Alex Janvier at the National Art Gallery

The National Art Gallery in Ottawa has always been one of my favourite places in the city. It’s beautiful on the outside, and it contains so much beauty within its walls, too.

One of my favourite details is the high ceilings, all the windows (and natural light that comes with windows), and the grey cement/blue sky colour combo. Seems silly, but it makes me so happy.

A couple weeks ago, I went to the National Art Gallery with my work colleagus for a staff retreat. It was a nice opportunity to get out of the office, and to hang out. Oh, and we did work related things too, but that’s not interesting to write about, haha. So instead I just want to share my experience going through the Alex Janvier exhibit at the gallery.

But before we go into the exhibit, fun fact: I learned last visit that this long corridor is meant to imitate the aisle in a cathedral, paying homage to the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica just across the street.


And in we go! That’s one of Janvier’s pieces marking the entrance to the exhibit.


The first thing you’ll notice is that Janvier doesn’t have a very traditional Indigenous artwork style. I thought that was really interesting. He painted some (a lot, actually) of his pieces on a circular canvas (and sometimes this canvas was paper, or cloth, or something else entirely). So the gallery had a fun time trying to figure out how to display his pieces.

I like to hang around at the back, and observe both the art, and the way that people interact with art. It’s interesting how some people peer right up to it, and others take in the whole picture.

This series of paintings was one of my favourites, because it told a story (from right to left) of nature, man, and technology. I don’t want to just give you a running commentary of what’s going on, but it’s really cool to see the twirls of colour and the interactions between the different parties (and the angst associated with lots of hardships, especially in Indigenous history).


Janvier grew up in the residential school system. He survived it, but does not have great things to say about it. And this really came out in his artwork. I honestly have a really hard time interpreting art most of the time, so I really appreciated his in-your-face storytelling in his work. It was at the same time artistic and really obvious.

Like in this image, you see the union jack, the fleur de lis, the cross, the man in western clothing, etc. They all signify his influences in the residential school system. And what was particularly interesting about this painting is the apple in the middle. An apple is a typical symbol for school, and for learning. But for many Indigenous peoples, it’s also the idea that they are being made to be red on the outside, but white on the inside. So it can be a quite derogatory symbol.


I stopped taking pictures at this point. But there was one room that was especially dark and moving. It showed pieces that were heavy and emotional, relating to Janvier’s experience with the residential schools. Nowhere near as fun and colourful as his other paintings, but was a strong reflection of Canada’s dark history.

As a Christian, I can’t help but want to apologize. I want to share my faith with others, but not in this way. As a health promoter, I want to continue to work with Indigenous peoples to support healthy living, and understanding the collective experience of residential school survivors is one step in understanding why health outcomes are much poorer for all Indigenous populations in Canada.

Maybe you’re like me, and never really think about art. Maybe you think it’s all fine and dandy and for rich people. Or white people. Or people who are not you. But every piece of art tells a story.

If you’re in Ottawa between now and April, you should check out the exhibit. Admission to the gallery is also free on Thursday evenings.

National Gallery of Canada | 380 Sussex Drive

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