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Transcript of Episode 21: A Paintbrush in Her Hand

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Welcome back to Art History for All! I’m Allyson Healey.

If you investigate art news and the culture surrounding the art world for long enough, you will find a question occasionally recurs that never really gets answered: what is art? Occasionally this is broken down in more specific terms: what is fine art as opposed to a kitschy collectible? What is an “authentic” artistic production, and what is a transparent cash grab? In the case of art made by Indigenous people, the question becomes even more specific: can Indigenous art be considered contemporary art, and vice versa? In this episode, I want to talk about the life and work of Daphne Odjig, focusing specifically on a painting of hers from 1983 entitled Bathed in Sunlight. Odjig was born and grew up in Wiikwemkoong, a village on Manitoulin Island First Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada. She was of Potawatomi, Odawa, and English heritage, and her expansive artistic output challenges how we define both contemporary Western art and Indigenous North American art. Odjig was also a major player in the advancement of Canadian First Nations artists, participating in groundbreaking exhibitions and opening the first Indigenous-owned art space in Winnipeg in 1971.[1] Bathed in Sunlight is by no means her best-known work, but it allows us to explore some of the issues surrounding Odjig’s art, and Indigenous art in general, in a more focused and compact way. To engage with Bathed in Sunlight is to engage with that crucial question of whether Indigenous art and contemporary art are separate or overlapping categories, not to mention some of the individual themes encapsulated in the painting itself, such as family and motherhood.

As always, I’ve put the citations for this episode in footnotes in the written transcript, which you can find by going to and clicking on “episode transcripts” at the top of the home page. I highly encourage you to explore the sources I cite and maybe do some exploration on your own. One of the hurdles I encounter most frequently in the research process is the lack of availability of books and resources on the artists and works I research, particularly when it comes to women artists and artists of color. The more people request books from libraries, download articles, and visit websites containing information about these artists, the more librarians, publishers, and scholars will see that there is interest in them, and the availability of information about them will increase. So explore what you’re interested in, and why not begin by coming with me and diving into Daphne Odjig’s Bathed in Sunlight?

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A description of Daphne Odjig’s Bathed in Sunlight, 1983, acrylic on canvas, viewable on 40 by 38 inches. Five abstract figures are closely packed together, filling almost the entire canvas. The three of them that appear to be in the foreground embrace one another, while the two others stand quietly in the back at right. It is difficult to tell where one figure in the foreground group of three ends, and another begins. We can see three faces, with slightly curved horizontal lines for eyes and vertical lines for noses, with one face (the largest, and the one furthest left) having a small oval to represent an open mouth. The two background figures have no noses or mouths, only the linear eyes. All the figures’ heads appear to be covered in  headdresses, hats, or fabric. The central figure of the five appears to have a blue headdress with white abstracted representations of eyes on the band that encircles the forehead. The blue headdress matches the blue blanketlike robe the figure wears. The figure to the left of the one with the blue headdress wears green, and the one at the furthest left wears blue, red, and pale yellow. The rightmost figure, in the background, wears brown, and the second from right wears red with blue stripes, with a red circular headdress that resembles a halo. All the figures appear to be wearing blankets or robes, which adds to the confusion about the differences between bodies. The three foreground figures reach small, four-fingered hands out of their robes to apparently embrace one another. The ambiguity of bodies is further enhanced by the black outlines that encircle each element of the painting, in a manner similar to stained glass. What little we can see of the setting is brown and light yellow, perhaps indicating a cavelike space with sunlight streaming in—but this is unclear also. What we know we can see is five ambiguous bodies standing in an ambiguous space—Odjig’s signature is emblazoned on the red portion of one of their robes at bottom left.

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Daphne Odjig says she was “born with a paintbrush in her hand,” a phrase that served as the basis for the title of her 1992 memoir. Both her father and grandfather were artists, her grandfather a tombstone carver and painter of church landscapes, her father a painter of scenes from World War I.[2] Odjig herself initially wanted to become a teacher, but when she was struck by rheumatic fever at age 13, she was forced to spend a great deal of time at home, allowing her to engage more fully with art. In 1937, when she was 18, she moved to Parry Sound, Ontario, outside the reserve, and later to Toronto during World War II, where she met her first husband. There, they had two sons, before moving to the West Coast of Canada. Once her sons reached school age, she was able to focus more intently on her painting. Her work evolved over time from a more realist style to a more abstract one, exploring cubism, abstract expressionism, and eventually cloisonnism. Cloisonnism is a style of art most closely associated with European post-Impressionists like Gauguin and Van Gogh, and it’s characterized by colorful forms separated by darker contours. The word is related to cloisonné, a technique for making colorful metalwork objects by affixing wires to a metal surface and then filling the spaces between them with colored glass, enamel, or gemstones. In addition to these movements, which are closely associated with European modernism, Odjig was also influenced by native North American art styles, including Anishnaabe and Northwest Coast. By the 1960s, Odjig was engaging with Indigenous history and legends, such as the trickster Nanabozho, who appears across the oral traditions of numerous Anishnaabe groups, including the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe. At around the same time, she also began engaging with specific contemporary Indigenous issues, such as the flooding of the Easterville Cree’s lands by man-made dams.[3]

The 1970s marked a particularly fruitful time for Odjig—she founded Odjig Indian Prints of Canada in Winnipeg in 1971 to print and sell her works and the works of other Indigenous artists.[4] By 1974 the print shop became the New Warehouse Gallery and had birthed a collective called Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc., which eventually came to be known as “The Indian Group of Seven.” The Group of Seven comprised Odjig and fellow Indigenous artists Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez, and Norval Morrisseau, who is credited with originating the New Woodland style of art making with which Odjig is often associated.[5] In an interview with the CBC on the occasion of Odjig’s passing in 2016 at the age of 97, Janvier said that, quote, “Daphne was the one who pulled us together…Daphne had the vision to recognize that it was as a group we would be able to make a breakthrough with the art we were doing. The art world in Canada was not accepting us at that time.”[6] End quote. Odjig, Janvier, and Beardy were featured together in a 1972 show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, noted as “the first time Native artists were featured in a Canadian public art gallery, rather than a museum.”[7] Carol Podedworny, who contributed to a book on Odjig in 2001, characterizes the artworks Odjig produced in the 1970s as “political.” This is exemplified in one of her most notable works, a four-part mural from 1978 for the Museum of Man, now the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, entitled The Indian In Transition.[8] The Indian in Transition illustrates the history of Indigenous Canadians from their early days through the ravages of European colonialism, culminating in a hopeful vision for their future. The 70s also brought Odjig a number of commissions, including those from Expo ’70, a world’s fair in Osaka, Japan; the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature; and Israeli airline El Al, as well as a six month scholarship to work-study in Sweden through the Brucebo Foundation.

By the 1980s, Odjig was firmly entrenched in the Canadian art world as a significant player, and the accolades continued to roll in—she received honorary doctorates from Laurentian University and the University of Toronto, was selected to advise the Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry, and was one of just four artists chosen to paint a memorial to Pablo Picasso for the Picasso Museum in Antibes, France, in 1986. That same year, she received the Order of Canada, one of the highest civilian honors Canadians can receive.[9] Podedworny characterizes Odjig’s work of the 80s and 90s as “cultural anthems” with a “more lyrical emphasis”, reflecting, quote, “a peace and tranquility not evident in Daphne’s political oeuvre.”[10] End quote. It is in this period of peace and tranquility that Bathed in Sunlight appropriately falls.

