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Joane Cardinal-Schubert honoured in memorial exhibition at University of Calgary

Mike Schubert points to one of Joane Cardinal-Schubert's paintings.

"She was always fighting with someone," Tanya Harnett said fondly of Dr. Joane Cardinal-Schubert, her "auntie" in Indigenous art, whom she called "an Urban Indian artist, writer, educator, poet, activist, theorist, and provocateur," as well as her professor, mentor and role model. Cardinal-Schubert's colleagues sometimes called her, "Joane of Art," for her dedication to promoting Indigenous art and Indigenous artists.

The Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary have mounted a major exhibition of Cardinal-Schubert's work -- 60 multimedia pieces, among hundreds created over 40 years. "The Writing on the Wall" runs from September 21 to December 16, 2017, and is accompanied by weekly lectures as well as a lavishly illustrated catalogue with six essays about her career as well as her work, and one essay co-authored by her.

Joane Cardinal grew up a non-status Indian on a mink farm outside Red Deer Alberta, the fourth of eight children. Before the farm, her father worked as a game warden and before the children, her mother worked as a registered nurse. An avid childhood reader and fan of Anne of Green Gables, Joane added an extra "e" to her name because she fell in love with "Anne with an E."

Joane was a cheerleader in high school. Eckhard "Mike" Schubert was on the football team. They married young and stayed together until her death. "These canvases you see here," Mike told the opening night crowd at the exhibit, "I stretched them all. Me and Justin [their son] stretched them all."

In the early days, Mike said, when Joane first took her paintings to an art gallery, the dealer responded that paintings by Indians belonged in a museum, not a gallery. Thus began her ambivalent relationship with galleries and arts institutions.

In her incessant and often successful quest to win recognition for Indigenous art and its styles, symbols, and world view, Cardinal-Schubert's first nemesis was institutional insistence that anything an Indigenous person created should be labelled a craft, not art.  
 
Cardinal-Schubert started her post-secondary studies at the Alberta College of Art a decade before she started on a BA at the University of Alberta, and then transferred to the University of Calgary, where she completed her BFA in 1977. Her "Dr." came in 2003, when she was given an honorary doctorate of laws by her alma mater.

A writer and poet as well as a visual artist, Cardinal-Schubert stirred up stinging controversy with her 1989 essay,"In the Red," in Fuse Magazine. She lambasted Canada Council, which offered grants to curators to collect and display Aboriginal art, but not to Aboriginal artists.

She also suggested that Indigenous people own an implicit copyright on ceremonial objects (such as Haida family poles) whose images Canada used to sell tourism abroad, and which Canada permitted local manufacturers to peddle to tourists. She called the practice, "cultural appropriation," sparking a discussion that continues today.  
 
Her work was included in the 1992 Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives in Canadian Art Exhibition, a game-changing all-Indigenous collection, marking 500 years after Columbus landed in the "New World." Launched at the National Museum of Civilization, Indigena toured widely across Canada, changing the perception of Indigenous art.  

Scarlet red is Cardinal-Schubert's signature colour on canvas. On first glance at her exhibit, the canvases seem to be on fire. In "Warshirts," one of her cyclical themes, canvases shriek out in objects and metaphor the kinds of protection her people needed during different phases of European occupation.

Another theme involves the clothes she found layered in residential schools' and museums' storage drawers, wrapped between foggy cellophane sheets. Walls are hung with clothes as if they were on invisible clotheslines: one work I saw had a blue gingham dress pressed flat between clear sheets edged by grommets on two sides, hanging on the wall alongside yellowed shirts, black jackets and other preserved empty garments.

Cardinal-Schubert also liked to send letters to Emily Carr through her paintings, such as the letter her in "Self-portrait as an Indian Warshirt," which says in part, "Dear Emily...perusing the Group of Seven [in Ottawa]...I just had never realized that they were all men..."

In The Lesson, an installation piece, she created a two-sided schoolroom, peopled with desks and chairs, some tied with rope, the room edged on two sides with wall-sized blackboards chalked with lessons about residential schools. Presented in 1989, before there was much public discussion of residential schools, The Lesson caused a furor. The installation has been recreated dozens of times, in venues across the U.S. and Canada.  

"Many considered Joane difficult," writes colleague David Garneau, one of many artists Cardinal-Schubert mentored when they were young. "The difficulty being she was a strong, intelligent Indigenous woman fallen into a racist, colonial, patriarchal society. Even on the sunniest days, she felt the shadows."

Her keen discernment and wide network burnished Cardinal-Schubert's reputation as a curator, one of her many hats. As a newly-graduated assistant curator -- and the only curator on the job -- she was key to designing the former Nickle Arts Museum to meet curatorial standards. These days, the Museum is Nickle Arts Galleries and housed within the University of Calgary's Taylor Family Library.

She was also a central figure at major Indigenous arts conferences and in assembling or preserving major Indigenous arts collections. She was part of SCANA (the 1984 Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry) and the Calgary Aboriginal Arts Society, CAAS,  from 1988-2005. In both roles, she reached out to emerging Indigenous artists and often included them in CAAS exhibits.

However, the Narrative Quest collection crowned her curatorial work. Persuaded to add more Indigenous works to its permanent collection, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts relied heavily on Cardinal-Schubert's connections and assessments. The AFA acquired 73 works from established and emerging Indigenous artists in 2008 and 2009 -- not only a significant boost to local artists, but a significant collection that has travelled abroad to represent Canada.

Joane Cardinal-Schubert was already fighting cancer when she accepted the AFA's commission. Her final work, Medicine Wheel, arrived at the exhibit's opening without her, because she was too sick to attend.

Her honours include:

  • Commemorative Medal of Canada (1993)
  • Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
  • Honorary Doctor of Laws cum laudis degree from the University of Calgary (2003)
  • Alberta presented her painting to the National Gallery to celebrate Alberta’s centennial (2003)
  • Alberta presented her painting Medicine Wheel Nebula to the Smithsonian Institute (2006)

"Although she died less than ten years ago," says writer, historian and curator Monique Westra in The Writing on the Wall, "her legacy is already undeniable. Joane Cardinal-Schubert is studied in university courses and art colleges across the country."

The City of Calgary is honouring Joane Cardinal-Schubert too, by naming the new South Calgary high school after her, due to open in the spring of 2018.  

In First Nations traditions, Tanya Harnett reminded the audience, we are all related, time is non-linear, and the dead are still among us. Harnett often walks with Cardinal-Schubert, at least in her mind. She was an emerging artist when Cardinal-Schubert invited her to contribute a piece to the CAAS's 1995 White Buffalo's All exhibition.

Although she supplied some art, Harnett was too shy to attend the exhibit's opening. She crept in two days later, to discover her work exhibited opposite Alex Janvier, a senior artist she reveres. "I could see things in my work I hadn't before," she said. "More importantly, I found place...Her efforts to outreach to younger Aboriginal artists changed the way I think, look, and see."

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