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Goyce & Joshim Kakegamic

by Catherine Mattes

In the early 1960s, a distinct new kind of art emerged among Woodland peoples that visually interpreted oral stories, legends and world views with paint and canvas. Characterized by bright colours and stylized images of animals, spirits, and the earth, Woodland School Art became recognized in Native communities as an expression of cultural identity. This movement also caused excitement as well on the Canadian contemporary art scene (in part for having a modernist flavour), and a market developed, blazing trails for those contemporary artists of Aboriginal ancestry who came after.

Today artists, curators, and scholars often praise Woodland School artists for their earlier artistic contributions. On occasion, the dialogue focuses on aspects of their adversities, such as misconceptions of their art being ethnographic objects instead of contemporary art. But despite the celebration of Woodland School Art, and the recognition received by some individual artists, the intricacies of particular artists’ struggles and successes get lost in the community stories and official art history. We theorize and generalize about what their realities were during the early inception of Woodland style art, but I don’t think their impact as individuals and as collectives is acknowledged to its full capacity. I realized this when artist Goyce Kakegamic sent me a large scrapbook documenting his and his brother Joshim’s artistic journeys from the early 70s to early 80s. In the scrapbook are many yellowed press clippings and invitations, exposing Goyce and Joshim’s successes, their challenges with misconceptions about their art and who they were as Indians, their role as trail -blazers.

The story of contemporary Woodland School Art usually begins with Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau, who is Joshim and Goyce’s brother-in-law. Morrisseau not only inherited knowledge of oral tradition, but was also familiar with Midewiwin graphic manifestations. He acquired his knowledge from his grandfather, Moses Nanakonagos, who taught him about Midwewiwin scrolls which provided him with a source of powerful images and meanings. In 1962 Morrisseau was the first Aboriginal artist to have work shown in a contemporary art gallery at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto, where his bright, stylized images of Windigos, spirit guides, and animals were very well received.

Although Morrisseau was the first to have work exhibited in a contemporary gallery, there were others creating work in the sixties that would later be defined as Woodland School art, who were also being recognized for their talents. On the Prairies, a group of artists, realizing their similarities in interests and experiences, worked together to have their voices heard, and talents acknowledged. These artists, including Morrisseau, were Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Eddy Cobiness. Interacting in Daphne Odjig’s contemporary Native gallery in the heart of Winnipeg (probably the first Aboriginal artist-run gallery), they inspired one another, and became known as “The Indian Group of Seven.” However, they were also “The Professional Native Artists Inc.”, and were collectively concerned with copyright issues, art markets, and the politics of the art world at that time.

Both Goyce and Joshim Kakegamic were highly influenced by their brother-in-law Norval Morrisseau, and other artists such as Daphne Odjig. They began painting in their teens, and by the early seventies, when they were in their twenties, became recognized as professional artists in their own right. Both artists literally exploded onto the contemporary art scene, impacting it, and their own communities with great fervor. They successfully infiltrated commercial and public galleries and museums across the land, and were included in an international travelling exhibition. Today, their works can be found in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, to name a few.

Joshim and Goyce formed the Triple K Co-op with their brother Henry in 1973, a silk screening company that reproduced art in various forms, including wall hangings. They produced their own work, as well as that of other artists like Barry Peters, Saul William, and Norval Morrisseau. They began their Co-op by exhibiting their productions wherever possible, one early venue being a curling rink, and by the end of that decade, had sold work to forty leading galleries. In addition to being the result of great entrepreneurial skills, The Triple –K Co-op was based upon artistic control, self-representation, and self-determination – representing one another and themselves on their own terms, instead of by non-Aboriginal organizations that might have tried to take advantage.

The attention paid to Goyce and Joshim and other Woodland School artists in the seventies would have presumably been appreciated. However, it would have been plagued with several burdens, such as greedy art agents, stereotypes of Native peoples, and misconceptions about Woodland School art. According to Daphne Odjig, “We wanted just to be artists. At that time, you felt like you were on display: ‘These are our Indians of Canada’. If you want to see what Indians are doing, just go to the museum. They wanted to make us ethnological museum pieces.” It is important to note that Woodland School artists, did not, and do not, replicate the visual forms of the past, but instead transform them into a kind of art that explores their meanings in a contemporary context.

Being viewed as Odjig suggests “ethnographic museum pieces,” or revivers and survivors of the past, when they defined themselves as contemporary artists, would have undoubtedly been a cause for concern. It was an issue that Goyce challenged several times in the articles in his scrapbook. In one interview he pointed out, “I paint not to revive the past, but to tell the Indian where he comes from.” He also stated, “Mine is not an art of direct experiences, but of symbols and ideas.” In Joshim’s interviews, he often focused on the technical aspect of painting, such as colour choice and form, perhaps to stay away from any uncomfortable stereotypes, or perhaps to prove his contemporanity.

Through the years, there have been interesting shifts in the perceptions of Woodland School art. Woodland style art continues to have a strong impact in Aboriginal communities. Unfortunately, the art market is not as fruitful as it once was. Public art galleries rarely represent contemporary Woodland School artists, viewing this art as a product of the sixties and seventies, instead of something that continues to be a symbol of cultural empowerment. Even though Goyce, Joshim and others were contemporary artists of their time (and many still are), and spent much time trying to prove so, today, they are called “traditional artists” by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. Their work is often described as being non-political, yet to do what they did, they had to be political. Their individual and group efforts to combat systemic racism and a judgmental western art scene should always be a major part of the discourse around their art.

Going through Goyce’s scrapbook gave me insight into how far we’ve come, and how some things never change. My favourite quote from the scrapbook proved this to me. In it Goyce states: “I started to establish myself…as an Indian artist. Pardon me, establish myself as an artist who happens to be Indian.” This issue is still constantly being debated today, and I have heard so many artists make this statement within the last few years! Either some things never change, or they come full circle.

Most importantly, opening Goyce’s scrapbook made me realize that more discourse and recognition of these two artists and other Woodland School Artists’ needs to occur. Goyce and Joshim not only made beautiful art and paved a path for artistic control through the Triple K Co-op. They continuously challenged their audience, opening their minds, as well as facilitating cultural empowerment through their art. They were part of a movement that provided opportunities for artists, such as inclusion in galleries, access to fine arts education, and the creation of Aboriginal artist-run organizations. By creating space for themselves, and their art, they made space for those of us who work in, struggle in, and find healing within this field. May the circle continue, the dialogue enhance, and recognition be given, where recognition is due.

The Goyce and Joshim Kakegamic CD-ROM includes an essay and images: $20.00 plus shipping = $25.00 payable to Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605

For information please contact Robert Epp