A man urinates in the alley next to Robert Houle's downtown house. Across the street is the Beer Store; its big orange sign staring into the urban shabbiness all cheerful and bright, like it's advertising a playgroup centre. Around the corner is the intersection of Gerrard and Parliament streets dubbed "Winners' Circle" by the locals. That's where drunks, many of them native, lie passed out or hung-over, curled in fetal positions or draped over the triangle of grass, like performance art, a statement of urban despair.
"Sure, it's another drunken Indian," says Houle with a grimace and an indifferent shrug. "But, really, it's just another drunken person."
That's his answer when asked why it doesn't bother him. The drunken Indians, as he would say; the indictment it represents of how marginalized and hopeless aboriginal people can become in the Great White World of Toronto. I had to ask because Houle is Saulteaux, a Plains Ojibwa from Manitoba.
He is one of Canada's best-known contemporary native artists. He bought this house, a two-storey semi-detached townhouse, in 1992, with proceeds from the sale to Ottawa's National Gallery of The Place Where God Lives, a series of four colourful paintings, and Kanata, his reworking of Benjamin West's 18th-century painting The Death of General Wolfe. He has been teaching at the Ontario College of Art for 10 years. In the late 1970s, for three years, he was the curator of contemporary native art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. He is well represented in collections across Canada and around the world.
This guy is both the voice of native empowerment and an exemplar of its potential. An artist whose arts-speak about representation and abstraction and conceptual art's manipulation of language could make any downtown contemporary art connoisseur turn green with envy in his silver Prada suit.
"When you see a white person drunk do you take that personally?" he asks calmly.
Houle has a way of sitting upright in his simple wooden chair that makes him appear boyish at 53, as though he's in school and is trying his best to answer questions truthfully and obediently.
"But, wait a minute," I venture, "isn't that, well," -- I grope for the right expression -- "about selective identification or something?" It is a shock, his statement, because Houle's work deals with aboriginal issues, about identity and alienation, loss and spirituality. So does he choose to identify with his brethren only when it pleases him or when it serves to fuel his work?
He remains silent for a moment, then straightens his slim shoulders and says, rather primly, "I don't identify with any drunk." A little moue appears on his face, then he laughs.
Nothing is simple with Robert Houle.
I met him for the first time in a snowstorm in Toronto, back in March. One of his friends had wanted me to meet him, and so I was invited to drive with them up to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in North York where his show, Sovereignty over Subjectivity, was installed before moving to the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. The exhibition included many of his best-known works, and a new one, Sandy Bay, that dealt with a subject he had never before approached -- the emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse he suffered as a boy in the church-run residential school on his reserve in Sandy Bay, Man. On the way up Yonge Street, a long slow drive that day through thickening snowfall, he offered little bits of his experience, turning around to me in the back seat.
"One day Father Chaput summoned me to his office," Houle began, facing me with a solemn expression. "He had asked my parents to come. My mother came. But my father refused." Both his parents had also been through the residential school and carried memories of their own abuse in silence. "When I was standing in front of the oblate's desk, he asked me to drop my pants for my mother to see. To humiliate me, I suppose. He said he wanted to show my mother that I had reached puberty."
As he said that, he turned from me to look out the windshield into the falling snow that obfuscated the cold, hard buildings of the city like one of those bubble thingies you shake to create a fairy-tale scene. He was totally dispassionate. He half-shrugged in his tweedy jacket, collared shirt and jeans, as though it had happened to someone else and there was nothing left to say except some rote platitude. He talked about being bullied by other boys, and about being molested in the night. He said that one time, when he was little, a nun who was caring for him when he had pneumonia, began fondling him. "Then, when I got an erection, she slapped me!" he laughed, not an open humorous laugh, but a small, dry cynical one.
We arrived at the North York museum, and in silence for the most part, moved around the space. The exhibition was large, his work clean, colourful and compelling. Sandy Bay is three large panels of white, blue and red -- meant to represent the flags of the European conquerors. The white panel depicts, in ghostly, colourless shades, the residential school. "See?" Houle said, pointing to the painting in a morbidly excited manner. He then stood close to me and in a hushed voice said, ominously, "There are no doors in my representation of it. No escape."
