Daphne Odjig, Vision (1975), acrylic and graphite on ivory wove paper, 61 x 51 cm. NGC
Bringing together more than 100 works from private and public collections, 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., now on at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, offers visitors a unique opportunity to see masterworks—many of which have not been exhibited publicly in years—by some of Canada’s most important Aboriginal artists.
The exhibition borrows its name from an influential group of seven First Nations artists who formed Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporated in the early 1970s. They formed the group as a way of preventing their work from being pigeonholed as “Aboriginal Art,” preferring instead to have it seen as art worthy of inclusion in Canada’s mainstream contemporary art canon. Since its official incorporation in 1974, the PNIAI has often been wryly referred to as the “Indian Group of Seven”.
Founding member Alex Janvier was already an established artist with a promising career in the early 1970s. At the same time, he was all too aware of the challenges then facing First Nations artists in Canada. Janvier came together with Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez to stage a number of group shows that were key, not only in challenging preconceived ideas about Indigenous art, but also in bringing awareness to issues such as colonization, exclusion and marginalization, which First Peoples faced on a daily basis.
Decades later, this ground-breaking group is sharing gallery space again. The exhibition features important works by each member of the collective, produced from the 1970s to the present day. Together, the works demonstrate just how different the artists are from one another, as well as how avant-garde their work was, and remains.
Janvier told NGC Magazine that walking into the exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery was like walking into a room full of old friends. “It felt like I came home. It is such a beautiful show. What surprised me the most was that I have not seen a lot of the post-1974 paintings from the other members. So it was like experiencing something spectacular. I was familiar with it, and yet it was full of surprises. You could see how some of them developed.”
He says he also likes how the exhibition has maintained a political edge. “It represents the beginning of Native artists in action. Necessity required us to stand up. And it became an important movement.”
“This is what they were fighting for,” curator Michelle LaVallee said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “As a young Anishinaabe curator, this is an important part of my history. It’s an important part of Canadian history. I really believe I would not be in the position I’m in today if these seven artists and their contemporaries didn’t fight for what they fought for at that time.”
The members of PNIAI began to lose touch with one another when Daphne Odjig left Winnipeg in 1976, selling her gallery and moving to Anglemont, B.C. The number of group shows declined as individual members pursued their own projects; yet the PNIAI is still seen as one of Canada’s most important artist alliances.
“It was created because there wasn’t anything else being done,” says National Gallery Curator of Indigenous Art, Greg Hill. “These were artists who sought access to galleries, to exposure, to getting their artwork out there, and there wasn’t a way for them to do that. So they took it upon themselves to organize and have their own exhibitions, and build that experience.”
Michelle LaVallee says the exhibition “speaks to a shared history” that is still being written. “I would argue that in some ways we’re still battling the restrictions and definitions on First Nations people and their art, and the idea of what contemporary First Nations art should or shouldn’t be."
The exhibition includes a number of works on loan from the National Gallery: Coming of the Opposite, by Alex Janvier; Binay-sih and Ja-Ka-Byash is Trapped by Carl Ray; Big One and the Bad Medicine Woman and Vision by Daphne Odjig; Rainmaker by Eddy Cobiness and Artist in Union with Mother Earth by Norval Morrisseau.
7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. is on view at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina until 12 January 2014.
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