Robert James Houle
First Name: Robert
Last Name: Houle
Full Name: Robert James Houle
Date of birth: March 1947
Place of birth: St. Boniface, Manitoba, Canada
Community / Heritage: Saulteaux
Art Media: Mixed media, oil, watercolour, photography.
Robert Houle is a Canadian Indigenous artist, curator, critic and educator of Saulteaux heritage. Houle was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba in 1947 to Gladys and Solomon Houle. He was the eldest of 15 children, all of whom were raised Roman Catholic and Saulteaux.
Like many children of his generation, Houle was forced to go to a Catholic mission–run residential school for grade school and high school, where he was removed from both the Saulteaux language and its spiritual traditions. From grades one through eight, he attended The Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Hyacinth School Residential Schools in Sandy Bay, Manitoba. Houle’s experiences at the residential school were unpleasant. He was not allowed to speak to his sisters, who were also studying at the school. Robert would later interpret his experiences of forced attendance into two emotionally charged artworks: Sandy Bay (1998–1999) and Sandy Bay Residential School Series (2009).
In 1961, Houle moved to Winnipeg to attend the Assiniboia Residential High School run by the Oblates and Grey Nuns. He had different, happier experiences there; he was the editor of the high school yearbook and newspaper, and played hockey and football. He would also be introduced to art and later won a drawing competition that allowed him to take extracurricular art classes. Teachers recognized Robert’s artistic talent and encouraged him.
Following high school, Houle attended the Jesuit Centre for Catholic Studies of St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg for one year.
In 1969, Houle enrolled in a degree program at the University of Manitoba. In the summer, he worked as a summer student at the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) in Ottawa. There, he joined First Nations’ protests against a federal government policy paper known as the 1969 White Paper. While at the University of Manitoba, Houle began studies at McGill University in Montreal. In 1972, he received a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Manitoba. After graduation, he went to Austria to attend the Salzburg International Summer Academy to improve his drawing and painting skills. He returned to Montreal and, in 1975, earned his Bachelor of Education degree in Art Education at McGill University. Houle taught a grade five art class for one year. Later, he instructed at a Catholic school in Verdun until 1977.
In 1977, Houle was hired as the first Indigenous curator of contemporary Indigenous art at the National Museum of Man (now The Canadian Museum of Civilization).
Houle’s curatorial work involved researching the museum’s existing collection, writing about Indigenous artists and their work, and curating exhibitions. He traveled across Canada and met with many Canadian artists. Among them were Abraham Anghik Ruben, Robert Davidson, Alex Janvier, Daphne Odjig, Carl Beam, Bob Boyer, Norval Morrisseau and many others. He became friends and developed close relationship with many of them.
In 1980, Houle handed his resignation letter and left the museum. He had grown tired of seeing contemporary Indigenous art placed in ethnographic collections and of witnessing the inappropriate treatment of ceremonial objects.
In September of 1980, Houle travelled to The Hague and Amsterdam to study the work of Piet Mondrian. In Amsterdam, Houle’s attention turned to the American abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman. He was amazed and inspired by Newman’s painting “Cathedra” and his series of lithographs “Cantos”.
He returned to Ottawa and, in 1981, relocated to Toronto with his partner Paul Gardner. Inspired by his overseas visit and feeling that he found the connection with colour-filled paintings, lines and shapes of Abstract Expressionism, he was able to apply it to his own work communicating his own Indigenous spirituality. The same year, Houle curated his first set of group exhibitions “Art Amerindian”, which consisted of shows at the National Arts Centre, the National Library and Archives, the Robertson Galleries in Ottawa, and the Municipal Art Gallery in Hull. The exhibitions included works by Gerald Tailfeathers, Arthur Shilling, Alex Janvier, Benjamin Chee Chee, Jackson Beardy, Daphne Odjig, and Beau Dick, among others.
In 1982, Houle was invited to co-curate the exhibition “New Work by a New Generation” at the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery (now the MacKenzie Art Gallery) in Regina with Bob Boyer, and Carol Phillips, the gallery’s director. This was the first major exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art from Canada and the United States. It helped establish relationships between artists across North America. Two of Houle’s works were included in the exhibition: “Punk Schtick”, 1982, and “Rainbow Woman”, 1982.
In 1983, Houle produced a series of works that marked a turning point in his oeuvre. “Parfleches for the Last Supper”, a series of 13 paintings that combine two diametrically opposed ideologies: Christianity and his Saulteaux heritage.
Between 1983 and 1988, Houle enriched his work with deeper political aspects. He focused on research and on reconstructing the history of Indigenous people. As a result of his research, “Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians from A to Z” and “The Only Good Indians I Ever Saw Were Dead” were both created in 1985.
In 1989, Houle was an artist-in-residence at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg, Ontario. The outcome of these residencies were impressive and powerful works: “Seven in Steel” installation and four monumental abstract paintings “Muhnedobe Uhyahyuk” (“the place where the gods are present”).
In 1990, Houle had his first solo exhibition, “Robert Houle: Indians from A to Z”, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. That same year, Houle accepted a position as a professor of Native Studies at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) in Toronto. He spent 15 years sharing his knowledge of history and Indigenous culture there, mentoring a new generation of curators and artists.
In 2005, received a major grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which included participation in the Canada Council International Residency Program at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris in 2006. This residency resulted in his iconic work, “Paris/Ojibwa”, 2010.
Houle's influence as an artist, curator, writer, educator and cultural theorist has led to him being awarded the Janet Braide Memorial Award for Excellence in Canadian Art History in 1993; the 2001 Toronto Arts Award for the Visual Arts; the Eiteljorg Fellowship in 2003; membership in the Royal Canadian Academy; distinguished Alumnus, University of Manitoba; the Canada Council International Residency Program for the Visual Arts in Paris. Additionally, Houle has served on various boards and advisory committees including those of The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, A Space, The Power Plant and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.
Houle has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across Canada and abroad. He has written extensively on major contemporary Indigenous artists.
Houle lectures on the subject of Indigenous abstraction and is working on a group of portraits based on research completed over the last three years in Paris, as well as continuing to work on drawings based on memory from his childhood experiences of forced attendance at the residential school in Sandy Bay.
- 1982: New Work by New Generation. Norman, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Canada
- 1992: Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada
- The National Gallery of Canada
- The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON
- The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia
- The Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris, France
- The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
- The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto, Canada
- The Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa, Canada
- The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
- Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada
- La Biennale de Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- The Art Gallery of Peterborough, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
- The Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
- 2016: Robert Houle: Shaman Dream in Colour A solo show at Toronto’s Kinsman Robinson Galleries, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- September 14, 2019 – February 23, 2020: Robert Houle: Histories. The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, ON, Canada
- Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
- The Art Gallery of Sudbury (before known as Laurentian University Museum and Arts Centre), Ontario, Canada
- McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
- National Gallery Of Canada, Ottawa, Canada
- School of Art, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
- 2001: Toronto Arts award for the Visual Arts
- 2000: Became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art
- 2003/2006: The Eiteljorg Fellowship. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, IN, USA
- 2015: The Governor General’s Award for Visual Arts