Alex Simeon Janvier, CM, painter (born 28 Feb 1935 on Le Goff reserve, Cold Lake First Nations, near Bonnyville, AB). Recipient of the Governor General's Award for Visual and Media Arts, and a Member of the Order of Canada, Alex Janvier is often referred to as the first Indigenous modernist artist in Canada. Janvier is also one of the founding members of Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., also known as the Indian Group of Seven. His work is in major museum collections throughout Canada, including the National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of History, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Winnipeg Art Gallery. (See also Contemporary Indigenous Art in Canada.)
Early Life and Education
Alex Janvier is of Denesuline and Saulteaux descent, born on Treaty 6 territory. He lived under the pass system, a government policy that restricted the movement of Indigenous peoples off reserves. At the age of eight, Janvier was sent to the Blue Quills residential school near St. Paul, Alberta.
It was at Blue Quills that he made his first paintings. He graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary in 1960 and immediately became an instructor at the University of Alberta.
Early Career and Style
Alex Janvier’s style is abstract and decidedly modernist. His blazing palette and radiating forms reflect the spiritual traditions of his ancestors. His abstract linear work is characterized by whiplashing pools of colour on negative space.
Janvier helped bring together Indigenous artists such as Norval Morrisseau and Bill Reid for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, where he contributed a mural. Janvier returned to Alberta in 1968 to teach adult classes at the Saddle Lake Indian School near St. Paul, and Alberta Newstart Inc. in Fort Chipewyan. Late in 1971 he decided to paint full-time.
In 1973, he was a founding member of the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., a group of seven First Nations artists seeking to market their own work. They are often referred to as the Indian Group of Seven.
Did You Know?
In 1966, the Department of Indian Affairs asked Alex Janvier to produce 80 paintings. They pressured him to work quickly. After his work was displayed at a show in Ottawa, the government sold 38 of the paintings and appropriated the rest. To protest the federal department’s actions, Janvier signed most of his paintings from 1966 to 1977 with only his treaty number, 287.
In 1976, he painted a mural for the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton and for the County of Strathcona Building in Sherwood Park, Alberta. Janvier was invited to Sweden in 1977 to paint and exhibit. He did The Seasons for the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History) in 1978–81 and a mural for the 1983 World University Games in Edmonton. In 1987, his work was included in two major shows in California. He was featured in a group exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992 entitled Land, Spirit, Power. Janvier was also the subject of a travelling one-person exhibition, The Art of Alex Janvier: His First Thirty Years (1960–1990), organized by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in 1993.
Janvier completed his largest mural to date, entitled Morning Star, in 1993, on the dome of what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. The immense mural spans 418m2, its title referring to the morning star as a way of finding one’s direction. Morning Star is organized around two concentric circles inside of which is a starburst of colour that fans out into four spaces — yellow, blue, red, and white. Filled with drifting, organic forms, these spaces are symbolic of different phases of Indigenous history. The yellow refers to pre-contact harmony with nature and the Great Spirit. The blue signifies a period when Indigenous culture was overwhelmed by European culture. The red depicts revival. The white returns to the centre of the morning star and signifies the return to a state of harmony.
In 2012, the Art Gallery of Alberta created an exhibition of Janvier’s art. It featured over 90 paintings, completed between the 1960s and 2012. Janvier considers one of his highest achievements to be his solo travelling exhibition, Alex Janvier: Modern Indigenous Master (2016-18). Curated by the National Gallery of Canada, the exhibition celebrates Janvier’s artistic career. It features over 150 pieces, including well-known paintings like Untitled (1986) and Lubicon (1988), and drawings from his time at residential school. In 2016, Janvier created a 149 m2 circular tile floor mosaic for the Winter Garden of the Rogers Place arena in Edmonton, Alberta, entitled Tsa Tsa Ke Kʼe (Iron Foot Place).
Janvier and his family opened a gallery in Cold Lake, Alberta, in 2003, which they continue to operate.
Awards and Honours
Alex Janvier has received several awards and honours over the course of his long career. Some of his most notable recognitions include:
- National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire), 2002.
- Member of the Order of Canada, 2007.
- Governor General’s Award, Visual and Media Arts, 2008.
- Alberta Order of Excellence, 2010.
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, 2013.
- Distinguished Artist Award, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, 2017.