Early Years and Education
Joane Cardinal-Schubert‘s father, Joseph Cardinal, was from the Kainai Nation, and her mother, Frances Rach, was of German descent. The fourth of eight children, Cardinal-Schubert grew up in a largely white community in Red Deer, Alberta. She attended St. Joseph’s Convent in the north end of the city until Grade 4 and had little direct experience with Indigenous cultural activities. She eventually became interested in her Indigenous heritage, and began to research Indigenous histories and the negative impact of European colonialism on Indigenous peoples.
She attended the Alberta College of Art (now the Alberta College of Art and Design) from 1962 to 1964 and again in 1966–67, studying painting, printmaking and multimedia. After beginning a BA at the University of Alberta in 1973, she transferred to the University of Calgary that same year. She majored in painting and printmaking and graduated with a BFA in 1977.
Cardinal-Schubert had her first solo exhibition at Calgary’s newly-opened Muttart Public Art Gallery (now part of the Calgary Art Gallery) in 1978, and followed it with a show later that year at the University of Calgary Art Gallery entitled Great Canadian Dream: Canadian Heroes. Featuring Cardinal-Schubert’s drawings, large paintings and installation work, the show was inspired by her desire to demonstrate whom she believed were “Canadian heroes.” In that vein, her works represented Emily Carr, Big Bear, Crowfoot, Poundmaker and Red Crow, among others. In the late 1970s, she met Peter Ohler Sr., a former BC Lions quarterback turned art dealer. Ohler bought about a dozen of Cardinal-Schubert’s works and began representing her through his Masters Gallery Ltd. in Calgary.
In addition to painting and writing, Cardinal-Schubert served as an assistant curator at the University of Calgary Art Gallery in 1978, and at the Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary from 1979 to 1985. She resigned from that job in 1985 to become a full-time artist. Also in 1985, she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, officially becoming a member in 1986.
The mid-to-late 1980s would prove to be a time of increasing success and recognition for Cardinal-Schubert. In 1985, Joane Cardinal-Schubert: This is My History, an exhibition of works on paper and canvas, was organized by the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art (now the Thunder Bay Art Gallery).The following year, her work was included in a group exhibition organized by the newly-named Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The show, entitled Stardusters: New Works by Jane Ash Poitras, Pierre Sioui, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Edward Poitras, was curated by Garry Mainprize and travelled to a number of other Canadian cities.
Paintings and Installations
While Cardinal-Schubert’s early paintings of the 1960s have been described as “incohesive and experimental,” her more mature style is characterized by bright colours combined with Indigenous iconography and European artistic techniques, although she noted in 1997 that she did not wish to copy Western artistic styles. According to Cardinal-Schubert, when an art critic compared her early use of colour to the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), she was horrified and immediately stopped using “full chroma colour,” as she described it.
In 1983, she travelled to England and visited Stonehenge. Upon her return to Canada, she began a series of paintings inspired by the trip, such as Ancient Voices Beneath the Ground – Stonehenge (1983). Another important source of inspiration for that series was the pictographs (images painted on a smooth rock surface) at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park at Milk River in Southern Alberta.
Indigenous iconography is central to Cardinal-Schubert’s work, as she wished to make political interventions by referencing Indigenous knowledge and spirituality. Curator Deborah Godin noted in 1985 that one of the most frequent symbols in Cardinal-Schubert’s paintings is the sweat lodge dome, which is often visible hovering above other imagery, as though enclosing or protecting the figures and structures depicted below.
Another important symbol in several of Cardinal-Schubert’s works is the war shirt, as seen, for instance, in the painting Warshirt: A Declaration (1986), which also incorporates handwritten text. Words became increasingly important in Cardinal-Schubert’s work over time, not only in paintings but also in installations such as Preservation of the Species: DECONSTRUCTIVISTS (This is the House that Joe Built) (1990)and The Lesson (1989), which both incorporate black chalkboards and text written with white chalk, alluding to the problematics of education, particularly, though not limited to, the legacy of residential schools in Canada. With these works, Cardinal-Schubert set out to re-educate her audiences about Indigenous cultures and settler colonialism.
In that same vein, Cardinal-Schubert was also highly critical of the practices of Western art galleries and museums, particularly their tendency to cut Indigenous peoples off from their history and culture by turning their art into artifacts — by taking a vital aspect of a community and turning it into a dislocated “other.” As Cardinal-Schubert once pointedly put it: “What kind of possessions do Native people have of their grandparents, and great-grandparents? None. They’re all in Ottawa in the [museum] drawers.”
DECONSTRUCTIVISTS was included in the 1992 exhibition Indigena, a show comprising contemporary Indigenous artworks that was organized by the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History). In 1997, the Muttart Public Art Gallery in Calgary held the career retrospective Joane Cardinal-Schubert: Two Decades.
In addition to these two shows, Cardinal-Schubert’s work has been included in more than 26 solo exhibitions in Canada, the United States and Europe. Her work has also been included in numerous internationally-touring group exhibitions, including in 1984 when she went to Japan and Korea with the Alberta Society of Artists for the show Sharing Visions.
The Alberta Society of Artists also developed a posthumous retrospective of Cardinal Schubert’s work that included hand-tinted prints, paintings, drawings and mixed-media works. The retrospective was presented by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts Travelling Exhibition Program, and was held at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery in 2014.
Joane Cardinal-Schubert died on 16 September 2009 after a long battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband Eckehart “Mike” Schubert, whom she met in high school and married in 1965, and two sons, Christopher and Justin.
In the last year of her life, Cardinal-Schubert travelled across Alberta on behalf of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to meet with other First Nations artists and identify artworks from various phases in their careers that were not represented in the Foundation’s collection. Her support of Indigenous artists was a common thread that ran throughout her career. For several years, she was a lobbyist for the Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry (SCANA). Her writing has been included in many exhibition catalogues and other texts, including her keynote speech for the conference Making a Noise! Aboriginal Perspectives on Art, Art History, Critical Writing and Community (2004).
Awards and Honours
Cardinal-Schubert received numerous awards, particularly in the last two decades of her career. In 1986, she became only the fourth woman to be made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1993, she was awarded the Commemorative Medal for her contribution to the arts. In 2002, she received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, and in 2003 she was granted an Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Calgary. To celebrate Alberta’s Centennial in 2005, the Alberta government gave Cardinal-Schubert’s painting Song of My Dream, Bed Dance (1995), to the National Gallery of Canada as a gift.
In 2006, Cardinal-Schubert was awarded an Alumni Award of Excellence from the Board of Governors of the Alberta College of Art and Design. The following year, she received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now the Indspire Awards) in the Art category. The statement announcing her award read in part: “A writer, curator, lecturer, poet and Aboriginal arts activist, Cardinal-Schubert inspires and enables Native artists across the continent to challenge and reclaim their creative identities. She created a home for Native art in Canada that is respected, highly regarded and continues to break new ground.”
After receiving the national award, Cardinal-Schubert was honoured at Red Crow College on the Kainai Reserve in southern Alberta; she was presented with an Eagle Feather on behalf of the community in recognition of the Foundation Award. The Joane Cardinal-Schubert High School in Calgary was named in her honour.