Benjamin Chee Chee was born in Temagami, Ottawa in 1944. His would be a short, difficult life. But in his brief time on earth, he realized what many strive for, yet so few attain immortality.
An Ojibway Artist
Benjamin Chee Chee was an Ojibway artist. The Ojibways are the second-largest First Nations population. They are indigenous people native to southern Canada and the north-central United States. The Ojibway’s are known for their beautiful artwork, especially their floral design beadwork. They are also known for their copper engravings. And also birch bark scrolls, baskets, boxes and most notably, the birch bark canoe.
The scrolls are of particular interest and often depict complex geometrical patterns and shapes. They were used to pass down traditions and much historical and mathematical knowledge. The Ojibwe also used pictographs of native wildlife to reinforce their spiritual beliefs. These pictographs reemerge in Chee Chee’s artwork.
Chee Chee was a self-taught artist. He is a prominent member of the second generation of Woodlands School Indian painters. A genre of painting among First Nations and Native Americans from Canada’s Great Lakes region. Norval Morrisseau, a First Nations Ojibway artist is created with founding the style in the 1960s. The style “emphasizes outlines and x-ray views of people, animals, and wildlife indigenous to the Great Lakes region. Traditional Ojibway engravings, pictographs, and birch bark scrolls were stylist antecedents of the Woodlands Style.”
A Unique Artist
Unlike many of his contemporaries of the Woodlands School, Chee Chee envisioned himself a modern artist. He drew on the minimal influences of modern abstract art for his work. In fact, he had a preference for his abstract works over his stylistic Woodlands paintings. Chee Chee strove for “a more economical graphic style. A reduction of line and image more in keeping with the mainstream of international art. Chee Chee’s search for stylistic breakthrough makes him unique among his contemporaries.”
He was extremely proud when one of his abstract paintings, “Migration of 1973” was purchased for inclusion in the Canadian Indian Art ’74 exhibition held at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Yet, it was his elegant drawings of native wildlife, black geese, n particular, that caught the public’s eye. Indeed, it was a collection of these prints that first drew my attention to his work. His work has obvious similarity to traditional Ojibway pictographs. However, he denied his art was anything to do with his ancestral past or a search for his roots.
Perhaps, he feared he would be perceived more as a Woodland School artist than simply a modern artist. But he claimed his wildlife drawings were rational and superficial. He once remarked, “My drawings of birds and animals have no symbolic meaning from the past. To me, they are creatures of the present and I draw them because I like their clean lines and beautiful shapes.”
The Black Geese Portfolio
Art curator Elizabeth McLuhan astutely describes the artist. She noted that he “stripped Indian Art of its ‘legend painting’ trappings and returned to it to the rigors of strong design and structural minimalism. ‘Less was more’ and his paintings evince a tireless interest in abstracting the essence of the image.” She describes the Black Geese Portfolio as a “continuing exploration of positive/negative space, his ability to concentrate in simple lyrical lines and monochromatic forms of vitality, grace, and humor of wildlife. His geese are in motion, breathing, turning, flapping, flying or just taking off.”
Sadly, his short career limits his body of work. Like many artists, his was a tormented life. Al Evans, in his book “Chee Chee: A Study of Aboriginal Suicide” chronicles Benjamin Chee Chee’s short life and the demons that plagued him. His battle with self-identity, cultural isolationism, and alcoholism led him to commit suicide just at the point his career was blossoming. His body of work spanned only a few short years and despite the pain, he endured he created beauty. In a world such as ours, that is no small accomplishment. I will be forever indebted to him for the joy his work brings me.
Artwork of Benjamin Chee Chee
To learn more about Benjamin Chee Chee and gain a greater understanding of his life and work I recommend the following;