Select Top Stories From Herizons

Daphne Odjig  by Jann L.M. Bailey (Spring 2011)
Daphne Odjig

Daphne Odjig’s career as an artist and her ongoing work as an advocate for Aboriginal artists, women and children has been a lifelong story of inspiration.

Self-taught, Odjig assimilated the pictorial styles of the Anishnabe and Coast Salish traditions along with cubist and surrealist influences. Her work has been defined by highly expressive organic shapes, undulating lines, bold outlining, abstracted figuration and an unsurpassed sense of colour.

A master of two-dimensional representation, Odjig explores the fields of painting, drawing and printmaking.

Producing balanced compositions that are often geometric in nature, she relies on her trademark style of elegantly interweaving a multitude of ovoid shapes, encompassing a human figure and flattened perspective, along with a lyrical cadence of swirling line and colour.

Bob Boyer, who, along with Carol Podedworny wrote Odjig: The Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960–2000, suggests Odjig was attracted to the cubist style because of its “disregard for perspectival space, its skewing of the elements and relationships of reality, and its central compositional structure.”

Indeed, she may have seen that these modern European art movements reflected a reality, a way of interpreting the world, that resonated with Aboriginal traditions, and allowed her to break through the colonialism implicit in the Western realist tradition.

Throughout her career, Odjig has been radical in addressing issues of colonization, the displacement of Aboriginal peoples, and the status of Aboriginal women and children, bringing Aboriginal political issues to the forefront of contemporary art practices and theory.

Odjig was born and raised on the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. The oldest of four surviving children of Dominic Odjig, a member of the Pottawatomi nation, and Joyce Peachey, an English war bride, Daphne moved with her siblings to her grandmother’s house after the death of her mother. Here, her first encounter with prejudice caused her to conceal her First Nations identity for many years.

Not until 1945, when Odjig married Paul Somerville, did she begin to explore once again her deep-rooted interest in art, an interest that began while drawing and painting with her grandfather Jonas Odjig. Fervent in her studies, she continued to investigate the work of Emily Carr among others and to reexplore her native roots. Tragically, Somerville died in a car accident in 1960, plunging Odjig further into her work.

In 1963, after a move to northern Manitoba with her second husband, Odjig witnessed the difficult lives of indigenous people who had been uprooted from their homes. Odjig documented the changes and the people in her Series of the North. Her fearlessness in portraying the reality of Canada from an Aboriginal perspective has set a standard for expanding the vocabulary of contemporary visual art practice in our country.

Odjig’s experiences as a native woman coming into her own during the volatile 1960s, when Aboriginal artists were beginning to investigate their ethnicity, greatly inspired her work. Like many artists of the Woodland

School, she began to interpret the legends and stories of her people. But Odjig soon found that limiting, since she wanted to explore her own narrative and share, through her work, her own unique experiences.

As Odjig continued to explore and develop her own voice, she took part in her first solo exhibition in 1967 at the Lakehead Art Centre in Port Arthur, Ontario. In 1970 she exhibited at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo in Osaka, Japan, and in 1972, along with Jackson Beardy and Alex Janvier, she was included in a pivotal exhibition, Treaty Number 23, 287 and 1171, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. This momentous show was the first time a Canadian exhibition comprised solely of Aboriginal artists was featured in a public art gallery.

This was an intense time for Odjig. She created an outstanding and prolific body of work, opened her own gallery, was an advocate for Aboriginal art and women, and completed several major commissions. She also completed an outstanding series of works on Manitoulin Island depicting the stories and beliefs of Aboriginal people, as well as a daring series of erotic images to illustrate the book Tales from the Smokehouse, which, when exhibited, was censored and closed down by the police.

She was commissioned by the El Al airline to produce works on the Holy Land, titled the Jerusalem Series (1975–76). Her trip to Israel had a profound and lasting effect on her and was the impetus to continue to push personal boundaries and create work which incorporated her deep-seated interest in women, families and spirituality.

Although Odjig worked with, and was friends with members of the Woodland School, she found more affinity with the group that she helped form, the Professional Native Indian Artists Association, often called the Indian Group of Seven. Along with Jackson Beardy, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Eddy Cobiness,

Odjig worked tirelessly to promote the group and change the way the visual arts community regarded Aboriginal artists. Like everyone in the group, Odjig wanted their work to be acknowledged for its artistic merits, not simply for its “nativeness.” This has remained her lifelong aspiration.

