Manitou: Celebrating the Spirit of the People

Leland Bell, and the collection of the United Church of Canada

February 24 - March 20, 2007

Manitou: Celebrating the Spirit of the People

Click here to download the Manitou catalogue (featuring essays and background information).

The Manitou Collection: Celebrating the Spirit of the People is a Touring Exhibition of 38 original acrylic works by nine Anishinaabe artists: Don Assinewai, Leland Bell, Blair Debassige, Doug Fox, James Jacko, Melvin Madahbee, Stanley Panamick, Randy C. Trudeau and Tim Trudeau. The Tour begins in May 2006 at The Ojibwe Cultural Centre at M'Chigeeng on Manitoulin Island. All of the artists are originally from the Island.

The purpose of the Tour is to highlight and celebrate the gifts and talents of these particular artists who are Anishinaabe. The art will lift up the significant contribution First Nations' artists have and continue to make to the cultural, social and economic fabric of society.

The year 2006 marks the 20th Anniversary of the United Church of Canada's first official Apology to First Nations' Peoples. Manitou Conference of The United Church, the key initiator of the Tour, hopes the Touring Exhibition will serve as a catalyst for building respect and understanding between First Nations peoples and other cultures.

The paintings are on loan from 26 different United Church congregations in Manitou Conference (north east Ontario/north west Quebec) and the Francis Sandy Theological Centre near Paris, Ontario. The Church acquired the paintings through the generosity of Dr. David Humphreys and his wife, Mollie Petryna of Timmins.

Dr. Humphreys is well known in Northern Ontario for his appreciation of Anishinaabe art. A member of The United Church, Dr. Humphreys felt moved to donate these works to the Church in 1988 after he heard The United Church had made an official Apology to First Nations' Peoples.

David Humphreys says he is drawn to Anishinaabe art because he relates spiritually "to the visual." He finds the images express what he finds difficult to put into words. "They tell us why we are here," he says, "how we should relate to this world and, how human beings and the rest of the world are integrated."

Anishinaabe art is not a new phenomenon. Aboriginal artists have always used a medium to express their ideas and feelings, whether through bead or quill work, painting or carving. These nine artists represent the on-going creativity of the Anishinaabe peoples through the span of time.

In the early 1960s, a new form of art emerged amongst the Anishinaabe that visually interpreted oral stories, legends and perspectives with paint and canvas. Characterized by bright colours and stylized images of animals, spirits, and the earth, this form of art became recognized as an expression of a cultural identity.

The story of contemporary Anishinaabe art generally begins with Norval Morrisseau. He not only inherited knowledge through the oral tradition but also was familiar with Midewiwin graphic manifestations. He acquired this knowledge from his grandfather who taught him about Midewiwin scrolls, providing him with a source of powerful images and meanings.

There were others besides Morrisseau who were also creating art with paint and canvas. In the 1970s, Potawatomi painter Daphne (Beavon) Odjig from Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island brought together a small group of Native artists to collaborate and support one another.

This group, who became known as "The Indian Group of Seven," included Odjig, Norval Morrisseau, Jackson Beardy, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez, Eddy Cobiness and Alex Janvier. They quickly gained attention for their spirited, stylized canvases that gave a visual interpretation to First Nations' oral tradition and challenged the establishment's perspective of Aboriginal art as 'craft.' The group's work covered the gamut from intensely spiritual to slyly humorous, deeply personal to fiercely political.

The influence of these painters spread through the Manitou Arts Foundation that was started in 1966. The first summer schools were held on Schreiber Island, off Manitoulin Island, with Daphne Odjig, Carl Ray and Gerald Dokis as resource people. Among the students were Shirley Cheechoo, Randy C. Trudeau, Blake Debassige, Leland Bell and Martin Panamick, who went on to develop reputations with their own unique visions and styles that still bear indications of their origin in Manitoulin's Manitou Arts.

These young artists, that include several who are represented in this Touring Exhibition, later found mutual support and a cultural framework through summer art programs of the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation. The Ojibwe Cultural Foundation Centre continues the arts and culture programs of the shorter-lived Manitou Arts program.

The art of the Anishinaabe has a strong impact. The artists continually challenge their audience to open their minds. They facilitate cultural and spiritual healing and empowerment. The artists did not, and do not, replicate the visual forms of the past but instead transform them into a kind of art that explores their meanings in today's context. Sometimes referred to as "the x-ray style," legend painting, or pictographic style, these artists resist these confining labels and instead engage viewers with their contemporary artistic expression that combines mythological and secular images with a rich colour palette to convey emancipation, narration, resistance, and prophecy.

The WKP Kennedy Gallery, in partnering with Manitou Conference of The United Church, sees this Tour as an opportunity to enable a large audience to see these works and to celebrate the creative spirit of these artists. The Collection has never before been exhibited in its' entirety. The Gallery hopes this Tour will heighten interest in the art of the Anishinaabe and foster increased creative motivation amongst artists, both young and experienced, across the north.

- written by Teresa Jones, Coordinator, The Manitou Collection: Celebrating the Spirit of the People

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