Artist Saul Williams tells a story about his first visit south in 1972. He came from the Caribou Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario's Kenora District and, welcomed into various Toronto homes as a budding artist, he noticed that white women decorated their houses with flowers and plants. His mother only hung tools, snowshoes or drying laundry on her walls. A few years later, he painted White Women and their Plants, an image in the expressionistic Woodlands School style that sets two stark white faces amid a vibrant swirl of coloured lozenges. To create the geometric patterns of the green, red, blue and yellow flowers, he looked to his mother's traditional beadwork.
White Women and their Plants is now hanging at the Royal Ontario Museum as part of Anishinaabeg: Art & Power, an exhibition co-curated by Williams with Alan Corbiere, a historian and educator from the M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, and ROM curator Arni Brownstone. The show includes two dozen other Woodlands School paintings, including Norval Morrisseau's magnificent 1964 Shaman (which Williams interprets as a self-portrait) as well as many examples from the ROM's fine collection of beadwork belts, bags and clothing made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The point is to draw artistic links between these practices, to create something of an art history of the Anishinaabeg, the large Indigenous cultural group that includes the Ojibway and that spreads across Ontario to parts of Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The show does not make much of this point, but none of the work on display predates contact with Europeans. There are a handful of intriguing early artifacts in the centre of the room, including a text inscribed on birchbark and some of the quillwork that preceded the beadwork, but this is in no way an archeological exhibition. Its thesis, relying on two media well represented in the ROM's vaults, is that the art changed through contact both with Europeans and with other Indigenous groups as the Anishinaabeg moved westward, creatively assimilating and revising through the years. The notion of some kind of static authenticity belonging to a historic race – that is, of a closed culture preserved only by the intervention of museums – is implicitly banished as the exhibition traces the path of living arts right up to the present day: There are also a handful of impressive contemporary pieces on display.
Anishinaabeg floral beadwork – delicate yet fanciful, painstaking yet riotous as the artist traces a stem in translucent white or a petal in vibrant red – was preceded by more subdued, geometric work done with quills and shell. The exhibition includes very few examples of this earlier beading, as well as transitional items that used glass beads to make the old patterns. New materials seem to have unleashed something in the anonymous beadworkers as lines sinuate and colours explode. They worked their magic labour on moccasins, friendship bags and traditional ceremonial dance costumes, but also on vests and the yokes of shirts in styles borrowed from European clothing. So where did all those glass beads come from?
"Venice," Brownstone replies.
In the 1970s, the Woodlands School – initiated by Morrisseau's bold use of thick black outlines and strong colour blocks to depict Ojibway legends – began to create an Anishinaabeg modernism. It took its inspiration not only from the beadwork the artists knew well, but also from an ancient source: rock pictographs showing mythical and human figures. The exhibit includes Morrisseau's 1974 Memekweshik, a black and ochre painting of the mysterious character, noseless and hairy, who would run away if he saw you coming. It was the Memekweshik who was thought to draw the pictographs. That lively mix of ancient motifs and contemporary materials, mystery and celebration, runs throughout this show.
It's a testament to the foresight of the ROM curators of the 1970s that the museum bought the Woodlands work, seeing clearly that what had begun as an ethnographic collection would not remain historical but was now following a contemporary fine-art tradition. That direction is spectacularly vindicated in the handful of new pieces in the show, all of them smart takes on Indigenous themes and materials that take the interaction between Anishinaabeg and Western art to the next level.
Picking up the beadwork theme, Quebec artist Nadia Myre creates large photographic prints of beaded red and white rondels representing the quantity of Indigenous blood and white in various volunteers. The 2013 work – there is one sample included at the ROM – draws on an experience she had crossing the United States border, where she was asked to prove that she had more than 50-per-cent Indigenous blood to claim a tax exemption. Myre has also created a work in which, again with the help of collaborators, she beaded over every one of the 56 pages of a copy of the Indian Act.
In Castor Castoreum, Ontario artist Frank Shebageget displays a series of coloured glass perfume bottles – the most delicate little pastel things except they are shaped like the wrinkly sac of musk-like castoreum located in a beaver's nether regions. The smelly castoreum is used in perfume and Shebageget's mother used to collect the sacs and sell them to the Hudson's Bay Company for a few dollars. In Ghost Dancer, a piece similarly concerned with the intersection between Indigenous culture and Western capitalism, Saskatchewan artist Wally Dion takes a computer circuit board and paints it white to create an eerie miniature landscape that refers back to the Ghost Dance movement, an Indigenous spiritualist revolt of the late 19th century that sought to banish the white settlers from the land.
The settlers never left, but this show transmits great hope for Indigenous culture in the way it depicts Anishinaabeg art in hugely inventive and provocative contact with the influences around it. In her musical documentary, The Road Forward, Dene-Métis playwright Marie Clements recently suggested that it is artists who will facilitate reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. This exhibition makes you think she may be right.
Anishinaabeg: Art & Power continues to Nov. 19, 2017, at the Royal Ontario Museum (rom.on.ca).