Plea for help from Ottawa Photographers: Daphne Odjig's cultural masterpiece is a mural in the National Arts Centre foyer in Ottawa. I have never seen even a picture of it, but below is its description, because I want to ask that you go there with a camera and flash and take some pictures of it and mail them to me, so I can put them up here. National Art Centre has a web page. Not only do they not show this mural, they don't even mention it, and what they do show is like dance groups, the building, bushes and stuff outside -- nothing Indian at all. (Maybe it doesn't have a 90's look, so they put it in storage somewhere.)
The large mural measures 8' x 28 ' long. It was named The Indian in Transition when she painted it for them in the late 1970's, when maybe Indian people and culture were more art-trendy than now. Myself, I believe it was humanity, rather than just part of it, she had in mind. It is divided into 4 panels:
1. The pre-contact past: An Indian drummer is seen, symbolizing ancient traditions, the heartbeat of the people and the earth at one. A thunderbird and a serene face of the earth mother show the unity of humanity with nature.
2. A few people are looking apprehensively out to sea, watching the approach of huge boats, one is anxiously clasping his drum as if fearing the heartbeat of unity is in danger. Columbus, Frobisher, Cook, Custer, Cartier -- doesn't matter, because those boats only symbolize his arrival. Some places he came walking. Some places he arrived on horseback. Som he cam riding a mule, carrying a cross and a book. Some places by the rails and roads he built. Up north, beneath the ice, in nuclear submarines. So those boats, they are only a symbol of something that came to this Turtle Island world here.
3. Destruction, dissolution, horrible collapse. People are trappd in confined spaces -- reserves, reservations, city slums -- doesn't matter, the space inside each person has become a trap too. Faceless people, wrecked cars, empty bottle, a broken drum.
4. Fourth time invokes the sacred number of the 4 directions: Some people are escaping this disastrous present to a future in which they hold safe and sounding its heartbeat again the drum. The heartbeat of the people, the symbol of unity of humankind and the natural world, is intact. Young pople, proud, are dancing. The thunderbird again protects and links the sky powers to the earth and the people of the earth. The darkness of of the destruction gives way to shining sun of a new day.
Part of my reason to ask you to go there, and try to get thm to let you photograph each of these panels, and any details you think should be shared is purely selfish: I have never seen this and I am not likely ever to go there and see it. But I feel it should be seen by the world and would like to do the best I can with photos of it on this web page. You will probably have to get permissions and make arrangements to go there some morning. I can't use slides, only prints, if they let you.
When I first heard of this mural and where it was, I was delighted. Most Indian art works are in some kind of ghetto: special museums, museums of natural history along with bones and rocks and plants. Or there are special isolated exhibits only temporary in big museums where real world-calss art is on permanent display. This mural was commissioned and trated as world-class art, to provide an appropriate entrance to a centre where all the performing, musical, dance arts of the world are on display. I was proud to hear of it.
I kept searching and turned eagerly to their web page, when I found it, but was very disappointed to find not even one word there about it, so perhaps you will have to try to get them to let you photograph it out of some storage basement or something. If still there, it has become an unnoticed and forgotten part of their walls, apparently. Anyway not something they thought worth bothering to mention on their web page, which is about ballet, modern dance, Irish dancers, and suchlike. So the idea that she painted something that is really intended for everyone in the world has been forgotten. This is salvage anthropology, at least images, unwanted, taken from their dying culture.
Text and graphics copyright 1995, 1996.
Last Updated: Friday, July 26, 1996 - 11:37:55 AM