Robert J. Houle
Robert Houle is an artist, curator, critic and educator who has played a significant role in shaping Indigenous art history. Exhibited nationally and internationally, his art is a force that compels and disarms, and through it he opens a direct dialogue on the toughest issues in Canada’s history and contemporary society. The University of Manitoba is proud to honour such a bold and fearlessly creative mind.
Mr. Houle is the oldest sibling in a large and supportive family and he embodies the joy and responsibility that comes from leading with strength, courage and love. He has freely shared his immense talents, found ways to collectively overcome challenges, and honoured his Anishnaabe Saulteaux culture. Across four decades in a formidable career, he has brought together these same abilities to create a collective, broader awareness that challenges assumptions and breaks down barriers.
In Mr. Houle’s own words, “Art has the capacity to lift people’s spirits. Culture is an essential ingredient to any improvement in social and economic conditions. For that reason the special status of native people must be acknowledged and protected not only in a constitutional but also in a cultural context.”
Mr. Houle is a member of Sandy Bay First Nation, Manitoba. He graduated from the University of Manitoba with a BA in Art History in 1972, and in the same year studied painting and drawing at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria. He then went on to earn a BEd in Art Education from McGill University in 1975.
It didn’t take long for his vision and talent to be recognized, and shortly after graduating Mr. Houle became the first curator of Contemporary Indian Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. During his tenure he was a strong voice in opposition of relegating contemporary Indigenous art to anthropological artifacts, and was proactive in having them understood as living pieces of work. As a curator, he has achieved extraordinary impact in bringing together groundbreaking exhibitions such as “New Work by a New Generation” at the World Assembly of First Nations in Regina in 1982, and “Land Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada” in 1992.
Drawing on Western and Aboriginal artistic traditions, Mr. Houle’s work is a testament to the survival and strength of Indigenous people. Moving past the destruction of colonization, he opens a path where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can form a new relationship together.
Most recently, Robert Houle’s work examines his own Residential School experiences. This body of significant work is now in the collection of the University of Manitoba’s School of Art, and its importance was recognized in the receipt of the 2013 York Wilson Award of the Canada Council.
Mr. Houle is the recipient of several awards that recognize his immense contributions to the development and advancement of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. He received the Janet Braide Memorial Award for Excellence in Canadian Art History in 1993 and the 2001 Toronto Arts Award for Visual Artists. He was awarded the Eiteljorg Fellowship in 2003, membership in the Royal Canadian Academy, Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Manitoba in 2004, and the 2006 Canada Council International Residency Program for the Visual Arts in Paris.
Mr. Houle has shared his knowledge and experiences through the publication of many critical essays on contemporary First Nations art and as a professor of Native Studies and Indigenous Abstraction at the Ontario College of Art and Design University for over 15 years, and continues to do so through extensive volunteer work, serving on the board of many prominent organizations.
Robert Houle is a brave leader, forging a path for future generations of his family, his community and this country. He exemplifies strength and hope in building a better Canada. The University of Manitoba is honoured to celebrate Mr. Robert Houle with an Honorary Doctor of Letters.