Written by Shaun Cooper, CNN
In the Northwest Territories of Canada, aboriginal artist Robert Houle tends his cottage lakeside studio, a stone’s throw from the spot where he discovered his aboriginal heritage as a child.
Born with the given name of Robert Eric Houle II, Houle has touched his ancestors with two second-generation ancestors he himself has traced back to New France and an ancestor named Archie Harland Houle, who died in the 18th century in New France.
Houle is best known for weaving sea serpent fiber with red carotenoid pigment, producing a form of natural fabric called taikonui and presenting his pieces in a grand solo show and much smaller group exhibition at Old Montreal’s Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.
The story of these two people is one for the ages. Coming from geographic and cultural zones which rarely cross borders, Houle’s kinship with both men is typical of his practice, which is as much a language of his ancestors as the art he makes.
Houle employs the Earth “as a material” and the sea “as a metaphor, linking the two pieces of my body to the land. Similarly, the celestial harmony and connection between the earth and the heavens, stars and the creatures therein, is something to which I relate,” he said.
flesh and blood
Houle’s work defies categorization. It’s been said his art is the “working description of my mother and father” and “the testimony of two grandmothers.”
As it did for him and his parents, Houle’s family history has become an important element of his art, even as it stands in opposition to the very landscapes where he creates it.
Houle was first exposed to two new families — his maternal and paternal — in his early 20s, and was subsequently also lost in his perceptions about the water and the sky.
“When I left for Montreal in 1964 at the age of 20, I left behind a mountain and the traditional family networks that had been my source of encouragement and sustenance for almost a century,” he said.
“I was completely overwhelmed by such a vast and varied landscape, and was consequently, struck by its lack of resemblance to the very life I knew for most of my life. To me, it seemed as if I was living in a completely new world, where there was no connection between the water, the land and the sky.”
Hidden in plain sight
Robert Houle’s art doesn’t sit proudly on a wall. Instead, it seems hidden in plain sight within the surrounding area. As a filmmaker himself, Houle felt the need to convey his idea of the environment by focusing on how it relates to people, whether through photography, performance or textual narratives.
A running theme within Houle’s art is the history of native peoples, from his upbringing in the Arctic, through the domestic aspects of his heritage, such as “mammy” he refers to in all of his work.
“I have dedicated my entire life to reconnecting both my individual and collective history with my ancestors and country,” he said.
“There was a time when the land and water were considered mine and they were my greatest tools. They are now the memory, the platform and the basis of everything I create.”