In the film excerpts under this theme, an Inuit stone carver, a Wendat artist and a Maliseet painter reflect on the role of art; a wood carver descended from the Haida and a Mi’kmaq painter talk about their sources of inspiration.


Aboriginal Art
by Maxine Noel and Caitlin Noel-Drews

Since time out of mind, humans have used artistic expression to convey the deepest truths about their societal organization and cultural traditions. The ancient art of Native Canadians transcends the conformity of most artistic styles, relying on traditional forms to communicate their unique culture and heritage. By exploring the inspiration behind the art, and the purpose that it serves in the Aboriginal community, a greater understanding of the style can be achieved.

The intricate and diverse purposes behind Native artwork go beyond mere aesthetic value, driven by social, cultural and political issues in the Aboriginal community. Perhaps the most important function of Native art is its ability to transcend language barriers, to communicate with others regardless of dialect, and to strengthen tribal relationships. This ability fostered social and political alliances with other tribes and helped Aboriginals to unite with one another through their artwork. Native culture is also rich with ancient legends and stories that are considered extremely valuable, and art was a way for each tribe to illustrate its own unique tales. Every piece of artwork has a hidden or innate meaning that was passed down through generations and filtered through creative venues in order to protect it and make it more easily understandable. Spirituality is a dominant theme in Native artwork as well, with many artists inspired by the spiritual beliefs of their ancestors. These inherent values are expressed through art, providing unique variations on traditional, written religious doctrine. After the introduction of European culture into Native society, art became a way to understand changes in the people and their traditional way of life. Art became therapeutic, helping Aboriginals cope with newly created societal problems, including loss of their unique culture and language. As Canada gradually was transformed into an organized and democratic country, the Native community was forced to change as well, oftentimes struggling to exist in a society that they did not understand. Modern Aboriginal artists convey these tragic hardships, attempting to deal with their own problems, as well as the adversity experienced by their ancestors.

The Impending Nisga’a Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change, 1996
The Impending Nisga’a Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change, 1996
Credit: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun
Yuxweluptun: Man of Masks, 1988. National Film Board of Canada

Aboriginal art in Canada is often divided according to region and the tribes most commonly associated with each geographically specific section: the Woodlands, Prairies, Inuit and Northwest coast. These artistically distinct areas retain their own unique styles, based on traditional methods passed down by their ancestors. However, the meaning and inspiration behind each area’s artwork is the same: to protect cultural traditions and keep the societal uniqueness of the Native community alive. Woodland artwork is characteristically the most contemporary form of Native art, with many of the community’s most prominent artists originating from the area. Modern styles and bold colours are used to illustrate ancient legends, creating a powerful contrast between the two cultural polarities. In the Plains, a more traditional style of artwork prevails, with romanticized depictions of typical events and customs of the people. Plains art incorporates some of the most internationally recognizable images of the Native community, including portrayals of Aboriginal warfare and the classic nomadic lifestyle of the region.

Inuit Artist Kenojuak, 1963
Inuit Artist Kenojuak, 1963
Eskimo Artist, Kenojuak, 1963. National Film Board of Canada

Inuit art originates from the northern areas of Canada, with stone sculptures, etchings and silkscreens among the most common forms of artistic expression. Artists are primarily inspired by daily life in a harsh climate, as well as by legends and stories. Northwest coast artwork, too, relies heavily on traditional forms. Ancient traditions and cultural doctrines dictate the style and form each piece will take in an attempt to keep a unique society pure. Intricate wooden carvings on totem poles, masks and longhouses are characteristic of the region, which has an abundance of trees. Although there are slight variations in each style, there is a unifying commonality inherent in all Aboriginal artwork.

The easiest way to understand the reasons why Canadian Aboriginals use art to convey their beliefs is to examine the struggles that prominent Native artists have had to face. Take Bill Reid, for example. After trying his hand as a radio announcer and jewellery designer, Reid turned to his roots for inspiration. He created massive sculptures, totem poles and intricate objects in wood, stone, gold and other metals—all of which skyrocketed him into the international art world. Though he eventually succumbed to illness, his work can still be seen in major galleries, museums and private collections and is revered as some of the greatest Native art in the world. He will particularly be remembered as a mentor and inspiration to the many young Aboriginal carvers he supported and introduced to the industry. Norval Morrisseau, another prominent Native artist, was the originator of the Woodland School of Art. Early in his career he was chastised for revealing his people’s most entrenched beliefs—something only a shaman had the authority to do. Eventually, he was appointed Grand Shaman of the Ojibway, and received the power to share his ancestors’ teachings. He is internationally known in the industry for his vibrant and modern style, which has inspired a new generation of artists both Native and non-Native. The cultural struggles of the Native community are strongly reflected in both Reid’s and Morrisseau’s work, with their personal accomplishments and failures evident in each of their pieces.

The styles and mediums characteristic of each tribal area, ancestry and artist are different; however, the purpose and inspiration is the same for all Native art. Written accounts of history are opinion. Society needs to look beyond the constraints on its thinking, to understand that real history lies in the unfiltered perception of the artist, the purity of creativity.

Maxine Noel - Ioyan Mani

Maxine Noel - Ioyan Mani

Ioyan Mani…to walk beyond. A visionary Elder gave Maxine Noel this Dakota name shortly after birth. She is Santee/Oglala Sioux from the Birdtail Reservation in southwestern Manitoba. Having experienced residential schooling, Maxine struggles with the submersion of Native spirituality and culture with strength and a positive spirit.

Maxine’s career as an artist began with her first exhibition in 1980 at the Thompson Gallery and continued with shows in Canada and the United States. Her works enjoy an international following. With no formal art training, Maxine Noel experiments in all media, creating works in a distinctly modern manner with mystical and spiritual qualities.

A founding board member and chairperson of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, Maxine is also a lecturer and a frequent participant in media interviews, bridging the gap between Native and non-Native peoples.

“Art is the purest and truest expression of an individual…in it are all manners of things one is not always able to express verbally.”- Maxine Noel, ioyan mani

Caitlin Noel-Drews

Caitlin Noel

Caitlin Noel-Drews is currently finishing her final year of high school at Central Secondary in Stratford, Ontario. Raised by a professional artist in a highly creative community, Caitlin took an interest in writing and drawing at a very young age. Her first piece was published in the National Poetry Institute of Canada’s annual children’s book; it was a poem about her godfather’s fight with HIV. In the future, Caitlin plans on travelling around Europe and then studying international development and political science at the University of Toronto. She hopes to become a relief worker and write about the rights of indigenous peoples internationally.

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