Understanding Canadian Art 1: Petroglyph

Last week, I gave the first of a series of three lectures on Understanding Canadian Art at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown.  I will be giving the next one on Thursday November 16 at 7 pm.

It’s an interesting experience sharing some of my insights after 30 years now of thinking and writing about art in Canada and I’m grateful to my friends Pan Wendt and Kevin Rice at the gallery who have kindly facilitated the series.

I thought I’d try and put together some key images on this blog, summarize some of the ideas I was trying to communicate and maybe put a personal spin on things.

The first thing I wanted to say is that I see Canadian art through the twinned filters of the Indian Act and the various acts of immigration.  Both are rooted in European imperialism, but both have changed over the years, reflecting the key developments in how Canadians define themselves and therefore what they make.

The first image I’ve chosen is of a petroglyph.

A petroglyph refers to a design etched or pecked into stone.  The Canadian landscape is filled with petroglyphs, from one coast to the other and from the Arctic down to what is now the Canadian-US border.

That’s a little different from a pictograph – in which the imagery is painted.  Below is an example from just west of Thunder Bay, Ontario on the historic lands of the Anishinaabeg.

Canoe pictograph, Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

I picked the petroglyph because it’s notoriously difficult to date.

I see that as a metaphor for Aboriginal art generally and the questions that immigrants, colonists, settlers often want to know.

How old is it?

Who made it?

Why is it there?

None of these questions can be confidently answered outside Aboriginal communities.

And even then, petroglyphs can be made as recently as a hundred years ago or perhaps as many as 12,000 years ago.

So, sometimes people within the community don’t know either.

I like that ambiguity and uncertainty in terms of time.

It reminds me of an archaeology class I took as an undergraduate in which we were comparing Aboriginal oral stories about time and when their ancestors “came here” with what scholars say archaeological evidence tells them.

Aboriginal oral stories say that Aboriginal people have always been here.

We were reading a report on an excavation in Prince Rupert Harbour that recovered objects up to 9,000 years old.  Some of these objects have linear designs and content that draws strong parallels with what many Aboriginal artists on BC’s coast are doing today.

It seems that the objects, and therefore the people, as the archaeologist noted in his report, have been there for 9000 years, which might as well be forever.

Another reason why I chose the petroglyph as the first image to talk about is that it is embedded in the land.  That’s the nature of its medium.

The land is also at the heart of the “immigrant”/”Indian” dichotomy in Canada’s national imagination.  It is one of the most significant discursive threads in the history of Canadian art.

Also, because it’s embedded in the stone itself, you can’t hang it in an art gallery.  You can’t own it.  You can’t sell it.

Well, people do occasionally (way too often) cut petroglyphs out from their stone to have them in their homes or to sell to other people who want them in their homes.

Here’s a link to a recent CBC story about the destruction of rock art all across Canada:


The destruction of petrolyphs is also a powerful metaphor for the violence of colonialism and Canada’s history of settler-Aboriginal relations.

But, anyway, they are not intended to be shown in an art gallery.

My point is that what we can or do call art does not always fall easily into its category.  Art means different things at different times in different places to different people.

And when we call something “art,” it’s a political act.

How we define “art” conveys the object’s symbolic power and how we perceive it.  That is another political act.

Often, there’s a discrepancy between what say about a work of “art” and the maker’s original intention, which means that “art” can often hold multiple meanings simultaneously.

That, too, is an important part of the history of an object and understanding those different kinds of meanings reveals a lot about the political dynamics between people.

By the way, the image I’ve included at the top of the page is of a series of petroglyphs from Sproat Lake on Vancouver Island on the historical lands of the Nuu-Chah-nulth people.

The most likely explanation that I’ve heard for these is that they were made as part of ritual spirit questing, in which an individual or a group of individuals seek power, knowledge, or insight for a specific ceremonial purpose.  Often, this might involve fasting, bathing in cold water, and other forms of personal sacrifice and hardship combined with prayer and song.  This could be an individual spirit quest associated with a stage of life transition – from puberty to adulthood, for example.  Or it could be part of a secret or masked society.

And, by the way, this way of looking at objects is common around the world.  However, unless you talk to the people responsible for it or use it, you’ll never know.

And even then, they may not tell you.

I’m reminded of Navajo sand painting.  It’s a beautiful and sacred form of religious expression often used in healing ceremonies.  The process of making the sand paintings is an important element of the ceremony itself – this means that the making of something is really more important that the final result.  The ritualized process, the symbolism of the shapes, lines and colors, and the gestures, songs and prayers of the person performing the ritual all weave together to give the imagery meaning.

In the 1940s, one of the ceremonies in which a sand painting was created was filmed and there was a push to make sand paintings for sale to tourists.

Traditionalists in Navajo society were deeply against this.

They argued that these are portals to the spirit world – which is filled with both good and malevolent spirits – and that messing with them, so to speak, might release that malevolence and sickness into the world, especially if they came into the hands of the ignorant and uninitiated.

Some things are simply best not known.

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