Beginning in the mid-20th century, two prominent art styles created by First Nations artists emerged in Canada, both drawing from and reinvigorating traditional imagery. Northwest Coast artists and those associated with the Woodland School have all looked toward a long, rich tradition of storytelling and visual culture in various forms, including petroglyphs and pictographs in the Great Lakes area and a 3,000 year-old carving tradition in the West.
The 1960s marked a turning point for both styles and their explosion onto the Canadian art scene, with Norval Morrisseau and Bill Reid both participating in landmark events that showcased their work to the public.These artists and their successors played a crucial role in reframing Indigenous art in Canada. They introduced it to the mainstream art world and established it as fine art, where previously it had been relegated to the realm of “souvenir”. These styles have flourished in the work of successive generations of First Nations artists and have attracted connoisseurs and collectors from across Canada and abroad.
In the history of the development and recognition of contemporary Indigenous art, Norval Morrisseau emerges as a prominent figure. He developed a unique style that gave form to stories and traditions to which few outsiders had previously had access. This caused backlash from his community for sharing sacred, traditional knowledge and practices with outsiders, while at the same time, his work effectively introduced Canadians to a new perspective on Indigenous art and culture. The Woodland style gained mainstream attention for the first time in 1962, when Morrisseau’s work was presented at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto. His work continued to be exhibited alongside that of his contemporaries throughout his life as he gained further recognition for his profoundly influential visual vocabulary, culminating in the first solo retrospective dedicated to the work of a contemporary Indigenous artist at the National Gallery of Canada: Norval Morrisseau - Shaman Artist.
Morrisseau's impact has had lasting reverberations. The Woodland style is characterized by recognizable stylistic elements that have influenced the work of generations of Indigenous artists after Morrisseau. The most distinctive of these is line, which serves to connect the various elements within the piece and provide a sense of unity and harmony. Lines are also able to play a narrative role, demonstrative of concepts such as prophecy, movement, power, and speech. Flat planes of luminous colour and symbols such as the divided circle, which represents a wide range of dualities, are also unique to the style and continue to be used and adapted by contemporary First Nations artists. The style emerged from Morrisseau’s expression of a traditional worldview based on a profound respect for nature, as well as from deeply personal experiences such as dreams and an interest in various forms of spirituality, encapsulated in the cultivation of his mystical persona as a shaman-artist. In utilizing artistic elements to their fullest capacity, Indigenous artists continue to visually express their ways of knowing and being in a way that is distinctly contemporary and recognized all over the world.
The Northwest Coast offers a parallel trajectory towards mainstream recognition of modern art created by Indigenous artists. A long tradition of stylistically distinctive carving existed on the West Coast, and artists such as Charles Edenshaw and Willie Seaweed kept the tradition alive in the face of assimilationist policies such as the potlatch ban (1885-1951) and the residential school system imposed by the federal government. The looking toward traditional heritage in the face of colonialist restrictions by Northwest Coast artists engendered a distinct, subversive modernism. A resurgence began in the 1960s, when artists began taking the techniques and visual motifs present in the works of 19th and 20th-century master carvers and reintroducing them into their own works. An important development to this effect took place between 1959 and 1962, when Bill Reid and Doug Cranmer carved poles for the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Since the mid-20th century, totem poles, screens, and traditional regalia such as masks and rattles have been carved more freely for use in ceremonies. Additionally, various examples of these pieces, as well as metalwork and works on paper, have enjoyed popularity with mainstream collectors due to their visual appeal and skilful execution.
Though it is difficult to generalize the stylistic attributes of Northwest Coast art, given that a number of nations practice it in distinctive ways, there are certain elements that appear relatively frequently. One of these is the formline, a dark, organic line that flows among the other elements. Northwest Coast art is also composed of a specific palette, most often consisting of colours such as black, red, white, and green-blue, though nations such as the Kwakiutl use a broader palette. Particular forms such as ovoids, U-shapes, and S-shapes also appear frequently. Often, there is a sense of ambiguity between the positive and negative space of all of these elements. The harmonious interaction of all of these aspects contributes to the creation of a unique and recognizable art form that is unlike any other.
Northwest Coast art and that of the Woodland School each comprise a rich history and distinctive styles, and both have galvanized the mainstream recognition and celebration of Indigenous art in Canada. We are proud to offer exceptional works hailing from both traditions at Waddington’s.
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