Nominated by Ann Davis, The Nickle Arts Museum, Calgary
Meaningful intercultural communication is exceedingly difficult to achieve for it involves nothing less that the creation of a new language. This new language, a third and bridging language, will take important features from each culture and mould them into a new communication tool. To be effective both form and content must be included, incorporating salient and relevant bits of the past to open the future to new understanding and new opportunities. Alex Janvier is a leader in the creation of such a new visual language, one that attempts to include in an equitable way both Aboriginal traditions and beliefs and non-Aboriginal signs and systems. Being at the centre of creativity, at the crossroads of cultures, is never quiet. Janvier has experienced reprobation from both communities and suffered from being labeled an apple – red on the outside and white on the inside – more than once. This two-sided criticism is a measure of the challenges of building a new visual language and a measure of its importance, for it shows that communication is very much needed. In an article entitled “Sovereignty over Subjectivity,” Robert Houle concluded: “In the deconstruction of Eurocentric hegemony, important advances have been made. This has happened through strong works of art with social content and a deconstruction of existing social and political barriers.”1
Alexander Simeon Janvier was born on Le Goff Reserve, Cold Lake First Nations, Alberta on February 28, 1935. Three hundred kilometers north east of Edmonton on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, this lakeside community is just north of Frog Lake, best known as the location of a Cree uprising during the 1885 North-West Rebellion. His father was one of the last hereditary chiefs, and Alex was raised in the Chipewyan tradition, speaking the Dene language, until he was sent to the Blue Quills Residential Indian School near St. Paul, Alberta when he was eight years old. There he experienced considerable culture shock, being forced to learn English and obey the strict rules of the religious community that ran the school. Despite these bitter memories, Janvier credits the school principal, the Reverend Father Etienne Bernet-Rollande, with providing support and encouragement to him in art making. It was through the principal that Janvier was able to live and study with Karl Altenberg, an artist who taught for the University of Alberta Extension Department. Altenberg introduced him to art fundamentals, especially the dynamics of positive and negative space, something he has never forgotten, and the problems of colour.
In 1956, Janvier began formal art studies at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary, now called the Alberta College of Art and Design. During his third year he took watercolour with Frank Palmer and started to find his own vision. The next year, while he was still experimenting in watercolour, gouache and oil, Illingworth Kerr encouraged him to consider the modernist abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Simultaneously Marion Nicoll, one of Alberta’s first abstractionists, introduced to him the concept of automatic painting, popularized by the Surrealists. Automatic painting, which emphasized the freed subconscious over regimented design, subsequently became central to his practice. In 1960, after winning many awards, he graduated with a four-year diploma.
The next decade was crucial in the development of Janvier’s new visual language. Upon graduation he taught art for two years in the University of Alberta Extension Department before returning to Le Goff Reserve, where he continued his artistic experiments, while maintaining a preference for calligraphy. As well he persisted in signing his work with his treaty number, 287, a practice he had started in art school. This signified both his resentment that his legal status was determined by a colonial government and his displeasure that his aboriginal spirituality and land were being denied to him. In 1964 he held his first solo show at the Jacox Gallery in Edmonton, where the reviews were mixed. Two years later, appointed an arts and crafts consultant for the Department of Indian Affairs, he was commissioned to produce in a very short time 80 paintings, 42 of which the department appropriated for their collection. He was instrumental in bringing together a group of artists to form an aboriginal advisory panel for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. This group included Jackson Beardy, Tom Hill, Norval Morrisseau and Bill Reid, among others. Politics soon became apparent, with the non-aboriginal Expo planners favouring sanitized, romanticized notions of Indians to be portrayed. In October 1966, Janvier’s contract with the department was quietly terminated. He was considered too radical. He and four other aboriginal artists were commissioned to create large circular murals, over nine feet in diameter, for the exterior of the Indians of Canada Pavilion. Janvier’s mural was designed to be placed over the main entrance but was moved to a less noticeable spot near the rear of the building, for it was thought to be too confrontational.
Janvier was caught between cultures. Here his art was not deemed thematically or stylistically native enough. Even then he was aware that officials “tried to class me as a native artist but that was not my view.” Optimistically he strove to mix his background and formal art training. He recorded that he “could not separate the native from the modern. I was fortunate to see both sides.” He was aware of what was going on artistically in New York and Europe, for example with Hans Hoffman and colour field painting. His was a new blend, what he called a “signature style of my own.” “I created my own niche out of abstraction with what my own ancestors used to do.”2 At the same time he was attuned to the spirituality of the land, something Robert Houle described as “the indivisible contract between man and nature as equal before creation.”3
By the early 1970s, Janvier’s style became more refined and delicate. Large areas of flat colours were replaced with precise, long swinging lines and a balanced interplay of positive and negative spaces. Gouaches such as The Buffalo Carrier, 1973, and Stanley Cup, 1979, show a confident elegance and controlled exuberance. Consistent with his earlier practice, at times he continued to integrate abstract and representational imagery in pieces such as Eagle Insect, 1974, or The True West, 1975. As well, he now started to expose his growing political and environmental concerns in his painting. Eagle Insect comments on the effect of pollution on the animal world, where two black dots symbolize the death of both creatures and a green dot mourns the demise of other creatures already made extinct by the misuse of the land. Dots and circles, reflecting aboriginal values, are metaphors for the cycle of life. At times colour has symbolic, emotive value, with red as anger, green as fertility and yellow, spiritual devotion.
In the mid 1970s, Janvier received a number of important commissions for murals. The first at the Onion Lake Elementary School was quickly followed by a very large work for the municipal building in the County of Strathcona at Sherwood Park, Alberta. Having studied murals with Kenneth Sturdy in art school, he was excited to embark on these challenges. The Strathcona commission, extending over four stories of a large central circular staircase, titled A Tribute to Beaver Hills, depicts the human history of Strathcona County, beginning with indigenous peoples who knew the area as Beaver Hills, through the fur traders and settlers to the current urban and industrial community. This was quickly followed by other important commissions, including a mural for the Caernarvon Elementary School and, in 1998, a gold coin for the Royal Canadian Mint.
For Janvier, the 1970s were also important because of his involvement with a group of native artists in Winnipeg, the Indian Group of Seven, as they were often called. Centered around Daphne Odjig’s gift shop, various artists, including Janvier, Norval Morrisseau and Jackson Beardy, met to critique each other’s work and to support each other. Janvier recalls that “the spiritual side was very important for the group. We knew we had to go there. We did not all have exactly the same beliefs but we honoured each other’s beliefs. I class this as a vision for the future, an almost supreme idealism.”4 An important part of the group’s aim was to release young aboriginal artists from the necessity of producing romanticized Indian art. They were challenging Canadian art and “destroying people’s conception of native art.”5
By the late 1980s, Janvier again took up his political torch, anxious to tackle the oppressions and injustices under which his people were living. He produced a series of paintings called the Apple series, one that relied on figurative imagery to clearly articulate his anger and frustration. This way Janvier hoped to reach a wider audience of both Natives and non-Natives. Into the big picture, c. 1990, shows a dispirited chief gazing into the empty landscape, one small brown rectangle of which is delineated as an Indian reserve. While a non-aboriginal curator characterized these works as being redolent of “frozen images of Hollywood Indians and standard clichés of buffaloes and tipis”6, an aboriginal curator suggested these works made obvious the “atrocities of colonial domination.”7 A new language is hard for everyone to understand.
With the new century, Janvier set aside his overtly political narrative and returned to flowing, curvilinear lines. For a while he produced very painterly abstract pieces, as in Blue Flag, 2003, and then he created circular works, perhaps a reference to significant Indian rosettes. Always he tried as an artist to be true to himself, his Dene heritage and his modernist training. Janvier’s negotiation between Indian imagery and modernist aesthetic allowed contemporary Indian art to be born. To Robert Houle, Janvier’s “work had cracked and defied all stereotypical images of native people. I felt a strong attraction to his use of abstract symbols as cryptic icons ….”8 Houle considers Janvier to be “… an aesthetic ‘warrior’ … who has established a visual language….”9
Robert Houle, “Sovereignty over Subjectivity”, C Magazine, (No 30, Summer 1991), pp. 31-32.
Janvier in conversation with Ann Davis, 19 June, 2007, Cold Lake.
“A Context for the Janvier Legacy”, in The Art of Alex Janvier: His First Thirty Years, 1960-1990, (Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Art Gallery, 1993), p. 57.
Alex Janvier in conversation with Ann Davis, 19 June, 2007.
Diana Nemiroff, “Alex Janvier”, in Land Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada, (Exhibition catalogue, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992), p. 162.
Lee-Ann Martin, “The Art of Alex Janvier” in The Art of Alex Janvier: His First Thirty Years, 1960-1990, p. 43.
Houle, “A Context….” , p. 49.
Ibid., p. 58.