By Robert DesJarlait
It would be simple to say that the Anishinaabe place in contemporary visual art began with Patrick DesJarlait and George Morrison and everything fell into place after that. But the history of Anishinaabe art is much more complex than a simplification. Placing Anishinaabe art within a specific period, e.g., contemporary, overlooks the evolution and history of Anishinaabe art. The ethnocentric perspective of Native America art history establishes labels and categories – applied art, handicrafts, decorative arts, fine art, and visual art. But from a Native American worldview, there are no borders or boundaries.
Melville Herskovits writes: “Our [Western] fixation on pseudo-realism contained a hidden, culture-bound judgment wherein the values of our own society, based on our particular perceptual modes, were extended into universals and applied to art in general…The ‘natural’ world is natural because we define it as such because most of us, immersed in our own culture, have never experienced any other definition of reality.”
Herskovits was writing about the Euro-American perspective regarding “primitive art.” The notion of early Native art as being primitive, at least according to European standards, was established by anthropologists. Native art was considered crude and childlike. As such, it lacked aesthetic value and was purely a functional and utilitarian art. Hence, the boundary was set between Native American, African, and Oceanic indigenous art and the aesthetics of European art.
Wolfgang Haberland further defines the differentiation of aesthetics: “There are several kinds of aesthetics…‘Universal aesthetics’ embraces the general human ability to create and appreciate objects of beauty. ‘Group aesthetics’ embodies a given culture’s ideas about beauty. It is shared by all or most members of the group…‘Individual’ aesthetics refers to the individual ability to appreciate, or, in the case of an artist, to create beauty.”
Haberland adds: “Anthropologists, art historians, and art critics interested in non-Western art are always trying to explain foreign group aesthetics through European-formed views of individual aesthetics.”
And therein lays the crux of the problem of defining Native art. Compartmentalized, categorized, and labeled, the interconnectedness of Native art and its inherent aesthetics are disconnected. In the ethnocentric perspective, artist and art become maker and object. The finger strokes on a rock are not connected to a paint brush on canvas.
To understand Anishinaabe art, one needs to set aside labels, such as “contemporary,” and view Anishinaabe aesthetics from an Anishinaabe worldview. In this worldview, there is no separation between art forms; rather there is a continuity of aesthetics, although the medium differentiates the application and expression of those aesthetics.
It should be noted that Anishinaabe art is representative of the art forms and aesthetics that evolved among indigenous peoples in North America. In this regard, Anishinaabe art is a microcosm of the macrocosm of Native American art.
In Minnesota, the oldest forms of the Anishinaabeg art are found on rock faces in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Lake Superior National Forest and extend into Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Dating ranges from 1000-1500 AD. Pictographs are defined as images painted or etched on rock.
However, Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor provides a more expressive, worldview definition – pictomyth: the believable Anishinaabe pictures of myths or believable Anishinaabe myths of pictures. Vizenor’s definition correlates to A. Irving Hallowell’s study of Anishinaabe people and “other than human persons” and the relationship to stories: “Ojibwa myths are considered to be true stories, not fiction.”
In this view, pictomyths are the representation of the imagery of dreams and visions that formed the basis of origin stories. Pictomyths are true in the sense they are not fanciful representations of tribal myths; rather, they represent the reality and experiences of the artist in the real world.
The individual aesthetics of painted rock imagery was more focused on content than form. But the forms were interrelated to a group aesthetics as evidenced by the pictomyths etched on birch bark scrolls. The differentiation between the two was media, medium, and technique.
The rock pictomyths were painted with red ochres composed of iron-stained earths. According to Northern Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, the red earths used for paint resulted from a battle between two thunderbirds. The blood from the battle rained upon the earth turning the sands red. This particular sand was, in the Anishinabe language, called onaman. The binding agent for onaman was fish glues or egg fluid, or bear grease. Although brushes with moose hair bristles were employed, many pictomyths were painted by finger.
Selwyn Dewdney writes: “[T]he artist’s preference [was] for a vertical rock face close to the water. The sites themselves show a bewildering variety of locations…there are groups of obviously related material that form compact, well-designed compositions…[and] instances where the natural flaws of the surface are incorporated into the whole concept.”
Dewdney categorized pictomyths into several groups: animal, birds, mythological creatures, hands, other human subject matter, man-made objects, and, the largest group, unidentified abstract symbols.
Overall, the rock pictomyths focused on the relationship between humans and the aadisookaanag, i.e., other than human persons: the Four Winds, Sun, Moon, Thunderbirds, “owners” or “masters” of species of plants and animals and the characters in myths – collectively spoken of as “our grandfathers” or ancestors.
Like the individual aesthetics with its focus on content rather than form on rock pictomyths, the development of birch bark pictomyths expressed a group aesthetics that was cultural in form yet emphasized content. Birch bark pictomyths were a cultural mode of communicating and recording history, migration, ceremonies, traditions, stories, and songs. Hence, Anishinaabe art, in its earliest forms, was a means of communication. The form itself conveyed the message. However, the imagery of the form expressed a group aesthetic. That is to say, the designs were specifically Anishinaabe and the use of these designs extended beyond birch bark pictomyths and were used by the tribal whole.