One of Odjig’s most outstanding works is the mural The Indian in Transition (1978), commissioned by the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization). The painting is so large (8' high by 27' long) she had to rent a house in which to paint it. It symbolizes the political and cultural revitalization of her people and was the largest canvas painted by a Canadian Aboriginal artist to that date.

Lee-Ann Martin, curator of contemporary Canadian Aboriginal art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, describes The Indian in Transition in this way:

“The Indian in Transition takes the viewer on an historical odyssey that begins before the arrival of Europeans, continues  through the devastation and destruction of Aboriginal cultures, and ends on an expression of rejuvenation and hope. Odjig’s story unfolds with the figure on the left playing the drum, which symbolizes strong Aboriginal cultural traditions, while overhead is a protective Thunderbird.

Then a boat arrives filled with pale-skinned people. The boat’s bow becomes a serpent, a bad omen in Anishnabe mythology,” she explains.

“Next, Odjig depicts Aboriginal people trapped in a vortex of political, social, economic and cultural change. Four ethereal figures rise above the fallen cross and broken drums against a background of a bureaucratic symbol of authority.

To the right, a figure, protectively sheltering the sacred drum, struggles free, under the protection of the Thunderbird and the eye of Mother Earth depicted in the top left. Odjig ends the story as it began, with a message of hope and mutual understanding for the future.”

Over the course of five decades, Odjig has participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions, including a major print retrospective in 2005 organized by the Kamloops Art Gallery when she was in her late 80s, and a retrospective exhibition of her drawings and paintings organized by the Art Gallery of Sudbury in association with the National Gallery of Canada in 2007.

Odjig’s work has undergone many transitions. She has received numerous honorary degrees, awards and international accolades. But at the heart of this engaging and gracious woman is a passion for life, a thirst for knowledge and a spirit that has influenced and revitalized the political and creative landscape of generations of Canadian artists. _

Jann L.M. Bailey is executive director of the Kamloops Art Gallery and curator of the national touring exhibition Daphne Odjig: Four Decades of Prints.

Daphne Odjig’s career as an artist and her ongoing work as an advocate for Aboriginal artists, women and children has been a lifelong story of inspiration.

Self-taught, Odjig assimilated the pictorial styles of the Anishnabe and Coast Salish traditions along with cubist and surrealist influences. Her work has been defined by highly expressive organic shapes, undulating lines, bold outlining, abstracted figuration and an unsurpassed sense of colour.

A master of two-dimensional representation, Odjig explores the fields of painting, drawing and printmaking.

Producing balanced compositions that are often geometric in nature, she relies on her trademark style of elegantly interweaving a multitude of ovoid shapes, encompassing a human figure and flattened perspective, along with a lyrical cadence of swirling line and colour.

Bob Boyer, who, along with Carol Podedworny wrote Odjig: The Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960–2000, suggests Odjig was attracted to the cubist style because of its “disregard for perspectival space, its skewing of the elements and relationships of reality, and its central compositional structure.”

Indeed, she may have seen that these modern European art movements reflected a reality, a way of interpreting the world, that resonated with Aboriginal traditions, and allowed her to break through the colonialism implicit in the Western realist tradition.

Throughout her career, Odjig has been radical in addressing issues of colonization, the displacement of Aboriginal peoples, and the status of Aboriginal women and children, bringing Aboriginal political issues to the forefront of contemporary art practices and theory.

Odjig was born and raised on the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. The oldest of four surviving children of Dominic Odjig, a member of the Pottawatomi nation, and Joyce Peachey, an English war bride, Daphne moved with her siblings to her grandmother’s house after the death of her mother. Here, her first encounter with prejudice caused her to conceal her First Nations identity for many years.

Not until 1945, when Odjig married Paul Somerville, did she begin to explore once again her deep-rooted interest in art, an interest that began while drawing and painting with her grandfather Jonas Odjig. Fervent in her studies, she continued to investigate the work of Emily Carr among others and to reexplore her native roots. Tragically, Somerville died in a car accident in 1960, plunging Odjig further into her work.

