First Nations people began creating things that were both beautiful and useful sometime between 80,000 and 12,000 years ago, during the last ice age, but none of it has been found. However, we still have some ancient examples. Totem poles stretch back an astonishing 2,500 years, while red-ochre petroglyph paintings on rocks in Ontario are estimated to be 5,000 years old, among the oldest First Nation’s artwork ever found.
Though the ancient First Nations art is jaw dropping for its beauty and of course its age, contemporary First Nations artists are some of the most respected in the world, let alone Canada.
Here are five First Nations artists worth checking out:
Metis artist, Christi Belcourt, featured on the cover of the December 2015 issue of Canadian Geographic, is one such artist. Belcourt’s acrylic paintings, based on beading traditions and floral patterns, captured the eye of no less than haute-couture fashion legend Valentino, and her 2014 piece, The Wisdom of the Universe, won the Art Gallery of Ontario’s people’s choice award, ahead of the likes of Emily Carr, Alex Colville and Auguste Rodin.
The Inuit throat singer began at folk fests around Canada and had two albums out before her third album, Animism, released in 2014, swept through the Canadian music scene. Tagaq’s take on traditional throat singing won the 2014, $30,000 Polaris Music Prize, as well as the 2015 Juno for Recording of the Year.
You’ve seen his work, if not in person then on a Canada Post stamp or a $20 bill issued from 2004-2012. The Vancouver artist is perhaps most famous for his two bronze canoes. ‘The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe’ greets people in the Vancouver Airport’s international terminal, while ‘The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Black Canoe’ is in the Canadian embassy in Washington D.C.
Singer-songwriter barely begins to capture the 74-year-old Sainte-Marie. Born is Saskatchewan on a Cree reservation, she was adopted and grew up in Massachusetts. Apart from co-writing the hit song, “Up where we belong”, which won an Academy Award, Sainte-Marie is an activist, a composer, producer, actress, and appeared on Sesame Street from the mid-1970s to early 1980s. But all those accolades, plus what seems like an honourary PhD from every university in Canada, not to mention a handful of Juno Awards and a star on Canada’ walk of fame, aren’t why she’s on this list. At an age when most people are slowing down, Sainte-Marie won the 2015 Polaris Music Prize for her album Power in the Blood.
Kenojuak Ashevak was one of the early stars of the Cape Dorset art scene and her famous piece, The Enchanted Owl, graced a Canada Post stamp in the 1970s. Her work continued to evolve from there. She made a Companion of the Order of Canada, and was featured in various exhibitions, including one in 2002 at the National Gallery of Canada. Cape Dorset in Nunavut is home to some of Canada’s most popular First Nations artists. When printmaking was introduced to the area in the 1950s by local civic administrator and artist James Houston, Inuit art, in a form unusual for the Arctic (most was sculpture), was able to reach south as never before.