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The Role of Art in Decolonization and Healing from History

On April 13th 2010 a dozen of Canada’s most accomplished Anishnabe artists, curators, art lovers and their friends gathered in Paris to celebrate the opening of Paris/Ojibwa at the Canadian Cultural Centre. This event of major cultural and historical significance was conceived by visionary artist, writer and curator Robert Houle.

The Paris/Ojibwa exhibit is an imposing suite of four simulated classic French wall panels against a floor of simulated marble. Each panel depicts a painted figure: a shaman, a warrior, a dancer and a healer.  Facing toward the horizon of home, their Indigenous roots connect to the landscape in each painting.  Beneath each panel is a depiction of the smallpox which took many of their lives, derived from paintings on an 18th century buffalo robe now in the collection of the Branly Museum in Paris. Even so, the figures in the painting remain standing, symbolic of a deeply-rooted resistance, resilience and will to survive.  Across the top of the panels, the names of the 1845 Ojibwa are painted in gold.  Adjacent to this structure is a video installation by French artist and animator Hervé Dagois, commissioned by Houle as a visual celebration of the healing and optimism of the contemporary Jingle Dance.

The vision of Houle and his fellow collaborators on the Paris/Ojibwa installation was to create art as medicine in the telling of a new history. By ‘re-imagining’ the feelings and experiences of a group of Ojibwa brought to Paris in 1845 as ‘exotically garbed’ entertainment, Houle has not only bridged present to past/past to present; he has deconstructed history in order to bring integrity, honour and healing from what he terms, “the ravenous gaze of pending disappearance.”  As ceremonial lead-in to the formal opening of the exhibit and in homage to the Ojibwa of 1845, artist, curator and dancer Barry Ace performed a series of pow wow dances beginning at the Louvre, winding through the Tuileries Gardens, on to Cleopatra’s Needle, and down the Champs-Elysées with his final dance in front of the installation. Like the Ojibwa of 1845 he too endured the pain of dancing on concrete, cobble stone, pebbles and marble in moccasins designed for contact only with the earth.

It’s difficult to describe the myriad feelings of being part of such an unprecedented and almost surreal event except to say the whole experience was itself a sacred ceremony. Our journeys to Paris were monitored by Project Manager Paul Gardner through emails so that, even though traveling separately we felt a strong sense of collective purpose and anticipation. Although the weather report for the 13th called for rain it held off and the moody skies provided a dramatic backdrop to the vibrant colour of Barry’s regalia and the grace of his movements. Following him on his quest and bearing witness to each dance of homage I noted the reactions of people on the streets and in cars and buses passing by, just as must have happened in 1845. Houle’s Paris/Ojibwa installation itself inspires the same sense of wonder, awe and delight as must have been felt by Parisians in the presence of the Ojibwa and the Ojibwa in the presence of Paris.

One hundred and sixty-five years later Houle has shown us the power and magic of art to forge a healing connectivity across constraints of time, space and the socially constructed colonialist divisions that have wounded humanity. His courage and the scope of his vision are evidence that healing happens on many fronts; the circle is stronger than ever.
By Deb Chansonneuve

May 2010

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