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Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography installation

October 13th, 2013

By Andrew Hunter, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art

Original cover of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2003)

Original cover of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2003)

For over two decades, Chester Brown has been one of Canada’s leading cartoonists, known nationally and internationally for such works as Yummy Fur, Ed the Happy Clown, I Never Liked You and Paying for It.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of his critically acclaimed, innovative and highly influential Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. As part of an ongoing series of interventions in the Canadian galleries, we have installed a selection of Brown’s original Riel drawings in the Georgia Ridley Salon, one of the AGO’s most memorable spaces to which, like the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, visitors regularly return. First designed as part of a 1990s reinstallation of the permanent collection, it was re-imagined as part of the Transformation program in 2008. The current installation is based on a chronological hanging of works from Confederation through to the First World War (1867-1917), with an additional emphasis on the work of women artists.

The Georgia Ridley Salon also highlights a period of nation building marked by civic growth and the accumulation of wealth in central Canada. With the establishment of art patronage and art institutions, Toronto emerged as a major centre of affluence and nationalism during this period. While this was a positive and powerful affirmation of the goals and visions of many Canadians — primarily those of British descent committed to an expanded Dominion of Canada — it was not a perspective shared by all. This idea of Canada was challenged by many, particularly in the Western regions that would become the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Chester Brown, Portrait of Louis Riel (2003), ink on paper, collection of the artist.

Chester Brown, Portrait of Louis Riel (2003), ink on paper, collection of the artist.

Louis David Riel (Métis, 1844-1885) led two rebellions challenging the new Canadian government’s plans for the West. Employing armed, diplomatic and democratic means, the Red River Rebellion in Manitoba (1869-70) was followed by the North-West Rebellion in Saskatchewan (1885). Although strongly supported by First Nations and French settlers, Riel was eventually arrested and hung for high treason.

Louis Riel remains a polarizing figure. Seen as a “founding father” to Manitobans, a spiritual leader to the Métis and a folk hero in Francophone and Catholic communities across Canada, he was considered a traitor in English Canada, particularly in Ontario and once–Protestant dominated Toronto. Through a creative collaboration with Toronto-based cartoonist Chester Brown, the goal of this project is to position Riel’s story within the salon’s story and to provoke reflection on a significant challenge to the nation building narrative.

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Chester Brown will present this year’s McCready Lecture on Canadian Art, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. Book your free tickets here.

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