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Lac La Biche’s Portage College opens a permanent exhibition worthy of a day trip

In 1865, Louis Riel said: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirits back.” About 100 years later, the seed was planted that would bring that prophecy to fruition.

Daphne Odjig was operating Odjig Indian Prints of Canada, a tiny print shop and gallery in Winnipeg. Indigenous artists would drop by and sell her their art, and she would pay them copyright fees to make prints of their works. In 1972 she called upon over 40 Native Canadian artists to form a collective. The six who showed up, along with Odjig, were later dubbed the Indian Group of Seven by reporter Gary Scherbain.

The group consisted of Odjig, Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, and Joseph Sanchez. Their intent was to take control of their art, while breaking down stereotypes and bringing their art into the mainstream. They later formed the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (PNIAI).

At first, the group didn’t get much traction, but eventually used fellow Indigenous-Canadian artist Bill Reid’s media connections to get attention in the press. This eventually led to an exhibition at Montréal’s prestigious Dominion Gallery. Stern wanted to exhibit just Odjig, Janvier, and Morrisseau, but the group pursued an all-or-nothing approach, and won.

With all seven artists featured, the exhibit became a breakthrough, paving the way toward being recognized as legitimate artists, which eventually led to the first solo artist shows featuring Indigenous artists at the National Gallery. This also laid the foundation for other Indigenous artists to be recognized as legitimate, rather than producers of artifacts to be displayed in natural history museums. An awakening of Indigenous writing, music, and politics followed, lending truth to Riel’s original vision.

A day trip to a little-known northeastern town a mere two-hour drive from the Henday holds an impressive collection of 117 art and craft works, both by the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (26 pieces) as well as several established and budding Indigenous Canadian artists.

The Museum of Aboriginal Peoples’ Art & Artifacts opened a permanent exhibit of the PNIAI’s work alongside other contemporary artists on April 13 at Portage College’s Lac La Biche campus. The gallery was established to support Portage’s native cultural arts program. Both Janvier, from the Cold Lake First Nation and Sanchez, now living in Sante Fe, N.M., attended the opening celebrations on Friday. A pipe ceremony, traditional hand drum singers, prayers from Cree elders, and addresses from Indigenous, municipal, provincial, and federal officials were included.

Fittingly, Portage College was established as a result of resistance to settler control of Indigenous people in education. Local First Nations and Métis people staged a 26-day occupation of an Alberta Government building in Lac La Biche in 1968 and demanded continuing access to adult education. This year, to celebrate the college’s 50th and the museum’s 40th anniversaries, they decided to mount the permanent exhibit of PNIAI works, many of which had been in museum storage. Further acquisitions were sought and once word of the project got out in the artistic community, collectors offered loans of items and heavily discounted prices to show support.

Besides the Indian Group of Seven, works by a new generation of professional Indigenous artists are featured. Over 20 contemporary Indigenous artists are represented, including Jane Ash Poitras and George Littlechild.

The collection is displayed in Portage College’s upper hallways and lobby, making it accessible for self-guided tours when the building is open.

Museum of Aboriginal Peoples’ Art & Artifacts
Portage College

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