Ever start crying in an art gallery? Ever start crying in an art gallery and have no tissues with you? Ever start crying in an art gallery and have no tissues with you when you’re there with about 200 other people for a guided tour?
Yeah, I thought it was weird, too. Seemed to come out of nowhere but, really, it built up from the inside until it showed up on the outside.
Last Sunday afternoon here in Ottawa my wife and I attended a guided tour of the National Gallery’s career retrospective of Alex Janvier. Janvier is a Native Canadian artist. I had never heard of him before this show came to the Gallery. I won’t forget him now. I came away believing that Janvier should be treasured by all Canadians. He is an artist of exceptional skill who has been painting for seven decades. Seven. Decades. He won an honourable mention for a painting submitted to a Vatican show when he was only fifteen years old. From Cold Lake First Nations, Alberta, he was sent to a residential school when he was eight years old. It was there that his talent was recognized and encouraged. He became a founding member of an artists’ collective that would be called “The Indian Group of Seven”. Born in 1935, he’s about the same age as my dad.
So it was an incredible show with dozens and dozens of masterful paintings: Why the tears? Whassup with that?
Certainly, I get emotional around really great art. I find myself catching my breath or feeling slightly stunned when I see something particularly wonderful. As an artist I have a sense of the skill and the hard work, the genius and the dedication behind a truly outstanding work of art. Alex Janvier is a giant among abstract painters, of that I have no doubt. But tears over that? No. But the emotional foundation had been set.
I was tired that afternoon, making me more susceptible to emotions getting the best of me. But I’m not in the habit of breaking down crying every time I’ve had a poor night’s sleep. I may be a big baby about some things but that’s taking it too far. However, that may have something to do with it.
It’s funny because even when I was fighting back tears, I was thinking, “What the hell?” They just came on like that. Bam! I remember where I was, too. Not standing in front of one of Janvier’s great paintings. No – I was reading a description on the wall next to one of his paintings. This one below as a matter of fact:
This is an abstract painting having to do with the drum and its place in Native culture. As you look at it you can definitely see the form of the drum. The whole piece dances, there’s a rhythm to it, a Powwow beat. Beside the painting was a description, and in that description was the comment that from the late 1880’s until 1951, according to the Indian Act here in Canada, Native peoples’ were forbidden to use the drum or to celebrate any of their cultural ceremonies and traditions.
And that was it. Right there I couldn’t stop the tears. What was going on?
At the heart of it, I believe it is because I have been struggling so much lately trying to make sense of how people in my “tribe” – Christians – can support the new president of the United States and his policies. It was just this past weekend that chaos reigned at airports in the U.S., people with all the legal documents they needed and have always had, some who have lived in the States for years, were denied entry; the announcement came, too, that there would be an indefinite hold on accepting Syrian refugees into the U.S., this most desperate of desperate groups in our world today. I was so saddened and disheartened by all of this, and equally angry and disgusted by the American Christians who allowed this to happen in the first place.
What did any of this have to to with Alex Janvier and this show at the National Gallery? I mentioned earlier that at the age of eight, Janvier was sent to a residential school. Most of these schools were run by Christian missionaries. And at these schools, Native children were forbidden to speak their language, forbidden to participate in anything having to do with their culture; punished, in fact, for doing so. They had Christianity force-fed to them and were told that their grandparents were evil, of the devil. Worse, many of these children faced the horrors of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in these schools. The official tally of children who died in the care of these “servants of Christ” is 4,000 but the estimate is many times more. Some died from the abuse, some from starvation and disease, and some simply lost the will to live. Taken from their homes, they were stripped of their identities and backgrounds, everything they had to cling to for support and strength.
If you are not the least bit emotional after reading the above paragraph, read it again.
As I walked through the show, Janvier’s own record of his experience and his lament over the experience of so many Native people hit me at every turn. Injustice, oppression, hatred – and so much of it in the name of Christ; so much of it allowed to happen or perpetuated by the ones who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, the Son of God. This stripping of the drum – the silencing of the heartbeat of the Native people – was the last straw for me on that Sunday afternoon.
So I had my own time of lament. Not for my people but for Janvier’s people; not for the pain I endured but the pain inflicted by people like me. That gallery space was huge but not big enough to contain the heartache that filled the place from floor to ceiling. And yet such beauty, talent, wonder – despite it all, Janvier gave us all this gift. A gift we don’t deserve.
Heavy thoughts, I know. But I was in the National Gallery surrounded by sublime and profound works of art. Sue me.
It was cathartic. And it was an amazing show to witness. The photos I took with my Samsung phone cannot do justice to Janvier’s work and, of course, truly convey the power of being there in person. But I want to take you on a brief photo walkabout in the space below. I would encourage you to look up his artwork online or, if you get the chance, to see it for yourself.
Just don’t forget the Kleenex.
Without further ado, here’s the pics…