Wooden spoons, ladles, and bowls, birch bark containers, woven reed mats, yarn bags and sashes, moccasins and clothing were decorated with pictomyths. As such, Anishinaabe images had a decorative, i.e., aesthetic, intent and the creation of such imagery was largely the work of women.
The techniques varied greatly. Etchings on wood, plaiting on wicker baskets, drawing and cutouts on birch bark baskets. The imagery reflected the aesthetics of the rock paintings and birch bark scrolls.
Art by men was largely confined to carving and sculpturing. This included wooden spoons, ladles, bowls, cradleboards, war clubs and pipes. The sculpturing on pipes, war clubs, and figurines were three-dimensional human and animals figures based on pictomyth imagery.
The main form of expressive art was through quillwork and, to a lesser extent, animal hairs. Dyes were obtained from barks, roots, leaves, flowers, and berries and used to color quills and animal hairs, including various fibers. Geometric quilled images depicted the individual’s clan affiliation and dream symbols. Abstracted motifs of animals, flowers, insects, and leaves were common in quillwork. Quillwork tended toward abstraction because of the rigidly of the quills.
However, Carrie Lyford noted: “The Ojibwa introduced the curvilinear pattern into the western region adopting and embellishing it to their fancy.” From the curvilinear pattern, Anishinaabe artists developed a symmetrical double curve motif that curved out from a central point. The opposing curves were decorated with leaves, buds, and flowers that were also arranged symmetrically.
With the introduction of the fur trade, broadcloth, blankets, yarns, ribbon, and beads provided new media and mediums to express group and individual aesthetics.
Lois Jacka writes: “As skills were passed down through the ages, new materials became available, new techniques developed, and each succeeding generation contributed its own interpretations and innovations.”
Bands on woven bags featured diamonds, hour glasses, zigzags, and hexagons. Narrow bands included thunderbirds, underground panthers, deer, butterflies, dragonflies, and otter tracks. Lyford writes: “The Ojibwa laboriously frayed out woolen blankets…respun the wool, and redyed it…Native dyes were used to color the commercial yarns…later, colored commercial twine and yarns and commercial dyes were introduced.”
Ribbons in bright colors were used in appliqué border designs with various geometric motifs. Graceful curvilinear floral patterns were later developed and used as borders on robes, leggings, and breechcloths, on binding bands of cradle boards, and on the cuffs and front pieces of moccasins. Like the double curve of the pre-contact period, floral designs were arranged symmetrically in appliqué work.
The most significant media introduced to Anishinaabe artists in the contact era was trade beads. Whereas quillwork was the media for the depiction of group aesthetics in the pre-contact period, beads all but replaced quills as the new media. This new media provided for a fuller expression of individual aesthetics for Anishinaabe artists.
Two techniques were employed in the application of beadwork. Bead weaving was done on a loom and bead embroidery was applied directly on broadcloth or velvet. On breechcloths, the design was symmetrical. On leggings, the pattern was asymmetrical, although the design on the left leg matched the design on the right leg. On vests, the front panels followed the same pattern as leggings. The asymmetrical pattern on the left side matched the pattern on the right side. On the back of the vest, the pattern was symmetrical.
The most elaborate beadwork was the ceremonial (bandolier) bags worn by men. The large beadwork front piece panel and strap panels were woven on looms or embroidered on fabric. The patterns on the panels were usually asymmetrical and featured floral motifs or geometrical motifs. Making bandolier bags was the providence of Anishinaabe women.
In the post-contact era, the impact of reservations and boarding schools led to a diminishment of tribal art. Ethnocide, linguicide, historical trauma/intergenerational trauma, and the imposition of Christian values and incorporation of Euro-American political structures affected all levels of Anishinaabe life. In art, the vitality of group and individual aesthetics became limited to the Anishinaabewishimo, i.e., the powwow. Many of the Bwaanzhiiwi`onan (dance outfits) worn by dancers maintained floral patterns and designs passed down generationally to families. Additionally, beaded items were sold through the tourist market. Such items were bought by collectors and museums.
It was during this later period that “new materials became available [and] new techniques developed”  and opened a new area of expression in Anishinaabe art – the visual arts. The works of Patrick Robert DesJarlait (1921-1972) and George Morrison (1919-2000) created an alternative modernism and embodied deeply felt connections to the specific geography of northern Minnesota and to their identities as Anishinaabe artists.
Bill Anthes writes: “DesJarlait and Morrison maintained powerful connections to Red Lake and Grand Portage, where their people had lived for generations…their modern lives led DesJarlait and Morrison away from their reservations to discover their artistic vision in the larger world – their traditional homelands became in their art an essential resource for both artists.”
Visual arts itself is a misleading term since such art extends beyond the paintings of DesJarlait and Morrison, and the Woodland Art Movement established by Norval Morrisseau. Anishinaabe visual arts includes the contemporary work of artists whose media and aesthetics focuses on quillwork, beadwork, and appliqué work. These artists provide continuity to the aesthetics and motifs connected to the past, and have revitalized Woodland styles in clothing and accoutrements. In this regard, Anishinaabe art is worn and expresses the cultural identity of the wearer.
The main connection between contemporary Anishinaabe artists of today is, obviously, their Anishinaabe descendency. Their art expresses their heritage and history. As such, their art conveys an evolving individual aesthetic that is rooted in the art of the traditional past.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2017