During this time when the world has been dealing with a deadly virus, I have been reminded of an art installation I saw at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the summer of 2017 that illustrated the impact of a deadly virus on a group of Indigenous dancers.
Created in 2010 by the renowned Indigenous artist Robert Houle who is originally from Winnipeg, the work titled Paris/Ojibwa is a moving memorial to Ojibwa dancers who died while entertaining the French Court in 1845.
The story starts with American artist George Catlin who travelled extensively in the west painting hundreds of portraits of Indigenous people. He decided to bring his ‘Indian Gallery’ to Europe and display it there. He thought he might attract more viewers for his exhibit if he brought along an Indigenous dance troupe organized by George Henry Maungwudaus an Ojibwa interpreter.
The troupe performed in London and at the royal court in Paris where King Louis Philipe presented the dancers with medals. Unfortunately, six of the troupe caught smallpox in Europe. They died never to return to Canada
Robert Houle has included the names of some of the dancers at the very top of the installation. He has shown the dancers as a Shaman, Warrior, Dancer and Healer respectively and they are seen looking out at the horizon of their home in Canada. Each horizon has a specific physical reference. They are views of the prairie from the Sandy Bay First Nations cemetery near Lake Manitoba. Artist Robert Houle is a member of the Sandy Bay First Nation.
Underneath each portrait is an image of the smallpox virus that killed them.
Robert Houle has created the portraits on the walls of a reconstructed Parisian salon with a marble floor. There is a bowl of sage on a pedestal at the front of the salon and I could hear soft drum beats as I viewed the installation.
According to an April CBC article Indigenous people make up 10% of Manitoba’s population but account for 70% of COVID-19 infections. It also states that American First Nations people are dying of COVID-19 at twice the rate of the white population.
Robert Houle’s artwork reminds us how the effects of colonization have impacted the health of Indigenous Canadians for nearly two centuries.