A rare chance to see the formative work of a generation, this spectacular exhibition entitled 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. focuses on the decade during which First Nations master artists Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Joseph Sanchez, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, and Carl Ray worked collectively to gain acceptance within the canon of Canadian art. Exhibition Curator Michelle LaVallee describes their work as foundational, “The members of the PNIA pushed for the recognition of contemporary First Nations art at a time when Indigenous artists were under the constant threat of invalidation, marginalization and exclusion.…They challenged people’s preconceived notions of Indigenous people, their art, and everyday lives. As individuals and a group, they served as a source of inspiration for succeeding generations.” Extensively researched from public archives and private collections, LaVallee’s selection brings together 120 paintings and drawings, including some previously unseen masterworks.

The PNIA began informally in the early 1970s, an eclectic group of established and emerging artists who met regularly in Winnipeg at Jackson Beardy’s studio, and at Daphne Odjig’s print-studio and gallery. They were of different generations and cultures, ages 22 to 50; some formally trained, others self-taught; from Coastal BC, Northern Alberta, Southern Colorado, Manitoba and Northern Ontario; culturally they were Pueblo, Ojibwa, Cree, Dene Suline-Saulteaux, and Potawatomi. What united them was frustration: their paintings and sculpture were seen by government and society as a type of handicraft, creative indigenous work that was ethnographic in nature, and therefore shown in history museums, expositions, and gift shops. Alex Janvier still remembers the awkwardness of being offered an exhibition in the Canadian War Museum. Joe Sanchez recalls, “Our cause was simple: to be able to exhibit and receive acceptance as artists.”

In 1974, the group officially incorporated with seven members. Collectively, they staged exhibitions, and promoted their work as fine art. Each artist brought personal goals and aesthetic styles to the collective, but their dialogue can be seen in the similar ways they utilized abstraction, personal narrative and story-telling to explore themes of history, spirituality, duality and conflict, the natural world and the everyday. LaVallee sees the work of the Seven as an important chapter in the larger story of Canadian Art, work that during the late twentieth century was developing away from the established conventions of Europe or New York. The visual language created by the Seven, abstraction informed by personal narrative and visual reference to indigenous heritage, broke with the impersonal ideals of modernism, and laid the ground for the pluralistic flowering of art based on identity. “Their Indigenous heritage obviously comes through, as it does for any artist, regardless of background,” says LaVallee. “Your heritage informs what you do, sometimes whether you want it to or not.”

Organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the exhibit will be on view in Regina September 21, 2013 – January 12, 2014, prior to a two year national tour; including Winnipeg Art Gallery (MB), Kelowna Art Gallery (BC), Thunder Bay Art Gallery (ON) and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (ON). In complement with the tour is a hardcover, 348-page full-colour catalogue, which includes essays by First Nations curators Barry Ace, Carmen Robertson, Lee-Anne Martin, Cathy Mattes, Viviane Gray, Tom Hill, Joseph Sanchez, and exhibition curator Michelle LaVallee. 

MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina