>>> Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. fires up

McMichael looks back on indigenous artists

7: PROFESSIONAL NATIVE INDIAN ARTISTS INC. at McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington, Kleinburg), to September 7. $18, stu/srs $15. 905-893-1121. Rating: NNNN

McMichael’s big summer retrospective focuses on a maverick group of indigenous Canadian artists who banded together in 1970. They called themselves PNIA, or the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., and consisted of Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Norval Morrisseau. Incorporated in response to the under-representation of native art in Canada, this new “Group of Seven” left its mark as both a cultural and political entity. 

The nearly 100 works, gathered from public and private collections, were created mainly in the 70s, their most dynamic decade. During this time, each artist challenged old paradigms of native and traditional art through active exploration of contemporary influences and styles. 

The result was a diverse array of stunning visual work unlike anything seen beforehand. 

Educated in Ottawa and Sweden, Odjig’s painted canvases are dense and rhythmic matrixes of figuration from which native motifs emerge, their sensibility reminiscent of abstract expressionism. Sanchez is similar, his darker and more crowded compositions evoking mid-century European art.

Other works, however, have a clean colour field style. Beardy’s bright, flowing forms bring native symbols into alignment with contemporary 70s visual styles. Janvier stretches his motifs into even more abstract and intricately constructed shapes that dance across the canvas, a highly skilled melding of indigenous themes and post-painterly abstraction. 

Others in the group were unschooled. Morrisseau, probably the PNIA’s best-known artist, was a purely instinctive painter who conveyed the sacred stories of his tribe with a wildly original instinct for form and eye-searing color. 

Taken together, the group’s tremendous contribution to Canadian art becomes abundantly clear.


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