Daphne Odjig was a Canadian painter of Potawatomi and British descent, celebrated for her bold depictions of family, myth and history. She is widely regarded as one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous artists and cultural activists.
Odjig was born in 1919 on the Wikwemikong Reserve of Manitoulin Island, Ontario. She attended a Jesuit Mission school and was an excellent student, athlete, musician and artist. When rheumatic fever forced her to stop formal education at the age of 13, she continued to receive artistic instruction from her paternal grandfather, a stone carver and storyteller. Following her mother and grandfather’s deaths in 1938, Odjig moved to Parry Sound and then Toronto, where she encountered racism for the first time. In an attempt to find employment, Odjig was forced to conceal her First Nations identity and changed her surname to Fisher. Odjig moved to British Columbia (the Fraser Valley) in 1945 to marry Paul Somerville, a Mohawk / Metis Second World War veteran. She became stepmother to Somerville’s son, David, and gave birth to Stanley Somerville in 1948. The family lived in British Columbia until Paul’s death in 1962.
In the mid-1960s, two major events brought Indigenous issues to the forefront of Odjig’s life and artistic practice. In 1964, Odjig attended the fourth annual Wikwemikong Pow Wow and was deeply inspired by the proud cultural display. She met with community elders, and listened to their telling of the Nanabush trickster legends; she would later publish the illustrated children’s book series Nanabush Tales. In 1966, Odjig and her second husband, Chester Beavon, a community development officer for the Department of Indian Affairs, were posted to a small Cree community in Northern Manitoba. Odjig sketched life in the poverty-stricken community, capturing in naturalistic detail the hardships associated with relocation. Odjig’s first public solo exhibition was held in Lakehead Art Centre in Thunder Bay in 1967.
Over the following decades, Odjig focused on themes related to her First Nations heritage: narratives from legend, colonial history and everyday family life. Her bold style was varied and experimental, incorporating influences from Surrealism, Cubism and Expressionism, as well as the contemporary Woodland style. Odjig’s commitment to First Nations culture extended beyond her own practice - in 1970, Odjig and Beavon established Odjig Indian Prints of Canada, and shortly after opened the Warehouse Gallery in downtown Winnipeg. The Warehouse was the first gallery in Canada to be owned and operated by a person of Indigenous heritage, and was the founding location of the Professional Indian Artists Inc. (known colloquially as the Indian Group of Seven). Odjig’s 1978 commission, The Indian in Transition, is considered by many to be her masterwork. Hanging today in the Canadian Museum of History, the 8 x 27 foot canvas tells a story of First Nations persecution and revitalization.
Odjig relocated to the Okanagan valley in the 1976, where she lived for the remainder of her life. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Order of Canada (1986), the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2007), the Order of British Columbia (2007) as well as five honourary degrees. In 2007, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Sudbury organized a major retrospective of Odjig’s work - The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig: A Retrospective Exhibition
Daphne Odjig passed away in Kelowna at the age of 97.
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