By Clint Buehler
The exhibition, “Jane Ash Poitras: New Acquisitions of Contemporary First Nations Art,” is featured in the ROM’s Gallery of Canada’s First Peoples. It opened to the public September 25th. It features four major works purchased by the ROM from “Consecrated Medicine,” a massive exhibition of her paintings, constructions and installations that toured across Canada for several years.
“Consecrated Medicine” was curated by, and with a catalogue by, Virginia Eichhorn, who is currently the director and curator of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario.
The public opening was preceded by three events at the ROM: An artist’s tour of the exhibition where she talked about the work; an art-making workshop session with a class of Grade 11 students from Fort Parry, and a “conversation” with Greg Hill, Curator and Head of the Department of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada.
Jane was also feteted with a reception hosted by Pat Feheley at her Feheley Fine Arts Gallery to celebrate the opening of the ROM exhibition. A major exhibition of her new work, titled “Transitions,” opens at the Feheley Gallery on December 4th. Go to www.feheleyfinearts.com for the latest information on that exhibition.
Identified by the ROM as “one of Canada’s preeminent artists,” Jane Ash Poitras is best known for her expressive mixed media assemblages in which she explored the impact of colonialism, both past and present, through powerful juxtapositions of personal and historic imagery, these paintings also represent part of the artist’s ongoing investigation of traditional non-Western medicines and the “secrets” of plants, including their scientific importance.
“We are pleased to feature these newly-acquired works by Jane Ash Poitras in Contemporary Expressions, the dedicated space for contemporary Native artwork in the ROM’s Gallery of Canada: First Peoples,” said Trudy Nicks, the ROM’s Senior Curator, Ethnohistory. “Her vibrant and thought-provoking work adds a powerful contemporary voice to our gallery’s presentation of Canada’s earliest societies.”
Among the featured works is Buffalo Seed (2004) which is concerned with traditional knowledge and its loss. Native people learned of the importance of sunflowers—native to North America and cultivated by Indigenous peoples as early as 3000 BC—by observing the buffalo, just as they learned of the medicinal properties of other plants by observing other animals. Poitras has juxtaposed it with a 19th century white artist’s depiction of buffalo hunting, photographs of traditional Elders, and images of death. The buffalo hunting theme in Buffalo Seed is complemented by three early paintings by 19th century artist George Catlin from the ROM’s historic painting collection.
The Extermination (1997) chronicles the slaughter of buffalo herds in the late 19th century that not only removed the animals and their specific knowledge, it also undermined Plains Indian economy and led to the loss of Native cultures and traditional knowledge. The artist has borrowed buffalo imagery from an 1880s drawing by Frank Henderson, an Arapaho orphan, and contrasted it with the human skulls of the Rwanda genocide. The stark imagery of this piece not only depicts that harsh reality of human destruction but, Poitras says, should serve as a warning that escalating human violence and destruction of the environment “will lead to our own extermination.”
The largest piece in the exhibition—a triptych 25 feet by 9 feet—is Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101 (2004), which graphically contrasts the forced assimilation of Native people in residential schools, where they were taken from their families, denied their language and culture and trained to be housemaids and farm workers. In reality, the history and culture of those enslaved children already carried the medicinal and other healing wisdom of their ancestors. The last panel of the work celebrates the high level of academic and professional achievements of Native people today.
It’s Good For Your Heart (2003) focuses on foxglove and its healing properties for heart diseases, just one of the many indigenous medicines that the artist explored in her ethnobotany-related studies and art making.
Jane Ash Poitras, of Cree/Dene descent, was born in the Northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan and grew up in Edmonton, where she has been based throughout her career. She meets regularly with Elders from many Native communities to hear their stories and to learn from them. She travels often, allowing her to observe and participate in the rituals of various Native cultures. By doing so, she brings a very humanist approach to her work., which is about sharing knowledge.
Jane is an internationally acclaimed visual artist whose work has been showcased in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the world, and can be found in many prestigious public, private and corporate collections. She is a graduate of the University of Alberta with degrees in microbiology and printmaking, and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Painting and Sculpture from New York City’s Columbia University.
She is a long-time lecturer at the U of A and a much-in-demand guest lecturer across North America and overseas. Respected for her generous support of Aboriginal and community causes, her numerous honours include her RCA designation from the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Alberta Centennial Medal, the 2006 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Arts and Culture, the University of Alberta Alumni Award of Excellence and the City of Edmonton Salute to Excellence Cultural Hall of Fame.
Toronto has become an even more special place, a “home away from home” for Jane, particularly over the past few months. This spring she was invited by the ROM to deliver a lecture in its “Biodiversity Series,” and spoke on the “Cultural Life of Plants.” In August she was invited to deliver the Keynote Address to open the 7th Annual International Conference on Media, Religion and Culture hosted by Ryerson University.
Now that the events for the opening of the ROM exhibition are over, she’s looking forward to the December 4th opening of her exhibition at Feheley Fine Arts, and whatever new opportunities come along.