Canadian Indigenous art

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What do you think of when you hear “Indigenous or Aboriginal Art”?

Do you have visions of totem poles? Do you see an inukshuk?

These are examples of them but Indigenous art encompasses so much more. From sculpture to paintings to prints, their visual arts are diverse, multi-faceted, and meaningful. Many expressions have achieved international renown and have enriched the Canadian arts and cultural landscape.

Indigenous art in Canada

Indigenous art is said to have existed as early as the Ice Age, sometime between 80,000 to 12,000 years ago. Traces of these can be found in the decorative and depicted carvings on stone and bone (ceremonial bowls, effigies and utensils) found in the Lower Fraser region of British Columbia. Just like in any other culture, objects were first created for functional use, for instance, as tools or implements, including objects that had spiritual significance. And because most groups moved during the course of the year, they only had few pieces of purely decorative art. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that these objects had artistic value. Indigenous art is as varied as the nations or tribes that exist in North America although there are some regional similarities.

The development of Indigenous art in Canada had three distinct periods: prehistoric art, contact or “historic art,” and contemporary aboriginal art. From images on rock, animal skin, wood and the use of clay and fibre, traditional imagery would soon be influenced by European materials, techniques and motifs but would still embody Indigenous aesthetic values.

Prairie Art

Prairie aboriginal culture in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta and parts of British Columbia emerged in the 19th century. Art was a combination of First Nations and European culture at a time of westward migration, new hunting opportunities and the fur trade.

Paintings on buffalo hides was the main art form. The Blood, Blackfoot, and the Assiniboine painted geometric motifs, dream images and various symbols. These were seen on their tipis (or teepees) and robes. They also created moccasins, jackets, dresses, leggings and shirts made of deer hide and embellished with porcupine quillwork and beads. Containers made of rawhide called parfleches were also made in different shapes and sizes and in various designs.

Modern developments

Because of policies in the early 19th century, such as the opening of Residential Schools and other attempts to phase out traditional Indigenous culture, Indigenous artistic traditions almost died out. However, Indigenous art experienced a resurgence during WWII. Artists combined modern and traditional themes, symbols and methods. Notable in this period were the works of Norval Morriseau who is considered the grandfather of native art in Canada. He originated Woodland Art (or Woodlands School). The Indigenous Group of Seven of which Morrisseau was a member, formed the Professional National Indian Artists Incorporation. These contemporary artists played a pivotal role in showing that Indigenous art holds a place in mainstream art. Moreover, they kept Indigenous artistic traditions alive and inspired a new generation of Indigenous artists.

Today, various Indigenous art forms from paintings, sculpture and prints to graphic novels and works of mixed media continue to flourish and evolve. Most postmodern art currently explore themes around the relationship between European and Indigenous cultures. Many works reflect and provide a commentary on social and political issues in society as they relate to the Indigenous identity.

Want to know some great contemporary Indigenous artists and their works? Read: Great Indigenous Canadian artists.

Sources: Indigenous Art in Canada, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Canadian Native Art, Native Art in Canada, An Ojibwa Elder’s Art and Stories; and Aboriginal Art in Canada (presentation), Equity and Inclusive Education (OESC CSEO). All retrieved July 12, 2018.

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Community Resources

See samples of amazing Indigenous artworks from Huffpost: 15 stunning aboriginal artworks from across Canada and Canadian Aboriginal Art at the Senate. You may be already be familiar with some of them.

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