From what I could gather, this no-holds-barred display of emotion and personal torment was new for Houle. All his other paintings in the show were calm, slick works, coolly and cleverly intellectual. I think now that I wasn't sure what to do with him -- this clinical, intellectual, well-educated (BA from University of Manitoba; a degree in education from McGill University) native man who was serving up horrid shards of his past like cheap trinkets at a fair.
Clearly, at the time, he was dealing with the release of emotion Sandy Bay had allowed. This was the first time it has been exhibited. There is empowerment in telling a story. He was both giddy and shy, almost embarrassed really. The abuse was perpetrated not just by the oblates and the nuns, but by the supervisors in the school, who were native.
"Native teenagers sexually abused you?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," he nodded vigorously.
"When something sinister and evil is growing, it has a way of nurturing itself, of perpetuating itself," he continued excitedly.
Sitting with him now in his narrow, sparsely furnished living and dining rooms, which double as his studio, I am glad to have the chance of a second pass at him. One wall is covered in plastic tarp, and on it hangs a panel of his latest work, Kanehsatake X -- created to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Oka crisis -- which will appear in the Montreal Biennale this fall.
True to form, he is in a passing series of moods -- angry, rueful, cynical, stoic. But mostly he is sad. Several times, he is on the verge of tears, or he grows silent, looking down at his small hands on the paint-splattered table in front of him. The night before, his Uncle Wilfred, who was in his late 50s, died of bowel cancer on the Sandy Bay reserve.
"He protected me at the school. He was older and he'd tell the other boys to leave me alone or he'd watch for me at night so no one would try to crawl into my bed," Houle says quietly, his mouth a straight, stern line. "He represented love and tenderness." He never talked to his uncle about the things that happened in the residential schools. Even his father, Soloman, can't bring himself to talk about it.
Houle wishes there were more native men like his uncle. He sees irony in the plight of the Ojibwa men. They were raised to be strong, to be the leaders, unlike in the Mohawk tribes, where women were revered. Yet the residential schools filled them with doubt and low self-esteem, which in turn made them angry and violent in the most dysfunctional way. That's why he never returned to the reserve after he left to attend high school in Winnipeg. "I am more homeless than ever really," he explains stoically. He isn't even sure he belongs on the reserve. "I've accepted that I'm losing my language and have lost touch with Mother Earth in my urban surroundings."
Does he blame Father Chaput?
"Oh no," Houle responds quickly, once again confounding my reading of him. "He was a kindly man. He taught me how to swim. He taught me how to say 'What the heck?' instead of swear words." This produces a fragile smile. "He gave me a lot of responsibility. He saw potential in me."
Sandy Bay took 18 painful months to complete, he says. The long-suppressed experiences surfaced after he read Flowers on My Grave, How an Objiwa Boy's Death Helped Break the Silence on Child Abuse, a book about his reserve by Ruth Teichroeb.
Does he aim to make his work political?
"I'm shifting things. That in itself is political. But all I am trying to do is tell a story and deal with my own identity."
Has he ever done work that is not about native issues?
He nods. There was a series about opera; those works are in private collections.
Does he think that those pieces would ever hang in a public gallery?
Probably not, he says.
Does that mean his work about native issues is acquired by museums as tokenism?
His face clouds over. He nods again, his eyes black and solemn and hard through his rectangular gold-rimmed glasses.
I feel suddenly guilty for provoking his cynicism. But then he suddenly brightens, sitting ramrod straight, like a good Catholic boy who wants to tell the priest the right answer.
"I fundamentally believe that when you bring stories down to bare-bone principles, they become universal."
He is smiling now, a portrait of the confident artist.
I smile back at him. Writing about Houle is as tricky as trying to be an accurate meteorologist. He is a wide open sky, and there's no telling what will blow across it, at any moment, from any direction.