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‘Indian Group of Seven’ artist Daphne Odjig dead at 97

Canadian Indigenous painter and printmaker Daphne Odjig has died at the age of 97.

The internationally recognized artist had been in a long-term care facility in Kelowna, B.C. According to her son, Stan Somerville, her family was by her bedside at the time of death.

Vibrant voice

Odjig was born on Wikwemikong First Nation, on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario on Sept. 11, 1919. She studied art formally in Ottawa, as well as in Sweden. Her work fused together the various cultures that influenced her life, often mixing Indigenous symbols and icons with European styles.

Her vibrant work helped shape Canadian history by bringing First Nations voices and political issues into the mainstream, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s.

“The doors weren’t open to us,” Odjig once said in a CBC interview, describing what it was like as an Indigenous artist starting out. “So we had a reason to tell the people who we are and what we can do.”

Odjig, together with artists such as Alex Janvier and Jackson Beardy, among others, organized shows and became known as The Indian Group of Seven.

Daphne Odjig, Nanabajou his daughter

A 1975 silkscreen of Daphne Odjig’s Nanabajou and his Daughter, from the collection of the University of Winnipeg. (Larry Glawson)

“Daphne was the one who pulled us together,” Janvier said in a statement. “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.”

Her work, which has focused on different issues throughout the decades, has been shown in exhibitions throughout Canada and the U.S and has been included in public collections in Ottawa and Winnipeg. She also was commissioned to work on projects in Japan and Israel.

“Odjig’s work is defined by curving contours, strong outlining, overlapping shapes and an unsurpassed sense of colour,” the National Gallery of Canada website says.

‘A continual circle’

She often credited her family as an inspiration for pursuing an artistic career and dedicated a book about her life, A Paintbrush in my Hand, to her grandfather, mother and father.

In a 1992 interview with CBC, she explained that spirituality, identity and politics are all prevalent in her work, as are circular shapes.

“The circle of life, our whole life being is a circle,” she said, describing why she used them. “You’re born, you evolve from one stage to another, derive the lessons into adulthood, it’s a continual circle.”

Daphne Odjig on her paintings0:36

For her achievements, Odjig received the Order of Canada in 1986 and the Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts in 2007. That same year, she also became a Member of the Order of B.C.

Artist hoped to inspire others

Her perseverance through discrimination based on her identity and gender helped pave the way for other Indigenous artists.

“I paint what comes from my heart — what I feel and what I’ve experienced through life,” she said. “If there’s any Aboriginal child around, I hope it motivates them that they too can accomplish what they want to be.”

The artist was awarded an honourary Doctorate of Law from the University of Toronto in 1985.

“All Indigenous artists, past, present and future, owe Daphne a debt of gratitude for helping us move our art from craft tables at flea markets into some of the finest art galleries and collections in Canada,” Janvier said.

Daphne Odjig reflects on her life and her art6:52

Her family is not planning a memorial but says Odjig had suggested any donations go to the Kelowna SPCA.

She is survived by her son, stepson, grandchild, and a great grandchild.