Littlechild’s work vibrantly political

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November 26, 2012

George Littlechild: The Spirit Giggles Within
By George Littlechild
Heritage House, 176 pages, $59.95

Review by Candace Fertile

Just in time for Christmas giving (or maybe even for keeping and sharing), George Littlechild: The Spirit Giggles Within is a stunning art book with commentary by the artist on each of the more than 150 pieces contained within the covers. Littlechild’s brief explanations of his art focus on his personal history as a Plains Cree man who discovered at the age of 17 that his father was white.

Littlechild laments the loss of parents and the chance to grow up in the Cree culture. His mother, Rachel Littlechild, was forced into a residential school; her son George was part of the “Sixties Scoop” when many aboriginal children were fostered or adopted by white families. Littlechild is grateful that he had loving foster parents who encouraged both his exploration of his cultural background and his artistic talent. But the discovery of his true biological parentage sent him on a search for his family. Fortunately he has found an extensive and welcoming community of relations who have helped him gain insight to his parents and himself.

Littlechild selected the work in this book, and it gives an overview of his career and his personal life. They are inextricably intertwined. And while giggling isn’t a huge part of aboriginal history in Canada after the arrival of Europeans, Littlechild prefers to deal with the wonder of life rather than the tragedies of his people. He certainly does not avoid the brutal treatment his people faced, but he tends to celebrate the courage, perseverance, and beauty of his people while educating readers in a gentle direct way about the past.

Littlechild’s artwork is political in that regard. And many of the pieces, whether paintings or mixed-media works incorporating family photographs, are portraits. Perhaps the most emphatic aspect of Littlechild’s work is its vibrancy. Images spring off the page in a fabulous concoction of colour. Reds, pinks, and purples predominate. The images, which often have black in them, are placed on a black background to punch up their effect.

The pictures can appear deceptively simple, but time spent looking at them and then reading the brief commentary opens up the richness that is Littlechild’s synthesis of imagination and reality. Horses are a key feature, as are stars. The more recent artworks incorporate elements of west coast aboriginal art (Littlechild has lived on the west coast since 1990 and currently lives in Comox).

The reproductions cannot possibly capture the vibrancy of the originals, but Littlechild himself points to the importance of access to art when he says in the commentary to Even Mrs. Horsechild Gets the Blues that he was fascinated by his foster brother’s art books and was particularly entranced by Egyptian imagery, a transformative imagery which he uses in his works. Mrs. Horsechild has a human body and a horse’s head.

It’s obvious I’m a fan of Littlechild’s work, and I have been since seeing his work in the 1980s at Asum Mena (the Alberta Native art show) in Edmonton. I feel a personal affinity for Littlechild’s work as Cree blood flows from my maternal ancestors. And his vivid colours affirm life, even when depicting sadness and misunderstanding as in Red Horse in a Sea of White Horses.

The message of Littlechild’s work is optimistic. He believes that through education people can move away from racism and other form of prejudice such as denigrating women or homosexuals. He believes that art is important. As he says in his introduction, “In my work, I am committed to righting the wrongs that First Nations peoples have endured by creating art that focusses on cultural, social, and political injustices. As an artist, an educator, and a cultural worker, my goal is a better world.” This book demonstrates Littlechild’s determination. It’s a visual feast — a treat both for newcomers and those already aware of his concerns.

Candace Fertile still has a Littlechild poster from one of the Asum Mena shows years ago.

 

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