Canoe considers the iconic Indigenous vessel

Art | Gregory Beatty | Feb. 10, 2022

Amanda Strong, How to Steal a Canoe, 2016

Remai Modern
Until May 8

Call it a coincidence if you want. Or serendipity. Or even full blown synchronicity.

Whatever you call it, the fact is that some timely viewings of private art collections turned Michelle Jacques’ unfinished canoe plans into this new Remai Modern exhibition which opened in late January.

Backing up: Jacques was appointed the Remai Modern’s chief curator in December 2020. She came to Saskatoon from Victoria, where she’d been chief curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria since 2012. Before leaving Victoria, she said in a recent phone interview, she’d been planning a canoe-themed show with West Coast Indigenous artist Rodney Sayers.

After arriving in Saskatoon, she recalled, she was introduced to several private collectors who happened to have art works in their collection with canoe imagery in them. That prompted Jacques to consider how “interesting and accessible” an exhibition on canoes would be.

Heck yes. Few objects are as intimately tied to Canadian history and identity than the canoe. Pre-contact, it was a vital form of transportation for Indigenous peoples from coast to coast to coast.

The birchbark canoe was most common. It was light but strong and could carry cargo, making it perfect for trips that required portages to skirt rapids and waterfalls and move between different rivers and lakes. On the west coast, more rugged, ocean-going cedar canoes were favoured, while Inuit canoes (umiaks) were made of walrus or bearded seal skin.

Once Jacques decided to organize an exhibition on canoes, she recruited curatorial help to ensure that pre-contact history was represented accurately.

“As a non-Indigenous person, I was feeling a little out of my depth being so new here and bringing a West Coast artist and not having representation of the kind of canoe-making that would be familiar here,” says Jacques.

“It was really important for me to work with my co-curators and colleagues Kelly Tolley and Lyndon Linklater,” she adds. “Lyndon is Cree from Saskatchewan, and Kelly is Algonquin from Quebec. Both are connected to histories of birchbark canoes. Kelly is descended from canoe-makers, and her ancestors also served as guides for voyageurs during the fur trade.”

Early French and British explorers and traders recognized the canoe’s utility and were quick to adopt it as a way to travel into the wilderness and trade with Indigenous peoples. That history is addressed in the show too, along with the canoe’s more modern association with adventure and recreation in nature.

Birchbark to Batcave

Canoe features work by over two dozen artists in a range of media from painting and stone sculpture to video and installation.

“The earliest works are from the 1800s and are by artists documenting the way explorers and voyageurs used canoes and worked with Indigenous guides to navigate the Canadian wilderness,” says Jacques.

Cornelius Krieghoff (1815–1872) is probably the best-known name. He was born in Amsterdam but lived in Quebec from 1846–1863, where he encountered Mohawk people and began painting generally rustic scenes of Indigenous and Euro-Canadian wilderness life.

But Jacques says British-born Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919) is her favourite.

“She was married to a Hudson’s Bay Company official so moved to Canada for that reason,” Jacques says. “She would go out with him, and as I understand it, became so engaged in wanting to paint the experience of being in a canoe that she would go into the wilderness without him. She left behind a remarkable body of work, and for me it’s a real coup to have her in the show.”

A painting by Tom Thomson, who famously died under mysterious circumstances while on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park in southeastern Ontario in 1917, would have been a nice add. That didn’t happen, but there are two paintings by Franz Johnson — a member of the Group of Seven who, collectively, made frequent trips to Algonquin Park to paint. Ernst Lindner, Augustus Kenderdine, David Milne, Margaret Shelton and David Thauberger are other Euro-Canadian artists in the show.

As much as Canada loves to romanticize its relationship with the canoe — sometimes literally, as with the beer joke about Canadians making love in canoes — the true history is much more complicated. That’s because once early European explorers and traders took up the canoe, it became an instrument of colonization against Indigenous peoples.

References to that history naturally surface in the work presented by Indigenous artists in the show. But the main focus for the artists is on preserving cultural memory and working to recover and revitalize cultural traditions associated with the canoe.

Pinock Smith, an Algonquin canoe-maker from Quebec, is one example.

“Pinock is very committed to passing on his knowledge of canoe-making,” says Jacques. “He makes canoes that get included in art exhibitions, but really he’s making them as teaching tools.

“Lyndon does workshops through the Learning & Engagement department, and he’s been trying to initiate some activities around artists and birchbark,” Jacques adds. “He and Kelly are working with Pinock to think through how to do future workshops and connect with the community around birchbark canoe-making.”

One Inuit artist in the show, Joe Talirunili (1893–1976), was in the news recently when one of his stone sculptures sold at auction for $216,000 — setting a new record for Inuit art.

“Joe made these beautiful migration boats,” says Jacques. “They were a recurring object that he would carve in stone depicting a group of people moving across the water from their community to a hunting ground or from one hunting ground to another.”

Rodney Sayers is a third artist who draws on cultural tradition, but with a decidedly modernist twist.

“Rodney works with the idea that Indigenous people have always been innovative so he wouldn’t make a dugout cedar canoe in the same way as in the 18th or 19th century,” says Jacques.

“He’s imagining if contact hadn’t happened, and the evolution of Indigenous culture hadn’t been interrupted, then the canoe would have evolved into a more modern, streamlined form,” she says. “Then he had it painted a beautiful bluish-black at an auto-body shop, so it collapses time in a way because the form is age-old, but it almost looks like if the Batmobile was a canoe.”

There’s a similar (almost anime-inspired) look to Amanda Strong’s 2016 stop-motion animated video How to Steal a Canoe.

“That work is in our collection,” says Jacques. “It imagines a canoe that’s been in a museum being returned to the water. It kind of collapses time too, because Amanda is thinking about the pre-contact period when canoes had not yet been usurped and put in museums but were in nature which is where Indigenous people feel they belong.”