WHAT BEAUTY!: Alex Janvier retrospective opens to a full house at the National Gallery of Canada Ottawa

Denesuline and Saulteaux artist Alex Janvier’s paintings depict vibrant worlds.

I believe we are all given moments in life where if we pause to be still and present we will know that we have witnessed something truly extraordinary. In the expansive space of the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Canada last night, those of us that were there had the opportunity to feel the burden of history momentarily lifted by the presence of someone who has dedicated his body, mind and soul to beauty and to the upholding of his culture.

The crowd that came out was as expansive as the space. NGC Director Marc Mayer said that he had never seen the place so full for any previous opening. The turnout illustrated how well respected this internationally known artist is and affirmed the place that Indigenous artists hold in the consciousness of the Canadian public. 

At 81 years of age, Alex Janvier is a living legend. His paintings are vibrant expressions of dark emotions transformed via vivid memories of his culture that stayed located inside him despite being sent away to residential school. He spoke of his memories of women doing quill work and beading and the “special Friday from 2 to 4” where at school the children were given a few hours to paint. “It was the only time I could express what was down deep within and go back to the creator I believe in…go back to the inside of the little boy…where I wasn’t scared.” He went on to say that in his paintings “you will see what I talked about [the experience of residential school] but also the liberation from it.”

He shared these words on the same day as the US celebrate the arrival of the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock. On thanksgiving eve, in the twilight of the night fall, the backdrop of the American Embassy and Canada’s Parliament Hill was lit up and seen through the glass enclosure of the Great Hall. Ministers and MPs came out to express their admiration. An honouring song was sung. Dances performed. The word reconciliation uttered on more than one occasion.

Has Canada arrived at a new place in time? Has something changed? Perhaps reconciliation is less about a future moment to arrive at and more about a process to begin at.

Last night what we witnessed was the spiritual tenacity that comes from thousands of years of culture stretching back farther than the concept of ‘the West.’ Alex has spent his life time tapping into that “source” as he calls it. What he gave to us all was a gift, pointing to an imagined future in these troubled times. “I believe that this moment is meant for all of us to be here.”

If we accepted his gift, we experienced grace – one moment in a lifetime that has the possibility to change us all.

The exhibit runs through until April 17, 2017. More info on the Alex Janvier exhibit here.

Join curator Greg Hill in conversation with Alex Janvier Saturday, November 25 at 2 pm at the National Gallery of Canada. More info on the Facebook Event Page. Admission is FREE for all.

Images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.