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Robert Houle: Honouring Ojibwa History

When I first stood in front of Robert Houle’s reconstruction of a 1840s Parisian salon, I had tears in my eyes thinking about my Mississauga relatives at the centre of the installation. I felt the horrific pain and despair of Uh wus sig gee zhig goo kway, a young Mississauga mother and artist who watched her children die of smallpox in Europe while completely isolated from her land, culture and family. Standing in the gallery some 170 years later, I could feel my heart break, imagining the moment when she realized that she would lose her own life and leave her remaining children motherless in a foreign and hostile land. This is the brilliance of Robert Houle—his ability to tell stories in their full richness while also evoking raw emotional responses, and in the process collapsing the perceived gap between artist and audience.

Paris/Ojibwa is a contemporary, multi-faceted response to the story of a group of Mississauga Nishnaabeg (Ojibwa) dancers who travelled to Paris in 1845 to entertain French nobility as part of George Catlin’s “Indian Museum.” The group of artists included a family—Maungwudaus, his wife Uh wus sig gee zhig goo kway and their children. The early and brutal first stages of colonialism had foisted upon them a set of complex circumstances that led to their collective resistance and artistic response—one that took form through dance, performance and the writings of Maungwudaus himself.

Houle’s piece is a reconstruction of a Parisian salon with four painted panels of figures returning to their homeland. Below each panel is an image of the smallpox virus. Above the panels are the names of the dancers, cycling in reference to Nishnaabeg honouring traditions. I loved that Houle’s language and visual imagery speaks directly to our community—in the bowl of sage in the front corner of salon, in the quiet drumbeats of the installation soundtrack, and in his respect for our traditions around honouring the spirit of those who have passed on. Paris/Ojibwa represents a liberation, a homecoming and an honour song both to the Mississauga performers in Catlin’s “Indian Museum” and to contemporary Nishnaabeg people.

Originally shown in Paris as part of a series of performance re-enactments, Paris/Ojibwa, installed in Mississauga territory, now becomes about healing and reconciliation—but this time from within our own world view. Houle shifts our gaze from “Indians as objects in a museum” to the politics of power that allow us to exoticize and objectify “Indians” in the first place, while also illuminating the resistance and resilience of the Nishnaabeg. Through Paris/Ojibwa, Houle delicately transforms the history of Maungwudaus and Uh wus sig gee zhig goo kway into a beautiful, sacred story of the Nishnaabeg kind.

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