Daphne Odjig (1919 – 2016)
“If my work as an artist has somehow helped to open doors between our people and the non-Native community, then I am glad. I am even more deeply pleased if it has helped to encourage the young people that have followed our generation to express their pride in our heritage more openly, more joyfully than I would have ever dared to think possible.”
If ever an artist felt grateful for an illness, it was Daphne Odjig. In 1932, at the age of 13, Odjig was hit by rheumatic fever and forced to withdraw from school, dashing her ambitions of becoming a schoolteacher.
However, her disappointment quickly gave way to delight; living at home on Manitoulin Island’s Wikwemikong Reserve gave her an opportunity to grow close to her paternal grandfather, an Odawa-Potawatomi stone-carver, and her mother, and Englishwoman who had met Odjig’s father when he was based in England during World War I.
Odjig’s adolescence was nourished by her connections with her parents and grandfather, each of whom encouraged Odjig’s creative interests.But Odjig’s grandfather and mother died when she was just 18, and she set out for other parts of Ontario, moving to Toronto during World War II. It was in early
adulthood that Odjig first encountered racism, and the shock triggered a withdrawal from her heritage. She spent her years in Toronto visiting art galleries, exploring European paintings and admiring the Cubist styles of painters like Picasso. But she gave herself the last name “Fisher” (an Odawa translation of “Odjig”) and felt, for the first time in her life, isolated.The retreat from her indigenous origins did not last long.
After marrying her first husband, Paul Somerville, and moving to British Columbia to raise their two sons, she enrolled in art classes, where she was encouraged to paint “realistic” pieces. While she briefly followed this advice, she soon decided that she wanted to paint how she felt, a decision that catapulted her towards innovative new styles.In 1962, Odjig married her second husband—two years after Paul died in a car crash—and after they relocated to Winnipeg, a new phase in her artistic production and motivation began.
Over the next two decades, Odjig’s style grew to amalgamate her First Nations spiritual heritage with the modernist techniques she had admired years before. Her pluralist approach and two-dimensional representations of indigenous mythology, colonial history, and personal and collective memories relied on vibrant colours and a dark “formline” that anchored the works’ meaning in place. On her formline, Odjig remarked: “If you looked at my painting before I got my formline on, you probably wouldn’t distinguish what I’m doing. But by the time I got my formline on, everything is in balance, and it’s there.”Odjig’s art punctured the boundaries separating First Nations art and a broader Western audience. Picasso called her a “remarkable artist,” and she was awarded with every accolade available to artists, including the Order of Canada.
She was one of four artists in the world chosen to paint a memorial to Picasso by the Picasso Museum in France, and her pieces have been featured on Canada stamps.Yet, to Odjig, true success was achieved by her activism, which operated as an extension of her role as an artist. In 1974, after serving a six-month artist residency in Gotland, Sweden, she and her husband returned to Winnipeg to open Odjig Indian Prints of Canada, a craft shop and small press that eventually morphed into the New Warehouse Gallery, the first Canadian gallery to exclusively represent First Nations art.
As curator, Odjig encouraged young artists by buying and selling their work. She organized the Professional Native Indian Artists Association, more famously known as the “Indian Group of Seven,” and illustrated a range of books, from school readers to a collection of First Nations erotica. Before her breakthroughs,
the mainstream art world saw indigenous art as “exotic handicraft or cultural artefact more properly housed in a museum than in a public gallery.” But Odjig’s collaborative intervention with other First Nations artists changed the field of possibilities. “We acknowledged and supported each other as artists when the world of fine art refused us entry,” she explained. “Together we broke down barriers that would have been so much more difficult faced alone.”Perhaps Odjig’s journey as an artist and activist is best captured by Roots, her triptych about the disintegration of identity that occurs as a result of abandoning heritage, and the potential for regrowth upon rediscovering those lost origins.
“You find out who you are and are proud. ... Only when you discover yourself can you be secure.”