Contamination and Reclamation: Robert Houle’s Paris/Ojibwa

** Image Caption: Robert Houle, Paris/Ojibwa, 2010
Photo by: Wanda Nanibush **

Contamination and Reclamation: Robert Houle’s Paris/Ojibwa
Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris
13 April – 10 September, 2010

review by Wanda Nanibush

Paris/Ojibwa is the latest multimedia installation by world-renowned Anishinabeg (Ojibwa) [1] artist Robert Houle. The installation is a time portal to 1845, when a troupe of Ojibwa dancers lead by a man named Maungwudaus travelled to Paris to dance for King Louis-Phillipe of France and a public of 4,000 French ladies and gentlemen. They were part of American painter George Catlin’s “Indian Museum,” [2] presented as living exhibits of an ancient culture.

Houle’s installation consists of a reconstructed 19th-century Paris salon with a marble floor and two walls formed from four individual panels that were built and painted at his studio in Toronto. On the top third of each panel is a painting of a human figure with its back to the viewer. Each panel is also lined at the top with the names of Maungwudaus’ troupe and an abstract painting of smallpox on the bottom third. Behind one of the Salon walls is a projection of an animated video. The sound of water, which changes to drums and finally an honour song, fills the entire space.

As soon as we entered the exhibition, we were in awe of a glowing light emanating from Houle’s panel paintings, which represent the figures of a dancer, a shaman, a warrior, and a healer, all in Greco-Roman style robes. The style of dress repeats the ennobling romanticism of Eugène Delacroix, whose 1845 pen and ink drawings of Maungwudaus’ troupe influenced Houle’s work. The idea that Indigenous Peoples could be compared to Greco-Roman cultures was part of the 19th-century French imagination. Representing Indigenous Peoples as if they were Roman or Greek was a way of saying that they were human, with noble traits, while still locating them in the past and not in the modern world of the 1840s. The Ojibwa of the 19th-century French imagination were only authentic in their pre-contact state. The dancers of Maungwudaus’s time performed what the French wanted to believe the Ojibwa were. Houle’s installation deconstructs the romanticism of Delacroix by collapsing the time between 2010 and 1845. He highlights Ojibwa contemporaneity, being an Ojibwa in Paris himself, with an Indigenous antiquity. The Ojibwa of the past become part of a contemporary Anishinabeg (Ojibwa) culture and art. Houle subtly overturns the discourse of Indigenous Peoples as disappearing or disappeared by returning the 1845 performers to contemporary Paris in his Paris Salon.

The painted figures have their backs to the viewers as they face a grassy western horizon line. The landscape in which the figures float faces Lake Manitoba. Behind them, unrepresented and unseen, is a graveyard from Houle’s homeland of Sandy Bay First Nation, Manitoba. One would have to go there and stand in the landscape to know that they are walking out of the graveyard and returning home. The symbolic space of the installation is empty in order to connect, as Houle states, “the cold marble and granite floor to a flashpoint of cultural clash and shock.” The floor is pristine with shadows cast on it when the light hits the paintings. It seems as if the light is the spirits of the dancers. The floor glows with their presence –– a symbolic return –– which also serves to highlight the absence of the history of the Ojibwa in Paris from our collective imagination. Houle reclaims this history.

As part of his artistic process, Houle travelled around Paris in 2006 trying to place himself inside the minds of the 1845 Ojibwa who were experiencing Paris for the first time. “I felt their presence, facing east located under the morning star, they dance away perhaps from the hard marble floors like those at the Salon de la Paix, Chateaux de Versailles. Their elaborate woodland regalia disappear giving way to impressions of time shaped by colour and line,” writes Houle in his artist statement. Part of the experience Houle represents is the deaths of Maungwaudus’s wife and children from smallpox. The smallpox image is taken from a Louis XIV-style buffalo robe, c. mid 18th-century, which he saw at le Musée du quai Branly. Smallpox represents the deadly, contaminating side of the story of contact between Indigenous and Western cultures.

In the installation’s title, Houle places a slash between Paris and Ojibwa, articulating a choice between two things where the choice has not yet been made. This slash is used in the place of the word “or,” to articulate a desire not to choose either Paris or Ojibwa but someplace in between. Houle’s work asks that the place of the Ojibwa in Paris be recognized as much as Paris’s place in Ojibwa history. One does not have to choose between Paris or Ojibwa — meaning one does not have to choose between assimilation to a mainstream western culture and a culturally specific one. As Houle writes, “It was so ironic that I should find myself in one of the most Eurocentric cultural capitals in the old world and still find solace in the very specificity of being Anishnabe.” [3]

Houle invited Odawa artist Barry Ace to perform at the opening on April 13. In his beautiful black velvet and red silk regalia, Ace stepped out of the Louvre, turned on an iPod speaker system, and with blaring pow wow music, danced men’s traditional to a surprised crowd. With grace and power, Ace honoured the Ojibwa (Anishinabeg) dancers who had travelled to Paris in 1845. Groups of onlookers followed, grew and changed as he danced in the Tuileries Garden, at Cleopatra’s Finger and finally in front of the cultural centre at the Place des Invalides.

Parisian artist and animator Hervé Dagois was commissioned by Houle to create a video called Uhnemekéka. In the video, jingle dress dancers float in a colour field. The jingle dress dance is a healing dance. Having a French artist make a work about healing made me think about how colonialism has joined Indigenous and Western histories together. The jingle dress joins Ace’s dance in a loop of healing.

Houle, in Paris/Ojibwa, finds a new visual language to allow those “others,” exoticized in the French mind and misnamed as “Indians,” to occupy the space of Paris on their own terms. This is part of the genius of the installation. It does not provide a didactic education on a historical moment; instead it reframes the “performances” of the Ojibwa in terms of Indigenous history and visually invokes their symbolic return, placing Paris within an Ojibwa history and artistic lineage.

Just as Houle preserves Anishinabeg being in the act of abstraction and painting, Maungwudaus chose to perform in a colonial spectacle as an “Indian curiosity” in order to preserve his sense of being Anishinabeg. Paris/Ojibwa visualizes time in colour and light where, as Houle suggests, “The viewer is at the intersection of Indigenous spirituality and Judeo-Christian modernity,” where the intersection marks a space of artistry where memory can create and where colonial contact is both contamination and reclamation.


[1] Ojibwa is the colonial name for a group of North American Indigenous Peoples who call themselves Anishinabeg.

[2] “Indian” is a colonial term used to describe many Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the United States. The term is enshrined in the Canadian Indian Act. The Indian Act was enacted in 1876 by the Parliament of Canada under the provisions of Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides Canada’s federal government exclusive authority to legislate in relation to “Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians”.

[3] Robert Houle. “An Ojibwa in Paris,” in Witness. ed. Bonnie Devine. (Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and Witness, 2009), 87.

Wanda Nanibush is an independent Anishinabe-kwe curator, writer and media artist living and working in Toronto.

1 comment

  1. Great work to keep up and authenticate the French connection to our historical and indigenous worlds. King Louis-Philippe d’Orleans also helped the indigenous Saami (formerly known as Lapps) in Arctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia in the late 1830s – 40s. This was by sending French scholars and artists to record indigenous reindeer/fisher Saami. So we all owe one to Louis-Philippe, “The Citizen King.”

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