By Frank Larue
With the exception of Norval Morrisseau, who made his presence known with an exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto 1962, aboriginal artists were not truly accepted as true artists until 1973.
In 1973 several aboriginal artists under the monitor Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation (PNIAI) got together in Winnipeg. Jackson Beardy, Alex Janvier and Daphne Odjig pooled their talents together for an exhibition of their work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The show was called, Treaty Numbers 23, 287, 1171, and was groundbreaking. Proof positive came from the audiences reactions and critics’ responses. Aboriginal art was a truly original art form and not some primal craft. It wasn’t the mediocrity of the artists’ work that prevented the PNIAI from being shown in art galleries throughout the country.
It was the PNIAI’s Daphne Odjig and Jackson Beardy who brought together several other aboriginal artists including Norval Morrisseau, Eddy Cobiness, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez to exhibit along with Alex, Janvier, Beardy and Odjig. Together they put together an exhibition of their best work that was shown in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal to great acclaim. The success of those shows established aboriginal painters as gifted artists who would never again be regarded as inferior or even non-artists, because in each city the reaction was overwhelming. Aboriginal art went from obscurity to acceptance in a very short period of time and opened the door for a generation of artists. It was The Winnipeg Free Press reporter, Gary Scherbain, who gave them the name ‘The Indian Group of Seven.’
The group separated eventually to pursue their own careers. Jackson Beardy, opened a school for First Nations Artists, Daphne Odjig and Carl Ray taught at the Manitou Arts Foundation, Daphne is now 96 and still painting, she along with Joseph Sanchez and Alex Janvier are the surviving members of The Indian Group of Seven. Norval Morrisseau passed away in 2007, but not before he was given the monitor ‘Picasso of the north’ as his paintings found homes in galleries across Canada, Europe and the United States.
Joseph Sanchez, has fond memories of his friends from the Seven. “It was a significant time in my life and as it turns out, a very important moment in time.” Sanchez said in a recent interview, “Daphne was and is a strong, proud and determined woman and when she invited us all to Winnipeg in the late fall of 1973 it didn’t take long to realize we all had the same goals; we wanted our art to be recognized and we wanted to be treated fairly. We decided to do what it took to change people’s perspectives and how we were treated by the large galleries, which until then had not showcased our work in any of the major venues. Daphne’s courage and determination were motivating factors and we were ready to participate in every effort to see our goals become a reality.”
It has been a long time since the collective work of The Indian Group of Seven was showcased in one art gallery; but in 2013 the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina showcased selected paintings from The Indian Group of Seven and the show was a huge success. Today the show is running in Edmonton at the Alberta Art Gallery until July 3. A rare opportunity, and the perfect outing on National Aboriginal Day, to take in the brilliance and beauty of Aboriginal artists who changed the course of Canadian Aboriginal art history.