Kanata is a signature work by Saulteaux artist Robert Houle (b.1947), marking an important investigation into the place of First Nations peoples in the French and English histories of Canada. It is essential to an understanding of historical accuracy in the context of colonialism. Houle echoes what his grandfather used to say concerning colonization: “Jiishin gegoo wiiseg maa akiing, Nishnaabe waabdaan” (“If history is going to happen, our people will witness it”).
Houle appropriates a canonical image from a painting by Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, which depicts the death of the valiant British hero of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) in the battle that resulted in Britain’s success over France and her colonial subjects. Houle captured West’s painting digitally and, using sepia-coloured Conté crayon, copied the image, painting only the regalia of a lone Delaware warrior, in blue and red. The work’s geometric layout plays with the modernist formalism that so influences the artist.
Houle says of the image, “The Indian is in parentheses … surrounded by this gigantic red and this gigantic blue and is sandwiched in that environment, is surrounded. And that is reality because the English and the French are still the major players in the making of this history, history as it was.” He challenges the authority and ability of non-Indigenous artists to represent Indigenous experiences, forcing recognition of First Nations and addressing the historical inaccuracy of the idea that the founding nations of Canada are England and France.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Robert Houle: Life & Work by Shirley Madill.