The Great Hare’s mission
Painter Rabbett Before Horses Strickland
Nanabozho, an Anishinaabe culture hero, is a beloved figure among the Ojibwe. Also called the Great Hare, Nanabozho is regarded as a trickster figure, a shape shifter who can take the form of a rabbit. He is believed to have been sent by Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit, to teach humankind. But according to artist Rabbett Before Horses Strickland, Nanabozho is not an emissary from a distant realm — he came from our own world. “Both spirit (manitou) and human, Nanabozho embodies that which everyone must decide: Are you a part of the earth or did you come from someplace else?” Strickland writes on his website. The Great Hare is a constant presence in Strickland’s paintings, exemplifying a pervasive spirit that animates all things.
Strickland started incorporating the figure into his work after encountering Nanabozho in a dream. His paintings are narrative works that depict stories from Ojibwe mythology in a synthesis of European painting styles and First Nations lore. “I just try to depict the stories as well as I can,” said Strickland, whose work can be seen at We Are the Seeds. While he draws from his Ojibwe heritage for his subject matter, compositionally his paintings relate more to the works of the artists of the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque, periods he has intently studied since first learning about them as a teenager. “My movement came from Botticelli, my color from Rubens, and my form from Michelangelo,” he said. These influences are visible in his work, although the imagery relates directly to Nanabozho and his appearance as the Great Hare, often depicted in Strickland’s paintings as a hybrid form — part rabbit, part man. “I started out doing Greek mythology,” he said. “The satyrs were of particular interest. My first stories of Nanabozho had him shape shifting into a rabbit (waabooz). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he came into my dreams as half a waabooz, like the satyr half-goat.” Strickland’s compositions may recall the mythic scenes from Greek and Roman mythology depicted in Renaissance and Baroque art, but his work is less naturalistic than that of Rubens or Titian, whom he also credits as an influence. His own figures, such as muscled warriors and other characters, their long windswept hair blowing in a manner that evokes the graceful figures of Botticelli, are rich in Ojibwe symbolism. They tell traditional tales of heroism and adventure and stories of creation such as his Re-Creation Story, in which Nanabozho spreads mud over the waters to create Turtle Island (the world) and Nanabozho Lights the Sun. In a description of the painting, Strickland writes that the Great Hare “lights a new sun to grow a new medicine — the medicine being a Collective Consciousness, where all things come together to create Change.”
To Strickland, Nanabozho is not a trickster figure but an ambassador of Gitchi Manitou, and the Great Hare’s presence heralds the coming of greater consciousness. “The past and the future only exist in the present,” he said about the dedication to Ojibwe mythology in his work. “It is not only for the future generations, but also for the present and for my ancestors.”
Nomadic Mnidoos, 2016, oil on canvas
MY MOVEMENT CAME FROM BOTTICELLI, MY COLOR FROM RUBENS, AND MY FORM FROM MICHELANGELO.