Art & Art History ETDs

Publication Date



Arthur Shilling, Anishinaabe artist from Mnjikaning First Nation in southern Ontario, was one of the first generation, contemporary Native painters who emerged in the early years in the formation of a "Canadian Native" art. Born in 1941, Shilling was, first, an artist who wrestled with the creation of a dignified expression of a people struggling to place themselves within the general population, and second, a man whose principles demanded the preservation of cultural and personal integrity. Shilling's "people-portraits" transcended the narrow definitions of "Native" or "Indian" art, with his artistry too close to Western styles to be comfortably catalogued as "Indian art." He was among the first Aboriginal artists to take control of his own representation, and his uncompromising conviction in the integrity and power of the "Indian" impelled such a distinction of style that, even today, his work blurs the boundaries between "Native" and Western or mainstream art.

When Shilling began painting in the late 1950s, Canada's First Nations were just emerging from the political and social custody of the reservation era. Changes to the Indian Act removed the worst restrictions, however many of the colonial mechanisms still remained. National and local identities for both the Aboriginal community and the larger Canadian society were undergoing pronounced changes, creating a tension in the cultural, political and social environments. It was in this context that Shilling was painting. However, his lifelong pursuit was more for the spiritual content within himself than for the "Indian" within the Canadian establishment. He did not tum to others for his identity; rather, he turned inwards, increasingly dependent on the unresolved passions within himself. In doing so, Shilling produced a remarkable body of work that articulated his community in a manner rarely seen, and with an insight that expressed the experience and spirit of the First Nations person intimately. Along with an examination of Shilling's work, the context, and the influences which impressed his canvasses, a discussion of the formation of Canadian "Native" art and the attitudes that simultaneously defined and excluded innumerable artists is presented in this thesis.

Arthur Shilling died in 1986.



Document Type


Degree Name

Art History

Level of Degree


Department Name

UNM Department of Art and Art History

First Committee Member (Chair)

Joyce M. Szabo

Second Committee Member

Holly Barnet-Sanchez

Third Committee Member

David Craven