DAPHNE ODJIG, R.C.A.
Private Collection, Alberta
As a child, Daphne Odjig learned about her Ojibway ancestry largely through her grandparents. Odjig’s grandfather carved tombstones for a living and was known to take his granddaughter on sketching trips throughout Manitoulin Island. On these occasions, he also shared oral histories of the Ojibway people, which included sacred stories and legends. These early teachings would come to influence much of her artistic career. Though she maintained a preoccupation with painting and drawing, Odjig did not exhibit her work professionally until the 1960s. This period saw her explore Modernist abstraction in ways similar to her friend, the Dine artist Alex Janvier. It also saw a return to her childhood, of sorts, through the production of a number of representational pen-and-ink drawings of contemporary Indigenous life, both on and off-reserve. During the end of the 1960s, she was influenced by the Woodland School of Art and its emphasis on thick black line, flat planes of colour, and use of spiritual subject matter. Arguably, it was not until the early 1970s that Odjig’s luminous colour schemes and use of curvilinear design, which she was taught by her grandfather, became a signature of her style.
In this painting, Return to the Earth, Odjig communicates her fondness for Modernist abstraction, particularly that of the Cubists and Surrealists, as anthropomorphic figures appear (and reappear) before descending into the earth. The painting appears to articulate the traditional Anishinaabay Medicine Wheel, a worldview that both exemplifies Anishinaabay spiritual knowledge and the connectivity between all things. According to the Medicine Wheel, its third quadrant contains the Fall season and is often associated with the closure of life. In this stage, one’s knowledge can be passed on to others and they can ruminate on their experiences, age, and the impact of their existence in the physical realm. From this perspective, Odjig’s painting might represent a profound meditation on the cycle of death and rebirth.
We thank Matthew Ryan Smith, Ph.D., Curator and Head of Collections at Glenhyrst Art Gallery in Brantford, Ontario, for contributing this essay.