” The interpretation of an abstract painting is open to discussion and dispute just as the interpretation of the government’s treaties with First Nations has been discussed and disputed.” Jaimie Isaac, the curator of a new exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery is explaining why Robert Houle’s work Treaty One includes an abstract painting in the style of Mark Rothko. Treaty One is the centrepiece of the exhibit called We Are On Treaty Land. Both the name of the artwork and the name of the exhibit take on added meaning because the Winnipeg Art Gallery is located on Treaty One land and the artists showcased in the exhibit are all connected in some way to Treaty One land. Treaty One, negotiated in 1871 is the first treaty First Nations signed with the Canadian government.
In Treaty One Robert Houle who was born in St. Boniface and lived in Sandy Bay juxtapositions an abstract painting with text from the actual treaty that is partially obscured by an old photograph of First Nations people. This creates a kind of tension since the promises and responsibilities of the treaty remain obscure to many First Nations people as well as other Canadian citizens.
The abstract painting and the obscured text is meant to frustrate viewers just the way the unfulfilled promises of the treaties have frustrated First Nations people.