For more than two decades, Indigenous artists in Canada have challenged the master narrative of history. Edward Poitras continues to be in the forefront of this artistic investigation, and his works have been included in nearly all major exhibitions of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada since 1980. Born in Regina, Poitras is a member of the Gordon First Nation. In 1974, he studied with Sarain Stump, who was instrumental in creating the Indian art program at the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College in Saskatoon; Stump introduced Poitras to diverse artistic and philosophical approaches that continue to inform his art practice. In 1975–76, Poitras attended Manitou College in La Macaza, Quebec, where Mexican Indigenous artist Domingo Cisneros imparted an approach that recognized mixed ancestry as a powerful source of energy, creativity and contradiction. Following this time in Quebec, Poitras taught at the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College and at the University of Manitoba. During much of the 1980s, he taught at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, University of Regina (now First Nations University of Canada).
By the early 1980s, Poitras’ artistic benchmark became his masterful ability to combine seemingly contradictory materials such as natural elements, circuit boards, plastic, and transistors. Early large-scale installations capture the drama of ritual and performance. Both Day Break Sentinel (1983) and Big Iron Sky (1984) reflect Poitras’ preoccupation with the suspended figure. These installations reveal the artist’s mastery in creating an elegant tension between formal concerns and conceptual contradictions. These works also inspired several performance-based works including Das Cheval Dance in 1984, with Robin Poitras. Edward Poitras perhaps pushed his investigation of the suspended figure to its zenith with the installation entitled Internal Recall (1986–88). Here, seven life-size figures kneel with their hands bound with rope that attaches to the ceiling; on the wall, words associated with the signing of treaties with First Nations on the prairies act as connecting links between the act of binding and the notion of binding contracts, as well as the legacy of broken promises. Contrasting sharply with Internal Recall’s bound figures, Coyote (1986) frees Poitras from the limitations of history. For many Indigenous peoples today, Coyote has become a symbol of defiant survival in the face of the tragic effects of colonial imperatives. Perhaps most noteworthy is Poitras’ installation at the XLVI Venice Biennale in 1995: he was the first Indigenous artist to represent Canada at this prestigious international arts exhibition.
Poitras’ work has also been featured in many solo exhibitions at institutions such as Western Front, Vancouver (1998), Articule, Montreal (1991), and The Power Plant, Toronto (1989). In 2002, the Mendel Art Gallery organized the traveling exhibition, Qu’Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys, which featured a significant body of his recent work.
Selected group exhibitions include: A History Lesson, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto (2004) and MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina (2003); Lost Homelands: Manuel Pina, Edward Poitras, Jorma Puranen, Jin-me Yoon, Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown and the Kamloops Art Gallery (traveling 1999–2000); The Post-Colonial Landscape, Mendel Art Gallery (1993); INDIGENA: Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples on 500 Years, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec (traveling 1992–95); IV Biennal of Havana, Cuba (1991); Biennial of Canadian Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Canada (1989); Star Dusters, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Thunder Bay, Ontario (1986); New Work by a New Generation, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina (1982). His work is included in numerous private collections and art institutions throughout Canada, notably the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatchewan Arts Board, and the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.
Despite national and international recognition, Poitras continues to be inspired by collaborations with communities in Saskatchewan. He frequently shares in the development of performance art, dance and theatre works with individuals from diverse artistic backgrounds. In August 2004, he participated in Grasslands—Where Heaven Meets Earth, a site-specific collaborative art performance in Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan. Other recent collaborative projects involve exhibitions designed to address critical issues related to land, including In-X-Isle (2000) and I.R.80A (1998), both at Neutral Ground in Regina, as well as Nomadic Recall (1999) and Back Tracking the New Museum (1997), at Sakewewak First Nations Artists’ Collective in Regina. In 2002, Poitras received the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in recognition of his significant contribution to the arts in Canada.