The Circular Nature of Moving Forward: Alex Janvier at the National Gallery of Canada

By: Leah Iselmoe

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Entrance gallery, Alex Janvier Retrospective, National Gallery of Canada. Photo by Leah Iselmoe.

When you encounter a painting by Alex Janvier, you know it’s his; the mixture of modernist abstraction and Indigenous concepts creates a magnificent style that presents and explains the deep connections between people, land, and culture.

Alex Janvier: Modern Indigenous Master, a current retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada celebrates one of Canada’s most prolific artists through a narrative of artistic growth and Indigenous history.

Of Denesuline and Saulteaux descent, Janvier brings Indigenous beliefs, styles, and issues to the Canadian public, while creating world-renowned works that showcase his unique modernist style.

His use of colour and movement capture the vibrant, living land and culture of the Dene; the colours extend off the canvas and connect with the very energies they depict. Each image shifts between perspectives; one moment you see an aerial view of the world on a macro scale and the next you are looking through a microscope at the very fibres that hold the world together.

As an artist retrospect, the organization of the exhibition aptly frames Janvier’s artistic development and experiences. As visitors, we are introduced to works that exemplify Janvier’s style and success. Indeed, the astral presentation of his iconic circular paintings is awe-inspiring and supports the gallery’s assertion that Alex is, ‘one of Canada’s most acclaimed artists’. The inclusion of a video of Morning Star – Gembeh Then (1993) – the mural found at the Canadian Museum of History (just across the river from the NGC) – demonstrates his success as a professional artist while connecting the visitor to art within the Ottawa landscape.

Presented chronologically, Modern Indigenous Master begins by highlighting Janvier’s early works, completed during his time at the Blue Quills Residential School. Trained in the European tradition, early commissions from the Department of Northern and Indian Affairs document the development of Janvier’s style while highlighting the socio-political issues that affected his success as an Indigenous artist in colonial Canada. The juxtaposition of two nude sketches completed by Janvier, illustrates the early formation of his unique style: one, completed in pencil, demonstrates his skill in the European tradition, while the other, a graphic depiction in bright orange and purple pen, highlights the origins of his own artistic aesthetic.

Breaking chronology, Janvier’s Indian Group of 8 series is presented next, providing a continuous thematic message. Completed in 2011, each work is dedicated to a member of the Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporated (PNIAI)[1], a collective of prominent Indigenous artists founded in 1973. Lasting from 1973-1974, this collective played a formative role in the Indigenous rights movements within Canada and brought Indigenous art to the world stage. A separate room showcases a work from the gallery’s collection by each PNIAI member, encouraging the visitor to experience the styles and artists who influenced Janvier’s future work.

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Three of Janvier’s Indian Group of 8 portraits. Alex Janvier Retrospective, National Gallery of Canada. Photo by Leah Iselmoe.

The impact of the PNIAI is considered a turning point in Indigenous art and Janvier’s career; the exhibition design illustrates this effectively by having the visitor physically turn a corner into the next portion of the show. The works within this section portray Janvier’s matured signature style of flowing lines and vivid colour evocative of the natural world. Throughout this portion of the exhibit his art becomes more representational, better serving his growing role as an activist.

As visitors move through the exhibition, they visualize Janvier’s growing interest in creating art that discusses Indigenous issues. Large, representational works reveal Janvier’s platform as an activist and how he uses gallery space to discuss and expose the issues facing Indigenous peoples within Canada.

The intimate relationship between the land and Indigenous culture is a continuous theme throughout this exhibition. A gallery dedicated to Janvier’s relationship with the land follows the ‘activist’ gallery, portraying how the reconnection to land is fundamental to Indigenous rights and activism. The curatorial decision to situate a landscape gallery between galleries focusing on activism and residential school experience conveys how land is a central element in Indigenous cultures.

Upon entering the gallery dedicated to Janvier’s work depicting his experience at the Blue Quills Residential School, there is a clear shift in mood and setting; with dark walls and a low ceiling, this small room creates a private place of solemn reflection. This is an appropriate approach to the content; visitors are confronted with a dark part of Canada’s past and they are given the potential to experience the personal affect this history had on an individual and his community[2].

The exhibition retraces through the Landscape gallery, reinforcing the connection between culture and place. The last portion of this retrospective returns the visitor to the modern white cube, with a deeper understanding and connection to our history, the artist, and his work. Here, Janvier’s later works are displayed, exploring different techniques such as dripping and spraying paints onto the canvas. Reaching the final gallery, visitors encounter his most recent pieces that incorporate large, soft shapes in chalk pastels, providing contrast to his earlier works of frenzied, bold colours and representational imagery.

Janvier continues to explore the circle, within the canvas and as the canvas shape itself, illustrating the cyclical nature of our world. The exhibition itself feels cyclical, portraying an artist reconnecting with his culture and a country embarking on the process of reconciliation. In keeping with this theme, the exhibition closes as it began, with a series of Janvier’s circular canvases.

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Janvier continuing to explore the circle. Alex Janvier Retrospective, National Gallery of Canada. Photo by Leah Iselmoe.

A personal and informative exhibition, the Alex Janvier retrospective traces the development of Janvier’s unique style and role as a renowned artist and activist. The exhibition lets the artwork speak for itself; text panels act as support to the artworks, not overpowering their message. As curator Greg Hill stated, “the role of the curator is to be as invisible as possible”.[3] The artworks enable the visitor to see the world through Janvier’s perspective, learning an Indigenous narrative of contemporary Canada; a voice that has long been absent in national institutions.

The ‘white-box’ gallery style used in the exhibit was encouraged by Janvier who saw it as a symbol of triumph for Indigenous contemporary art.[4] Being accepted in this setting has been a struggle for Indigenous artists who have fought hard to be included in the artistic canon of fine art.

Yet this retrospect is more than just a triumph for contemporary Indigenous artists, it is a triumph for Canadian art as a whole; it demonstrates the beginning of our acceptance and celebration of the multiplicity within Canadian cultural identity. Janvier’s Indigenous heritage was not concealed or marginalized, but celebrated using the white-box style in a national institution. He is deservedly awarded respect and recognition as an artist, while imparting a narrative of collective growth, healing and success to his audience.

“In 1960, the world wasn’t ready for a First Nations artist interested in contemporary painting”.[5]

The Alex Janvier retrospective exhibition suggests that perhaps now we are.

Editor’s Note: Alex Janvier: Modern Indigenous Master was on display at the National Gallery of Canada until 17 April 2017.

About the Author: Leah Iselmoe is in her first year of the MA Art History program with a specialization in Art Exhibition and Curatorial Studies. Her research focuses on myth and its manifestation within material culture and landscape, Canadian museum theory and exhibition development. You can read more about Leah here.


[1] Also known as the ‘Indian Group of 7’: Daphne Odjig, Norval Morrisseau, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Alex Janvier (with Bill Reid considered the unofficial eighth member).

[2] I have heard many opinions regarding how Janvier’s experience in Residential School was presented within this exhibition. Unfortunately, this discussion goes beyond the scope of this paper but I encourage you to research, contemplate and talk about this part of Canada’s history and how cultural institutions frame it within our national and cultural narrative.

[3] Interview with exhibition curator, Greg Hill: Nov. 30, 2016

[4] Interview with exhibition curator, Greg Hill: Nov. 30, 2016

[5] Wall Quote from Alex Janvier Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC): 2016.