The paintings of the Group of Seven show a very specific form of historiography. On decontrusting Canada’s identity while looking at contemporary art.
Looking at any Group of Seven painting today, I find myself asking: What else was in the frame? What was invisible or illegible to the painters then? What was obscured or omitted from the record of 20th century life as a result? Their surfaces spur daydreams not simply of pre-industrial, wild, oxygen-rich landscapes, but of how the exact same spaces might be rendered by those with deeper roots therein, whose ancestors have been there for centuries, who know it better than anyone.
In 1876, the “Indian Act” was enacted, a bill that has been amended numerous times and still regulates the legal status of Indigenous peoples in the land known as Canada today. The seven gentlemen came together around their pursuits in the 1920s—90 years after the first residential school opened, and 75 years before the last one would close, in 1996. These government-sponsored institutions run by Christian churches existed to assimilate Indigenous children into the Western way of life brought over by uninvited European settlers. Youths were stripped of their traditional clothes, given new names, and barred from speaking their first languages, among other abuses. With an estimated 6,000 children having died in these schools, the project is widely understood to be a genocide. This major effort (though not the only one) to snuff out Indigenous languages, spiritualities, traditions, and ways of knowing looms large over the land known today as Canada.
The images inspire daydreams of pre-industrial, wild landscapes
It is by now a familiar observation that this dark perception of an entire population of human beings as mutable—a crucial ingredient in colonization—is indirectly reflected in the Group of Seven’s paintings, which have played some role in the formation of a “national identity” in the last hundred or so years, a status reflected in the collections of the nation’s major museums and in the commonness of their reproductions as inexpensive home decor. Terra nullius, a mid-19th century Latin term which translates literally to “land belonging to no one,” was used as justification for many land grabs in the first couple centuries of settlement, and extended to the impulse to form (as if from scratch, from nothing) a so-called national identity. In both cases, there’s a presumption of total lack, despite living, breathing evidence of occupants—many of whom actually taught settlers how to live off the land.
If we postulate for a moment that everything that’s ever come to pass swirls into an awareness that the living carry within them (however consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously) or if we merely follow the logic of a linear art historical narrative, then any contemporary Canadian artist working with the landscape is technically in dialogue with the Group of Seven. In other words, these paintings might be thought of as spectres. However: cognizant of the contentious notion of “national identity,” versed in at least the basics of post-colonial theory, and attentive to the news cycle that makes indisputable the continued systemic oppression of Indigenous life, many artists working with landscapes today operate in direct opposition to the notion of terra nullius.
How do contemporary artists represent landscape?
I can’t help but think of Sarah Anne Johnson’s Woodland series, in which each work begins as a photograph of a landscape near her Manitoba home, and is later transformed with paint, metal leaf, holographic tape, photo-spotting ink, and photoshop. “Informed by scientific research on the ability of trees to communicate intelligently, traditional Indigenous knowledge about nature, and the influence of ancient trees on sacred architecture,” Johnson elegantly populates what is visible to the naked eye with what isn’t. Images of forested expanses during different seasons and times of day—generally understood to be teeming with life—are selectively coloured with indexes of further complexity which produce a compelling charge without ever specifying exactly what it is they refer to.
Many other artists address ongoing histories of injustice head on, as in Rebecca Belmore’s performance-based responses to the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Nadia Myre’s inclusion of hundreds of family members, friends, and peers in beading over a copy of the Indian Act, and Ange Loft’s collaboration with Jumblies Theatre and Arts, wherein oral history methodologies are used to raise awareness about broken treaties, to name only a few. Other artists rectify the fallout of erasure, like Dayna Danger, Olivia Whetung, Joi T. Arcand, and Ursula Johnson, who take up traditional material practices or ancestral languages, often in ways that engage critically with the present.
Caroline Monnet, Lisa Jackson, Krista Belle Stewart, and others flesh out oscillations between homelands, reservations, and city life, exploring how place is associated with embodied memory, cultural inheritance, and identity-formation. There are also significant efforts to interrogate cartographic boundaries—as in the work of Robert Houle, Lauren Crazybull, and Christi Belcourt—away from the possessive, extractive impulses of colonizers towards an understanding of land that is based on Indigenous title, use, seasons, migration patterns, story, and reciprocal relationships.
Some artists have also dug into the aporia that is the public apology, as in a project by AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson called A Public Apology to Siksika Nation (2019), which came about after uncovering that the former’s great-grandfather was an Anglican missionary on the nation on which the latter’s great-grandfather was a chief and medicine man. As the artist, writer, and professor David Garneau writes, Indigenous art (as distinguished from “customary culture” and “Aboriginal art”) exists in a kind of third space: emerging from Indigenous and settler cultures “but striv[ing] to be neither fully traditional nor colonized.” The work constitutes “sovereign sites within settler territories,” where “the Indigenous is performed critiqued, produced, and reproduced as contemporary phenomena.”
You see a highly specific form of historiography at work
To look at the Group of Seven’s depictions of Canadian landscapes today is to see a highly specific strain of history-writing—an accurate one would never be so precedented, mannered, and appealing to the eye. Many Indigenous contemporary artists have troubled imagistic conceptions of land, enabling multitudinous ways of seeing that contribute (however wittingly) to a more rich, representative national identity.