This unique installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario called Paris/Ojibwa is by artist Robert Houle. It is a moving memorial for Ojibwa dancers who died while entertaining the French court in 1845. The story starts with American artist George Catlin who traveled 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 small pox in Europe. They died never to return to Canada.
Robert Houle has painted four of these ill-fated dancers, Maungwudaus’ wife Uh wis sig gee zig goo kway and three of her children and shows them on a return journey to Canada, a trip that because of their untimely deaths, they were never able to make themselves. Above the portraits are the names of the dancers and underneath each portrait is an illustration of the small pox virus that killed them. Robert Houle paints the portraits on the walls of a reconstructed Parisian salon. There is a bowl of sage on a pedestal at the front of the salon and you hear quiet drum beats as you view the installation.
I was drawn to Paris/Ojibwa because of its creator Robert Houle. We have an installation of his called Parfleches for the Last Supper on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Many years ago I interviewed Mr. Houle for a Free Press column of mine. It was interesting to see a more current work of his, especially one that tells such a moving and tragic story.