(b. Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, 1947)
Acrylic and Conté crayon on canvas
228.7 x 732 cm
Purchased in 1994
National Gallery of Canada, 37479.1-4
© Robert Houle. Photo: National Gallery of Canada
The central panel of Robert Houle’s triptych Kanata is a crayon drawing reproducing the famous history painting The Death of General Wolfe (1770), by Benjamin West (1738-1820). The red and blue of the blanket, bag and headdress of the Indigenous figure in the foreground provide the only colour. This draws attention to the character and away from the main subject, the dying English general. It also echoes the two monochrome side panels, whose saturated tones symbolize the English and French nations. Recalling the configuration of the French flag, the composition places the Indigenous character between Canada’s two “founding” peoples to highlight the historical importance of Indigenous peoples.
Although Kanata dates to 1992, it fittingly represents 1921 here. That was the year the National Gallery of Canada acquired Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe. Almost seventy years later, the Anishinaabe artist, curator and art critic Robert Houle reframed the subject in Kanata. Houle draws from the history of art to challenge clichéd representations of Indigenous peoples. He revisits the genres of history painting and monochrome, and combines them with elements of traditional Indigenous spiritual practices.
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The Death of General Wolfe, by the American artist Benjamin West, presents an idealized version of the death of the English general James Wolfe (1727-1759) on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, at the decisive battle of the British conquest of the French colonies. The Indigenous figure observing the scene in the foreground has been largely criticized as a stereotype, crouching in a passive stance.