Odjig often resisted being lumped in with the New Woodland school of artists primarily because she saw her works as foregrounding family and womanhood, while other New Woodland artists, quote, “concerned themselves with a spiritual quest.”[11] End quote. Knowing this, Bathed in Sunlight’s otherwise ambiguous figures can be read as a family unit, very likely a matriarchal one. Other works by Odjig that more clearly depict mothers and children have a similar structure, with mothers embracing one or more children. The very image of a larger figure embracing smaller ones immediately calls to mind mother-child relationships, partly because that formation has been used so frequently for mother-child pairings in Western art. Impressionist Mary Cassatt used such an arrangement in many of her mother-child paintings, and of course the numerous religious artworks that depict the Holy Family or the Virgin and Child in Western art use the arrangement consistently. But we don’t tend to see this hierarchical mother-child figure arrangement quite as much in more recent art. As curator Jenny Western discusses in an essay from 2008, contemporary art often perceives motherhood as, quote, “far too personal, nostalgic, and sentimental to present in a  critical,  contemporary art forum, so artists (and artist-moms in particular) usually just don’t.”[12] End quote. How we view motherhood in art history is often shaped by a patriarchal Western lens that refrains from really engaging with the complexities of motherhood—hence why Cassatt’s images of motherhood, for example, are often viewed as more quaint and less serious than that of other Impressionists. And we can’t just reexamine all images and perceptions of motherhood in the same way as we would reexamine Cassatt: as Western points out with a reference to Indigenous scholars D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Kim Anderson, quote, “Indigenous women do not necessarily face the same dilemmas [as other women] as we work instead to reclaim and revitalize the more empowering cultural beliefs, traditions, and practices of our ancestors…. Previous generations of Indigenous mothers have maintained a definition of womanhood and mothering premised upon strength and capability that was distinctly different from the negative images and subservient female role offered by mainstream society.”[13] End quote. Bathed in Sunlight might be visually similar to icons of the Virgin and Child—the headdresses and suggestion of sunlight remind the viewer of halos, and the fact that the leftmost, largest figure is dressed in blue recalls the color scheme associated with the Virgin Mary in Western art. The cloisonnism approach Odjig uses is reminiscent of stained glass, further adding to this sense of religiosity. But it is only because of the dominance of Western Christian art that we see these elements as religious. This is clearly not a Christian icon, nor is it a depiction of a traditional nuclear family. The family depicted is very ambiguous in composition, both in terms of gender and of who is adult or child. The lack of certainty as to where these figures’ bodies end and begin gives a sense of oneness, implying that this group should be considered as a single familial body rather than separate entities. The embrace between the three leftmost figures is not all-encompassing or desperate, but gentle and light, implying this group is together because they want to be together, not because they are obligated to be together. There is a long history of Indigenous peoples around the world being torn apart by colonial forces. In Canada and the United States, one of the forms this took was the separation of Native children from their parents to be educated at residential schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their native language or practicing their native religion. Odjig’s mural The Indian in Transition addresses the horrors of this practice head-on, depicting Native people being herded into residential schools with an ominous cross standing askew in the background. The peaceful embrace she depicts in Bathed in Sunlight, in contrast to the mural, has a healing quality to it, as if to say “here is the vision of Indigenous family that we can look forward to.” If it is reminiscent of Western Christian art, it is likely because the forms we associate with Western Christian art draw on forms we universally recognize as indicators of family and comfort regardless of religion. The title, Bathed in Sunlight, is in itself comforting and gentle, implying warmth and light regardless of the fact that the ambiguous setting does not include evidence of sunlight as we would usually depict it (in the form of rays or the sun itself). Nevertheless, the sense of sunlight enhances the comfort already expressed by this close-knit group, and strengthens the view of them as a family unit even though there are so many ambiguous things about them. That ambiguity makes them more generalized, communicating the essence, the archetype of family in general.


Now, you might be listening to me talk about this painting, or looking at it on your device, and thinking “hang on, this painting is by an Indigenous woman, and you’re calling it Indigenous art, but I don’t necessarily think it looks like Indigenous art.” This has historically been an issue with how mainstream non-Indigenous culture has perceived Indigenous art. In order to be Indigenous art, the non-Native world contends, a work must be somehow obviously Indigenous, particularly by white standards. It must depict Native stories, Native people, or Native places, using Native media or, at the very least, a Native style. Otherwise it’s not really Native. Mainstream white society has over time delineated a set of rules for what can and cannot be considered authentically Native, and a lot of times those criteria exclude artists who identify very closely with their Native background but don’t necessarily express it in what white settler society considers an authentically Native way. Canadian scholar Richard William Hill wrote an essay that contains lots of quotes from Indigenous North American artists about how their Nativeness does or does not influence their work. He included a quote from Odjig in 1981, talking about how during the 1970s, Native artists, quote, “are not satisfying themselves as a person…until they come to terms with themselves and (are) secure knowing that they are Indians, and forget about it and just be creative…Why through your art are you trying to convince other people who you are? Express yourself as a person!”[14] End quote. Judging by this quote, Odjig sees art as a personal endeavor, for personal satisfaction, not the satisfaction of others. Ruth B. Phillips, whose book on the Native American souvenir trade was a big influence on me in college, begins her afterword of a book on Sami art and aesthetics with the following sentence: quote, “There are as many modes of modern Indigenous art as there are Indigenous ways of living in modernity.”[15] End quote. Odjig and Phillips’s quotes touch on the same core idea: that the standards by which mainstream society judges Indigenous art, especially in terms of its apparent authenticity, are completely unrelated to the actual quality and validity of that artwork. The following excerpt gives a sense of the way that Woodland School artists in Odjig’s circle have been characterized by critics:

