Canada is so often overlooked for our contribution to the art world. We live in the shadow of the United States to artists like Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. To the objective observer it may seem like Canadians are behind the race in the art world. But if you’re a Canadian like me, what you see beyond our natural beauty or brutalist architecture is art that has shaped your surroundings whether you know it or not. From the beautiful colours and bold lines of Pacific Northwest Aboriginal Art to Inukshuks to Totem Poles, Canadian art, and especially Aboriginal art, has shaped our world and what we see. Regardless of politics, art is able to exist. The more you engage with Canadian art the easier it becomes to deconstruct your perspective and redefine what it means to be Canadian. Below I list some of my favourite Canadian artists from Aboriginal and First Nations to expats and locals.
One of my favourite Canadian artists right now – Kent Monkman – blends the formal Renaissance perspective with alternative perspectives of Canadian history. His work is raw, powerful and engaging. The first time I saw his work was at the Alberta Art Gallery, printed on used skateboards. They were completely battered and almost intelligible. Beside them were fresh printed ones. It was such a statement on wiping out history and that no matter how battered, bruised and bloodied we and the history is, we need to come face-to-face with it. His work often depicts either the reverence of the First Nations people or the tragedy. Art shifts perspective and allows the viewer to engage with these fresh perspectives. Monkman shifts the typical Canadian perspective and it is why Kent Monkman sits as one of my favourite Canadian artists right now.
Art doesn’t always have to be political, sometimes it’s nice to give the mind a break and engage with the fun of colour palletes and flavour. For Laura Roka her flavour for pop art and one dimensionalism has set her apart. Rokas is a Canadian born artist that’s got an eye for bold and brash colours, and can do it with a sewing needle too. Her art is like if a Unicorn threw up onto a rainbow and then the rainbow painted what it felt like. It’s bright, it’s bellowing and it’s beautiful – she can make a bleeding heart look like a scene in a children’s cartoon. Keep an eye out for Rokas (even if she’s living in the United States).
Morriseau left this earth in 2007, but his contribution to Aboriginal art is tenfold. For Expo 67, Morriseau was commissioned to create a large mural where he expressed “the political dissatisfaction of the First Nations People in Canada.” You probably don’t even know you’ve seen and loved his art but it’s very much entrenched within Canadiana. I engage with his work like a dance, tracing each detail with precision and grace. And his art feels that way – the thick black enlivens the vibrancy of colours – and the scenes engage with animals, plants and wildlife. He is a self-taught Anishinaabe Aboriginal Canadian and a legend. When I look at his work I feel Canadian. He’s quoted as saying , “These paintings only remind you that you’re an Indian. Inside somewhere, we’re all Indians.”
The first time I saw Coldeway’s art and his team at Minbid’s contributions was at Vignette’s Design Festival Series: Muse. It really captured me and I kicked myself when I saw the piece I fell in love with sold. Their influences appear to be inspired by a mix of graffiti tagging, Basquiat and the division of street and suburb. Coldeway owns a design company as well as the the art gallery, Minbid. Both ventures are bold with their signature style, and his art gallery, in both Edmonton and Vancouver, showcases underground Canadian artists. Honestly though, I wish I could just give him all my money to turn the City of Edmonton into a graffiti playground.
Emily Carr is a Canadian artist I’d never really heard of, yet she is a legend in both Canada and the world. She was a writer, painter and a trailblazer. Her contribution to the Canadian art world is vast. Working in the west coast tradition, often taking long trips to the forest, Carr’s painting is indicative of someone who loved nature and Aboriginal traditions. At a time when it was not only hard for a woman but particularly taboo to engage with native Northwest coast peoples, Carr went against the grain and is now internationally regarded as a pillar of Canadian art history. If there is one to know in the Canadian art world, it’s Emily Carr.
Slowly but surely Canadian artists are coming from the shadows of our neighbours to the south. It might not be the artists we want (I’m looking at you Bieber), but perhaps we can hold on to the artists yet lost, and learn about the ones that have shaped our everyday. Canada’s reputation for doughnuts, beer and being polite are only goalposts of the rich, shaky and important history these artists choose to express. For now we hold them dear and when the time comes for the world to look, we’ll know we had something special for a while and we were better off learning from them.