Louis OgemahA catalyst for “Indian” art in Western Canada.
Louis Ogemah, “Kiizhe Anaquot” (Fast Cloud) is Anishnaabe, born in 1962 in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. His early years were spent with his family in Kenora and MacIntosh, Ontario. A third generation residential school survivor, he was sent to school for one year when he was only five. But he was taken back out when his family moved to McIntosh and Vermillion Bay, Ontario. Finally however, all the children were sent to Cecilia Jeffery Residential School when his parents left to work in an isolated bush camp in 1972 until 1974. Louis along with his siblings became students at the former Presbyterian school, now a state-run institution in Kenora, Ontario. In the spring of 1975, Louis’ family moved to Winnipeg. After the initial culture shock subsided, Louis, now an urbanite began experimenting with drugs and alcohol; this coupled with a dysfunctional family further exacerbated his addictions.
For a number of years, Louis migrated between Winnipeg and Kenora, where his grandmother and other relatives still lived. Working at a number of unskilled labor jobs in the city, Louis was eventually given an ultimatum by one of his co-workers, to either become an artist, or end up like him; an old man loading pallets in a dead-end job. So Louis got himself fired from his dead-end job, began drawing on Unemployment Insurance and eventually went back to school. In 1987, Louis quit drugs and alcohol, got a scholarship to attend university and eventually earned his BFA from University of Manitoba.
As an artist, Louis became an important catalyst for “Indian” art in Western Canada. He was the founder of Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba and has had a number of solo and group exhibitions. His art work can be found in both Public Commissions and private collections. In addition to visual arts, Louis has also been involved in theatre and theatrical design in the Winnipeg theatre scene.
Presently, Louis works as a cultural worker for Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response network. Louis also teaches a theatre program at Manitoba Theatre for Young People and serves on the Board of Directors for Urban Shaman Gallery.
Face What You Are Running From
Parallel to his artistic development, Louis rediscovered his identity as an Anishnaabe man. Although he feels that he actually had been given the opportunity to connect to his traditional Anishnaabe culture by seeing his “spirit guide”” when he was twelve and then again at seventeen, he didn’t talk about it because he was afraid and confused. The discussion did come up when he was fourteen and Louis was told via his grandmother, that what he saw was a “Manitouk”, a spirit guide. Great events she said would happen to him. One would occur at around twenty-five years of age and then again when he turned fifty. After another the religious event when he was seventeen, Louis felt he couldn’t talk to anyone who might be able to explain what he had seen, or guide him to what he needed to do about his visions. Perhaps he wasn’t able to get the information he needed because by the time he was having these experiences, his culture had already been seriously disrupted and what would have been the normal activities and ceremonies for an Anishnaabe boy’s coming-of-age didn’t happen. Despite knowing there was something missing in his life, Louis didn’t actually do something about what he had seen as a youth until he was an adult. In his twenties, an elder urged him to return to his origins, and ”face what you are running from”. So he asked his mother and his sister to accompany him on a “vision quest”, the coming of age ceremony that he missed when he was twelve. Despite being a second-generation residential school survivor, Louis’ mother was the daughter of a Mide, a woman who practiced Midewiwin, the religious beliefs of the Anishnaabe and his mother still had the memory of the lodges and ceremonies. So with his grandmother gone, his mother now became his cultural teacher and support during his vision quest. What happened to Louis in the forest, on that remote island during those four days, transformed him. And he finally felt complete again because he was now reconnected in spirit, to who he really was.
Following the religion and practices of his ancestors has naturally influenced his artistic practice. Louis makes this statement about his work; “from rustic settings to urban living, my work explores the myriad of Anishnaabe beliefs and mysticism and couples it with contemporary thought to bring new depth to this work. My role as a mystic warrior is holistic in nature. As an Artist-Shaman, my sense of duty is to heal my community though the gifts I have been given.”
Louis honors the gifts he has been given by sharing all that he has learned through his work as a teacher and artist. In 1997, he created a work called, Regeneration-The Installation at the Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg. The purpose of the installation was to encourage, “safe discourse on the subject of residential school and to encourage as many people as possible who are affected, directly or indirectly, by the residential school system”. The Regeneration installation was exhibited in several galleries both in Manitoba and Ontario. Louis also created a cyberspace installation in 1999 so that he could “promote discourse on the issues of residential school and its effects on First Nations”.
Louis witnessed first-hand how being disconnected from who you are can destroy lives; he lost relatives, both parents and siblings due to the “Great Disruption” caused by colonization. He recognizes ”colonialism as the dis-ease of Euro-Canadians.” “This ‘ism’ is the thread that is woven through the fabric of our society, and to undo it is a great undertaking.” Louis is willing to do whatever it takes to show others they can live a better life. He advises to us to face our fears, and be conscious of what is in our hearts (because it will always guide you), to take responsibility for your own life, and remember that “it’s how you get there” that is important.