NMAI’s Robert Houle retrospective: A proud if beleaguered heritage


The small 1970 painting that provides the title of Robert Houle’s retrospective at the National Museum of the American Indian, “Red Is Beautiful,” is a hard-edge geometric abstraction with two mirrored forms in four shades of red. The picture is indebted to the styles of such European-born, 20th-century formalists as Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. But Houle is a First Nations Canadian (Saulteaux Anishinaabe, Sandy Bay), so for him, red is more than just a color. It’s a symbol of the proud if beleaguered heritage addressed throughout this multilayered show.

Much of this exhibition of works made between 1970 and 2021, organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, is devoted to canvases such as “Red Is Beautiful.” These tweak color-field painting with references to First Nations history and culture. That’s not the 76-year-old, Manitoba-born artist’s only strategy, however, as can be seen from the two large pictures hung in the hallway outside the show’s entrance.

Both are variations on Benjamin West’s 1770 historical painting, “The Death of General Wolfe.” The epic vignette depicts the aftermath of the 1759 Battle of Quebec, in which British forces defeated their French adversaries but lost their commander. West’s fanciful treatment of the scene includes a Native warrior who gazes thoughtfully at the dying Wolfe.

In one of Houle’s remakes, all the colors have faded to beige, save for the Native man’s clothing and headgear. In the other, the Indigenous man takes the same pose, but he’s alone and looking at the Bay of Montreal, with no Europeans in sight. The first of these versions is bracketed by two color blocks, one blue and the other red; these refer to color-field painting but also to the uniforms of the French and British, respectively. Houle titled the picture “Kanata,” the Huron-Iroquois word for village and the likely origin of the name Canada.

Another history lesson is contained in “Paris/Ojibwa,” a three-dimensional tableau that includes four portraits on an array of wooden panels that simulate two walls and the floor of an ornate, French-style drawing room. The 2010 installation memorializes 11 Ontario Natives who toured Europe in the 1840s. The setting appears elegant, except for one ominous design motif: Under each painting are renderings of the smallpox virus that took the lives of six of the transatlantic visitors.

Beyond this imposing piece are several galleries of color-oriented pictures that initially appear coolly abstract, yet are freighted with meaning. A set of 13 collage paintings that incorporate porcupine quills represent Jesus and his disciples and are keyed to verses from the Gospel of John. In a series of monochrome canvases, each is paired with text from British or Canadian laws, treaties or proclamations related to First Nations people. Eight vertical canvases, each coated entirely with a different shade of green, represent the British forts captured during Pontiac’s War in 1763.

Most of Houle’s works are serene and meticulous, even when they incorporate talismanic natural objects or address such outrages as the British army’s alleged distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans. (A 1763 letter from a British officer endorses the idea, but historians disagree on whether it was put into practice.) Paintings based on First Nations designs or beadwork also emulate the orderliness of Germany’s Bauhaus school and the Netherlands’ de Stijl movement.

The composure that characterizes most of Houle’s art vanishes when the subject turns autobiographical. Like many Indigenous Canadians, the artist was sent as a child to a boarding school designed to erase his traditional culture. Suppressed memories of the abuse he suffered there ultimately surfaced in powerful expressionist drawings made with oil stick. The loose, impassioned renderings of shadowy predators are balanced by ones of “dream shamans” conjured to protect him.

The show’s newest entry is “Transforming Blue Thunder,” a picture of the thunderbird, which embodies thunder and lightning in Native American lore. “Blue Thunder” is Houle’s spirit name, and so this is a symbolic self-portrait. In no small part, “Red Is Beautiful” is a journey through Houle’s ancestry and influences to a place of self-understanding.

Robert Houle: Red Is Beautiful

National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. americanindian.si.edu.


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