Canada : Robert Houle


Kanehsatake X


As a people, our notion of time is delineated by our aboriginal languages. As a painter, preparing surfaces, colours and images, I use a mnemonic code, me uhp (an Ojibway phrase), to express anxiety and delirium, but particularly to feel an event which resonates. When creating this multi-paneled mixed-media work, I used me uhp to time and to remember what happened 10 years ago. The blue panels recognize the cardinal directions, the greens evoke "The Pines" of Oka and the arrowhead pays homage to the endless endurance and remarkable patience of the Mohawk people in preserving and protecting their land.


Robert Houle
Toronto, July 2000


In Kanehsatake X, X marks both spot and number, located by a roundabout route.

Robert Houle's first plan for Tout le Temps / Every Time was for a work to be installed at Pointe-à-Callière, an archaeological and historical museum on the original site of 17th-century Ville Marie (now Montréal) which was close to the Iroquois village of Hochelaga. Currently undergoing excavation, Ville Marie's cemetery (part of today's museum) is know to have been the first in the pioneer settlement, and now shelters the remains of twelve natives who had been converted to Christianity.

Houle saw the natives' acceptance of Christianity as evidence of their will to collaborate in the utopian ideas underlying the new young community - an optimism for the future - and, in the first two days he spent there, he felt a "good sense of the spirits" despite the disturbance of the native graves. Yet he hesitated over his plans, and several of his friends found it strange that he would choose to honour the Chrisitian natives.

At about the same time, as he was installing an exhibition of his work at the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon, Houle was given an arrowhead found on a nearby farm: technology from his own people, who had lived by hunting. In another coincidence of timing and memory, June 2000 marks the tenth anniversary of the confrontation at "The Pines" in Oka, near Montréal, over rights to use land where Mohawks are buried. It is a moment of anniversaries and recognition. A trail of centuries.

Kanehsatake X is a work of parts. There are two oil-painted panels, seven by two feet: French Ultramarine Blue as both Mohawk and Québécois colours, and Cobalt and Prussian greens for "The Pines". There is also a slender "caution" panel in Indian Red and Yellow, with a digitized photograph of the Plains arrowhead, front and back, scanned onto two of the coloured sections. "The Pines" is closest to "caution". Finally, an X in cast steel (completing "caution"): etched in memory onto permanent ground, accompanied by the memory of fragile rock, old as forever.

Arrowheads are flints, gift of the earth, fashioned with skill. A means to food and shelter, a welding of nature and culture.

The natives buried at Ville Marie were probably Neutral or Huron, Iroquoian tribes from Ontario visiting Rivière la Petite Saint-Pierre at Hochelaga for trade. Robert Houle is Saulteau, a Plains Ojibwa from Manitoba, and came to Montréal both to study (at McGill) and to teach (at the Indian Way school at Kahnewake reserve, whose children would become Warriors at Oka). Another form of trade.

During the Oka crisis in the summer of 1990, Houle covered his studio windows in Toronto with banners from June to September: LONGHOUSE / FALSE FACE / LAND CLAIM / SOVEREIGN. A colorist unable to work without natural light, he accepted "a self-inflicted wound" to signal his solidarity with his brothers. A "sun-worshipper"deprived of sunlight, he focused his attention on daily events during those weeks, yet 10 years later finds himself still moved by the issues. "Oka left an imprint not only in my creative activity but in my mind."


Kanehsatake X is a work of parts. A work of memory and honour. A marking of many times.


Peggy Gale



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