Ancestral Portraits: The Colour of My People


95 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 1-55238-064-5
DDC 759.11




Reviewed by Kathy E. Zimon

Kathy E. Zimon is a fine arts librarian (emerita) at the University of
Calgary. She is the author of Alberta Society of Artists: The First 70
Years and co-editor of Art Documentation Bulletin of the Art Libraries
Society of North America.


Ancestral Portraits is the first title in the Art in Profile series by
the University of Calgary Press—a series that intends to “showcase
the work of living Canadian artists, making their work accessible to a
broad national and international audience.” The author and subject of
the book is Frederick R. McDonald, a First Nations artist of Woodland
Cree heritage born in 1957 in Fort McMurray.

McDonald is not only a painter, but also a poet and storyteller who
shares his reflections on being a First Nations artist. We learn that he
was taught by his father to trap and hunt in the bush, worked in an oil
town as a construction worker, was employed by Syncrude for 10 years,
obtained his MFA at the University of Calgary, and has two daughters.
There are rambling, introspective reminiscences about his childhood; the
influence of his grandfather, brother, and high-school teachers; his
thoughts on First Nations art and politics; comments on his travels in
Canada and Australia; and his reasoned perspectives on the word
“Indian,” on commercial galleries, and on the issue of appropriation
of First Nations images by non-Aboriginals. We know that his father had
some carving skills and was a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but
we are not told exactly how McDonald himself became an artist. The
paintings are discussed in one brief chapter, but some 60 of them are
reproduced in colour, accompanied by captions that explain the narrative
subject matter. They are about everyday life and tell the stories of his
ancestors and the protagonists of the legends that still loom large in
Aboriginal society. Although the paintings are representational, the
figures inhabit a visionary, rainbow-hued world bursting with First
Nations colours, symbols, and imagery. Mostly acrylic on board or
canvas, and often large, their palette is reminiscent of fauvism at
maximum intensity.

Not a standard autobiography, this is rather a narrative of a First
Nations artist’s cultural and spiritual heritage and how that
background shaped his life and art. Recommended for all Canadian art


McDonald, Frederick R., “Ancestral Portraits: The Colour of My People,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 18, 2024,