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“…Woodland School painting ought properly to be considered in the context of contemporary Canadian painting. However, a more common response has been to view this art as the last flowering or remnant of a tribal tradition, and to portray the artists as surviving primitives. For example, Norval Morrisseau has often been referred to as a ‘shaman’ as though he lived in a pristine tribal society, and his works have been commonly referred to as ‘primitive art.’ Rarely have Woodland School artists been presented as living in the twentieth century. Instead, they have been romanticized at the same time that the demise of their Indian culture has been proclaimed… Note the following examples: Morrisseau’s work is referred to as “an expression of what is still an almost totally primitive people,” “un art primitif authentique,” “primitive painting at once both crude and decorative, obvious and inexplicable,” “a form of art from the past,” “the symbolic paintings of a primitive culture,” “d’un peintre primitif un peu special,” art which reveals a “primordial Asiatic root,” the works not of an “artist in the white sense of the word” but the “visionary images of shaman or seer,” and “the last great outpouring of a dying culture.” Morrisseau is said to have the “keen eye of an Indian hunter,” and it is considered fitting that earth colors should predominate in his work. Without exception, the “noble” rather than the “savage” view of the primitive has been put forward by the media.[16]

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Stereotypical attitudes are all too common in discussions surrounding Native artists, and artists of color more broadly. It’s very easy to fall into stereotypes when art is so firmly based in broad generalizations about periods, movements, and styles already, and especially when we tend to think of European art as the default and other types of art as exceptions or alternatives to it. With Native art in particular, there has historically been a tendency for Native artists to be shown in anthropological or historical museums rather than museums of art—although the lines between museum categories can be blurry. Take, for example, the Autry Museum of the American West, which, when I was a child, seemed primarily to be about teaching frontier history and exploring the image of the cowboy in media, rather than displaying art. From my younger visits I mostly remember dioramas, interactive exhibits, and glass cases full of Native and settler objects presented as historical artifacts rather than artworks. I went back recently, and to some extent this type of thing is still there—it sort of has to be at a museum named after a guy who made his name as a singing cowboy and actor—but it’s also focusing more and more on presenting Native art as art, such as in a recent exhibition of the art of Harry Fonseca. But would such an exhibition be shown at a gallery or museum that wasn’t focused on the American West? I get a distinct sense that the answer is no. Native artists that don’t work within the popular forms of contemporary art, like painting, drawing, sculpting, or installations, are often sidelined from mainstream contemporary art or pushed into the category of “craft,” which is an amorphous category that seems to just encompass all the creative productions that aren’t what you generally think of as capital-A Art. Ceramics, basketry, textiles, beading, and jewelry-making all end up falling into the category of “craft,” a classification that effectively bars them from being included in galleries and museums dedicated solely to “fine art.” This distinction is basically an extension of the primitive versus civilized opposition that was so patronizingly applied to Norval Morrisseau: only civilized people make art; primitive people just make crafts. And, as Richard William Hill says, quote, “within the logic of modernism, ‘primitive’ Indigenous visual culture is properly studied by ethnographers and displayed in ethnographic museums, whereas ‘civilized’ visual culture is to be appreciated and displayed as art.”[17] End quote. So a sort of feedback loop forms, keeping craft relegated to the realm of the primitive artifact and art in the rarefied, civilized halls of museums and galleries. This feedback loop became especially unfair and insidious when European modernists began looking to Indigenous arts for inspiration, such as Picasso’s well-known use of African aesthetics as inspiration for his work. This was largely perceived as revolutionary when Picasso did it, but when artists like Odjig and the Group of Seven integrated European modernist aesthetics into their own work, it was viewed by some as a weakness rather than a strength. As Hill puts it, quote, “in the minds of many critics and curators, the apparent modernity of an artist’s work effectively canceled out their Indigenous heritage. The most infamous example must be the rejection of a modernist painting by Yanktonai Dakota artist Oscar Howe from the Philbrook Art Center’s 1958 Contemporary Indian Painting Exhibition competition by a jury that concluded it was ‘a fine painting—but not Indian.’”[18] End quote.

The question of authenticity, of whether something or someone is “Native enough,” is a difficult topic to fully unpack, but it’s clear that the very premise of the question is rooted in mainstream white ideas of what Nativeness is, not Native people’s own identities. And even Native people’s perceptions of their own identities have been shaped by how mainstream white culture presented them, especially for those who were sent to residential schools. Daphne Odjig herself discussed how her own culture was presented to her in school, and also laid out her goals for her artwork, in the following excerpt:

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“In my childhood we had no Indian heroes. If you read…your history books, you learned about the Indian savages. So what was there to be proud of? And…you knew that that couldn’t have been true because you’d look at your own parents and your own background and think, gee, we…really aren’t that bad. And it couldn’t all be one-sided, you know. We must have had our heroes. We must have had our people that we could have looked up [to] but the history books told us…that this wasn’t so. We were heathens…I would like to leave something for the native people to be proud of…[so] the children can say she is a native person, and that would be an inspiration to the young people coming up today…”[19]

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Even if Bathed in Sunlight isn’t directly dealing with Native politics or history, it nevertheless works towards Odjig’s stated goal of providing her fellow Native people with something to be proud of. It is an undoubtedly beautiful work of art, and a beautiful vision of a peaceful and comfortable group of people, whatever their familial relationships may or may not be. Although it has been sold on the mainstream art market, I get the feeling from Bathed in Sunlight that no matter how I might try to divine its significance, its specific message may not be for me, and that’s okay. I can recognize that it is visually rich and conveys a sense of comfort and calm, and that is enough. I can get a sense of the mood and subject, but ultimately, this work will mean much more to someone who has a Native background like its creator than it will to me, a descendant of white settlers. It’s important to recognize what knowledge you can or cannot access about a work of art, whether it’s the artist’s intention, the specific historical circumstances, or the cultural context from which it sprung. Even if you can’t know those things, though, you can still enjoy art, you can still contemplate its richness, and you can still support the artist who created it and the communities they come from. This episode is being released at the end of November, which is Native American Heritage Month in the U.S., as well as the beginning of the holiday season, when people often choose to give to charities. In that vein, I encourage you to consider Indigenous-focused organizations in your holiday giving for Giving Tuesday on December 3, such as the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, the American Indian College Fund, the Partnership with Native Americans, or other organizations that support Indigenous people in your region. You can also integrate Native-made objects into your holiday gift-giving, and I recommend going to and checking out their Buy Native list of Native-owned businesses. Or, if you’ve got the cash, consider buying Indigenous artwork the next time you make an acquisition—maybe even something by Daphne Odjig.

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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving a tip at This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. Main episodes premiere on the last Monday of every month, and bonus episodes will appear in your feed occasionally. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.

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Additional music credits:

Synchronicity” by Unheard Music Concepts via, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Amber Haze” by Daniel Birch via, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

[1] Mindy N. Besaw et al., “Daphne Odjig,” in Art for a New Understanding, Native Voices, 1950s to Now (University of Arkansas Press, 2018), 112–13,

[2] “ARCHIVED – Daphne Odjig – Themes – Celebrating Women’s Achievements – Library and Archives Canada,” Library and Archives Canada, accessed October 29, 2019,

[3] “ARCHIVED – Daphne Odjig – Themes – Celebrating Women’s Achievements – Library and Archives Canada,” Library and Archives Canada, accessed October 29, 2019,

[4] Bonnie Devine, “Daphne Odjig: 1919–2016,” Canadian Art, accessed November 19, 2019,

[5] Devine.

[6] Zulekha Nathoo, 2016 2:51 PM ET | Last Updated: October 2, and 2016, “Aboriginal Painter and Printmaker Daphne Odjig Dead at 97 | CBC News,” CBC, October 2, 2016,

[7] “ARCHIVED…” Library and Archives Canada.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Podedworny, quoted in “ARCHIVED…” Library and Archives Canada.

[11] Quoted in “ARCHIVED…” Library and Archives Canada.

[12] Jenny Western, “Mother Me,” in Desire Change, ed. Heather Davis, Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), 182,

[13] Lavell-Harvard and Anderson, quoted in Western, 184, 185.

[14] Odjig, quoted in Richard William Hill, “‘I Am a Artist Who Happens to Be an Indian’: Working through Modernism in the 1970s and Early 1980s,” in Art for a New Understanding, by Mindy N. Besaw, Candice Hopkins, and Manuela Well-Off-Man, Native Voices, 1950s to Now (University of Arkansas Press, 2018), 48,

[15] Ruth B. Phillips, “The Modern and the Modernist in Twentieth-Century Indigenous Arts,” in Sami Art and Aesthetics, ed. Svein Aamold, Elin Haugdal, and Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen, Contemporary Perspectives (Aarhus University Press, 2017), 327,

[16] Valda Blundell and Ruth Phillips, “If It’s Not Shamanic, Is It Sham? An Examination of Media Responses to Woodland School Art,” Anthropologica 25, no. 1 (1983): 121,

[17] Hill, 51.

[18] Hill, 52.

[19] Odjig, quoted in Blundell and Phillips, 126.