In 1963, after a move to northern Manitoba with her second husband, Odjig witnessed the difficult lives of indigenous people who had been uprooted from their homes. Odjig documented the changes and the people in her Series of the North. Her fearlessness in portraying the reality of Canada from an Aboriginal perspective has set a standard for expanding the vocabulary of contemporary visual art practice in our country.

Odjig’s experiences as a native woman coming into her own during the volatile 1960s, when Aboriginal artists were beginning to investigate their ethnicity, greatly inspired her work. Like many artists of the Woodland

School, she began to interpret the legends and stories of her people. But Odjig soon found that limiting, since she wanted to explore her own narrative and share, through her work, her own unique experiences.

As Odjig continued to explore and develop her own voice, she took part in her first solo exhibition in 1967 at the Lakehead Art Centre in Port Arthur, Ontario. In 1970 she exhibited at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo in Osaka, Japan, and in 1972, along with Jackson Beardy and Alex Janvier, she was included in a pivotal exhibition, Treaty Number 23, 287 and 1171, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. This momentous show was the first time a Canadian exhibition comprised solely of Aboriginal artists was featured in a public art gallery.

This was an intense time for Odjig. She created an outstanding and prolific body of work, opened her own gallery, was an advocate for Aboriginal art and women, and completed several major commissions. She also completed an outstanding series of works on Manitoulin Island depicting the stories and beliefs of Aboriginal people, as well as a daring series of erotic images to illustrate the book Tales from the Smokehouse, which, when exhibited, was censored and closed down by the police.

She was commissioned by the El Al airline to produce works on the Holy Land, titled the Jerusalem Series (1975–76). Her trip to Israel had a profound and lasting effect on her and was the impetus to continue to push personal boundaries and create work which incorporated her deep-seated interest in women, families and spirituality.

Although Odjig worked with, and was friends with members of the Woodland School, she found more affinity with the group that she helped form, the Professional Native Indian Artists Association, often called the Indian Group of Seven. Along with Jackson Beardy, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Eddy Cobiness,

Odjig worked tirelessly to promote the group and change the way the visual arts community regarded Aboriginal artists. Like everyone in the group, Odjig wanted their work to be acknowledged for its artistic merits, not simply for its “nativeness.” This has remained her lifelong aspiration.

One of Odjig’s most outstanding works is the mural The Indian in Transition (1978), commissioned by the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization). The painting is so large (8' high by 27' long) she had to rent a house in which to paint it. It symbolizes the political and cultural revitalization of her people and was the largest canvas painted by a Canadian Aboriginal artist to that date.

Lee-Ann Martin, curator of contemporary Canadian Aboriginal art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, describes The Indian in Transition in this way:

“The Indian in Transition takes the viewer on an historical odyssey that begins before the arrival of Europeans, continues  through the devastation and destruction of Aboriginal cultures, and ends on an expression of rejuvenation and hope. Odjig’s story unfolds with the figure on the left playing the drum, which symbolizes strong Aboriginal cultural traditions, while overhead is a protective Thunderbird.

Then a boat arrives filled with pale-skinned people. The boat’s bow becomes a serpent, a bad omen in Anishnabe mythology,” she explains.

“Next, Odjig depicts Aboriginal people trapped in a vortex of political, social, economic and cultural change. Four ethereal figures rise above the fallen cross and broken drums against a background of a bureaucratic symbol of authority.

To the right, a figure, protectively sheltering the sacred drum, struggles free, under the protection of the Thunderbird and the eye of Mother Earth depicted in the top left. Odjig ends the story as it began, with a message of hope and mutual understanding for the future.”

Over the course of five decades, Odjig has participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions, including a major print retrospective in 2005 organized by the Kamloops Art Gallery when she was in her late 80s, and a retrospective exhibition of her drawings and paintings organized by the Art Gallery of Sudbury in association with the National Gallery of Canada in 2007.

Odjig’s work has undergone many transitions. She has received numerous honorary degrees, awards and international accolades. But at the heart of this engaging and gracious woman is a passion for life, a thirst for knowledge and a spirit that has influenced and revitalized the political and creative landscape of generations of Canadian artists. _

Jann L.M. Bailey is executive director of the Kamloops Art Gallery and curator of the national touring exhibition Daphne Odjig: Four Decades of Prints.

Support Herizons by subscribing and get your very own copy in the mail 4 times per year. http://www.herizons.ca/catalog/143/subscriptions