Daphne Odjig

About the Artist

Sometimes I sit there and I think about our natives and I feel sad but I brush it off, and I go in and start to paint again. I’m an optimist. That’s an Indian characteristic. I feel the Indians will be proud again. (Daphne Odjig, as quoted by Bob Boyer in Odjig: The Art of Daphne Odjig 1960-2000, p. 9)

Daphne Odjig was born in 1919 on the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Manitoulin is a large island in Lake Huron, and its relative isolation has allowed a distinctive culture to continue in the communities that dot the island. Odjig enjoyed a happy childhood on the reserve, absorbing a lot of information about her culture that she later expressed in her art.

“Manitoulin is truly an island of cultural survival,” writes fellow artist Bob Boyer, “and Daphne Odjig comes from the island community of Wikwemikong, or Wiki. As a child she learned of the legends and culture of her people through her  Anishinabe“People” in Ojibway/Ojibwe (also called Chippewa). Along with the Cree, the Ojibwe are one of the most populous and widely distributed First Nations groups in North America, with 150 Ojibwe bands throughout the north-central United States and southern Canada. Ojibwe and Chippewa are renderings of the same Algonquian word, "puckering," probably referring to their characteristic moccasin style. "Chippewa" is more commonly used in the United States and "Ojibway" or "Ojibwe" in Canada, but the Ojibwe people themselves use their native word Anishinabe (plural: Anishinabeg), meaning "original people." Today there are 200,000 Ojibwe people living throughout their traditional territories. Ojibwe-Chippewa-Anishinabe A Native American Tribe: http://countryside.edina.k12.mn.us/CurrWeb/staff/gr3/native_am/ojibwe-resources.htm Chippewa Indian Tribe: http://www.native-languages.org/chippewa.htm   father and relatives. … At the same time her English-born mother fostered in her a love of the arts.” (Podedworny and Boyer, 2001)

Odjig had dreams of being a teacher, but became sick with rheumatic fever and was forced to miss school. Although this upset her at the time it gave her the opportunity to spend time with and assimilate artistic knowledge from her father and her grandfather, with whom she liked to draw for hours on end. Her grandfather and her mother both died when she was 18. Soon after she left the Wikwemikong Reserve for Parry Sound, Ontario, where she encountered a racist community. She changed her name to Fisher (an old English translation of Odjig) for this reason.

To escape the overt racism Daphne and her sister moved to Toronto, where Daphne met and married Paul Somerville, a Mohawk. They moved to British Columbia, where her two sons were born.

A self-taught artist, Odjig was only able to focus on  paintingWorks of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is either a tightly stretched piece of canvas or a panel. How the ground (on which paint is applied) is prepared on the support depends greatly on the type of paint to be used. Paintings are usually intended to be placed in frames, and exhibited on walls, but there have been plenty of exceptions. Also, the act of painting, which may involve a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's other concerns which effect the content of a work. (Artlex.com)  when her two sons were in school. Her first works were very realistic, but she soon began to experiment with other styles. She visited art galleries and studied art books, developing a strong interest in modern European painting. She especially expressed admiration for “Picasso’s way,” in which she found “complete freedom to do new.” (Fry, 1972)

In 1960 Somerville was killed in a car accident. Odjig re-married in 1963 to Chester Beavon, and the couple moved to northern Manitoba. During the 1960s Odjig’s ink-drawings of Indian people, activities on the reserve and landscapes gradually gave way to non-objective art that gave her more freedom to express what she calls her inner emotions.
 
In 1970 Odjig and Beavon opened a gallery devoted to Native art in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Using her gallery connections, Odjig recruited Norval Morriseau, Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy and others to form a short-lived but significant association of Native artists, which was quickly nicknamed the Native Group of Seven.

One of Odjig’s first major exhibitions was at the Canadian Pavillion, Expo 70, in Osaka, Japan. In 1972 her work was included in the pivotal exhibition Treaty Numbers 23, 287 and 1171 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The exhibition curated by Jacqueline Fry also featured the work or Alex Janvier and Jackson Beardy, marking the first time Native artists were featured in a Canadian public art gallery instead of a museum. In 1986 Odjig was one of only four artists in the world chosen to paint a memorial to Picasso in Antibes, France.

Odjig’s contributions to Canadian art and her support of other artists have earned her two eagle feathers, five honourary doctorate degrees, the Order of Canada, a Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts and numerous other honours.

If my work as an artist has somehow helped to open doors between our people and the non-Native community, then I am glad. I am even more deeply pleased if it has helped to encourage the young people who have followed our generation to express their pride in our heritage more openly, more joyfully than I would ever have dared to think possible. – Daphne Odjig


Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning