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Drawing of a bed

“noodin is my friend,” from Robert Houle’s Bay Residential School Series, 2009. Oilstick on paper, 58.4 X 76.2 cm.

Home to stay

Award enables School of Art Gallery to purchase important body of work by Robert Houle

September 25, 2013 — 

The suicide of a young boy from his home reserve of Sandy Bay brought back troubling emotions and memories for artist Robert Houle.

In 1999, the Saulteaux First Nations painter, curator, critic and educator was creating work in response to that suicide when many of his own painful memories resurfaced. As a child, Houle was taken from his family and placed in the Sandy Bay Indian Residential School. When he taught at OCAD University, Houle told his students to create from their own emotions and memories — but couldn’t do so himself. Eventually the artist was determined to come to terms with his memories, designing a daily work program in 2009 that would last a month.

The result was the 24 powerful oil-stick drawings that comprise the Sandy Bay Residential School Series.

Now the School of Art Gallery has added this major suite of artworks to its collection thanks to the 2013 York Wilson Endowment Award, presented by the Canada Council for the Arts.

‘The road home’

“One year ago, Robert Houle: enuhmo andúhyaun (the road home) was the inaugural solo exhibition of the gallery,” said Mary Reid, director/ curator, School of Art Gallery.

“This award provides us with the tremendous privilege to collect a significant body of work from this important exhibition.”

“It’s important that they are seen in light [of the terms by which they were created],” says Reid of the diaristic images. She points out that the works are raw and visceral, and that a kind of progress is demonstrated through the series.

The drawings begin with the schoolhouse’s exterior, and then go inside. A dark figure appears, says Reid, in reference to Catholic Brother who was the perpetrator. According to Reid, Houle’s works were drawn almost automatically, responding to memories and emotion as the artist worked. About halfway through the series, the perspective starts to pull out again, allowing for greater distance from the subject matter.

Houle doesn’t believe in the idea of “reconciliation” or “forgiveness” in relation to what he experienced in Residential School, notes Reid. “He’s quite vocal about his views, though he can appreciate why other Aboriginal Residential School survivors have [participated in the process].”

Rather, in creating these pieces, “the issues of reconciliation and forgiveness framed within a Judaeo-Christian heritage were counterpoints to traditional Aboriginal values of letting go of conflict in order to move on,” said Houle after the initial exhibition of this work at the School of Art Gallery.

“Today, as someone who was punished for speaking my language, I have the privilege and the responsibility of using Ahnishnabewin proudly in this installation,” he said.

Houle uses the Ahnishnabewin word, Pahgedenaum, in his work; it can be translated as “let it go from your mind.”

Houle uses the Ahnishnabewin word, Pahgedenaum — ‘let it go from your mind’

Reid comments, “The power and strength embodied in these works is profound. Through a very sensitive and highly intimate approach Houle’s combination of language, images and colour leads the viewer down a road of personal inquiry and compassion.”

The work marks both a major addition to the School of Art’s own collection, as well as its 100th anniversary, which it celebrates this year. As a curator, Reid notes that the purchase is also something that will put her own stamp on the School’s art collection, and she looks forward to further shaping the collection in a way that will define it and make it stand out amongst Manitoba’s and Canada’s other gallery collections.

The endowment that made the purchase possible is itself an honour to have received, she says. Each year, the York Wilson Endowment Award is given to an eligible Canadian art museum or public gallery to help it purchase work by a Canadian artist that will significantly enhance its collection. Created in 1997 through a donation by Lela Wilson and Maxwell Henderson, it honours the contribution of Canadian painter York Wilson (1907-1984) by encouraging and promoting works of art created by Canadian painters or sculptors.

“The Canada Council is delighted that the 2013 York Wilson Endowment Award will make it possible for all Canadians to view this powerful work by Robert Houle and the story it reveals,” said Robert Sirman, Canada Council Director and CEO. “We congratulate both the University of Manitoba’s School of Art Gallery and Mr. Houle for this exciting development.”

President and Vice-Chancellor David Barnard said, “We appreciate this acknowledgment of the important work of one of our distinguished alumni and of our School of Art Gallery. Given the recent agreement signed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission entrusting our university with the honour of hosting the National Research Centre on Residential Schools, this poignant series makes make important connections to communities both on and off campus.”

Mary Ann Steggles, acting director of the School of Art, said, “I feel strongly that this acquisition will become a meaningful and inspirational resource for future School of Art students.”

As Houle states, it is appropriate that the drawings “are coming home” to Manitoba.

This article first appeared in the September 26, 2013 issue of The Bulletin.

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