Understanding Canadian Art 3: Naskapi Hunting Coat, ca.1750

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 third image I’ve chosen is a Naskapi hunting coat from the last half of the 1700s.

The Naskapi, sometimes referred to as the Montagnais,  are one of the Innu First Nations from eastern Quebec and Labrador.  They began interacting with the French as early as 1733 through the fur trade.

This is a caribou hunting coat from prepared hide painted with the sacred geometric designs of the hunter’s dreams and visions.  The cut of the coat is based on European, specifically, French patterns and can be found today in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

I have a far reaching definition of the visual arts.  Some might call this an example of material culture, since it didn’t play the same role as, say, an oil painting in Europe at the same time.

Very little in pre-confederation art conforms to this definition though.

So, let’s call it art in recognition of the women who made it, the sacred ideas it was based on and how it reflects some of the dynamics of colonial society in the 18th century.

As the hunting season ended, the power embedded in the coat faded and these were traded out with French fur traders for materials from Europe.

New ideas often characterize the history of Aboriginal art in Canada.  Anthropologists used to describe non-industrial societies generally and Aboriginal people specifically as frozen in time, unchanging, and static – the opposite of Europe’s modernity.

Coats like this clearly say something different.

I like the way this maintains a historical function – with its beautiful geometric patterning, its organic materials, and its ongoing use as a hunting coat – and then embraces the new with cut, length and silhouette.

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