OCAD University is getting set to launch a program that is the first of its kind in Ontario, according to Bonnie Devine, founding chair of the Aboriginal Visual Culture Program.
Starting in September, students will be able to get a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a major in Aboriginal Visual Culture.
Devine was hired in 2008 to develop the program. She assembled an Aboriginal Education Council made up of 26 art and design specialists from across Canada to serve as advisors. Architect Douglas Cardinal, filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, painter and filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo, and curator and painter Tom Hill are some of the members.
The program focuses on two things, said Devine. One is how to make art, and the second is the history of that practice and how that work has evolved from very early times and how contemporary artists take those practices and move it forward into something like digital art, for example. Indigenous people have been creating art since very early times, she said, like the petroglyphs and cave paintings.
“We want to develop the kind of student who is aware of the value of creative work and how to be good citizens and use their education, talent and skills for the common good,” said Devine. One of the ways that the program reinforces the traditional Aboriginal value of individual responsibility to the collective is a mandatory summer course. Students are given the opportunity to share their artistic gifts by engaging in a community project to teach youth, for example.
Devine is enthusiastic about OCAD U’s commitment to Aboriginal students. She has moved from a shared office space in 2008 where she was the only staff. Now Aboriginal Student Services has a meeting room, a research room with a computer for student use, a reference library and three staff in addition to Devine. Photographer and OCAD graduate Keesic Douglas is the Outreach Coordinator. Melissa General, also an OCAD graduate in Photography is the program assistant, and David General, curator, sculptor and former chief of Six Nations is the mentor/advisor for the students.
Out of a student population of 4,500 at OCAD, 87 have self-identified as Aboriginal. In 2008, there were only about a dozen. The increase is likely attributable to the increased Aboriginal support services.
“We encourage the students to find their own personal voice,” said Devine. “Many of them are mixed heritage and are just beginning to explore their Aboriginal identity.”
Devine said several successful Aboriginal artists have graduated from OCAD. Cynthia Lickers-Sage is one of them. She founded the imagineNATIVE Film Festival which celebrated its 13th anniversary in 2012. Another graduate is Georgina Toulouse who Devine said was very influential at OCAD. She lobbied to have an Aboriginal person teach the Native Studies course which brought artist Robert Houle into OCAD. She also formed a Native Students Group. Toulouse is now a successful entrepreneur who owns and operates Bebamikawe Studio in her home community of Wikwemikong, Ont.
One other development that Devine is excited about is OCAD U’s partnership with Laurentian University in Sudbury. Starting in September, Aboriginal students in the north will be able to take the first year of OCAD’s Bachelor of Fine Arts Program at a satellite campus at Laurentian. Students will take the same first year courses offered at OCAD in Toronto. However, extra support will be given to the students to prepare them for their eventual move to Toronto.
Courses that will be offered in the new program include Métis Cultural Practices from Riel to Nationhood, Aboriginal Ways of Storytelling and Story of Us, a survey of Aboriginal art practices across North America. One of Devine’s long-term goals is a Master’s degree in Aboriginal Visual Culture offered by OCAD U.
Since 2009, students have been able to get a minor in Aboriginal Visual Culture. Twenty-two-year-old Alexandre Nahdee is one such student who will be graduating this year.
Along with his hip urban wear and silver grill on his teeth, he wears a striking traditional breastplate made in the Contemporary Aboriginal Sculptural Practices course taught by Devine. The bone and glass beads are from his father’s and uncle’s collections and the clear crystal beads are from his mother.
“I honour both sides of my heritage,” he said, accomplishing this in designing the breastplate. His father is Ojibway from Walpole Island First Nation and his mother is Portuguese.
“Students are encouraged to tell a story with their work,” said Devine. “That gives the object power.”