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Lake Cowichan artist presents ‘Masked Identity’ exhibit at prestigious gallery

‘Masked Identity’ will be at the University of Victoria Legacy Art Gallery until Sept. 7

Lake Cowichan artist Robert Burke will have five of his paintings on display at the University of Victoria Legacy Art Gallery in downtown Victoria on Yates as part of the Masked Identity exhibit, and will be there in person for the opening reception on April 27 from 2 to 4 p.m.

“I’m very thrilled and honoured that this is happening,” said Burke. ‘To me this is a very significant thing, in the sense that I feel that I’m getting a form of recognition that I didn’t have before. In the art world, there are a lot of galleries that you can’t get into unless you are sponsored by a curator, or an art organization that is very well recognized. The University of Victoria will help me expand my audience, and the fact that they are taking me gives me a sense of recognition of the intellectual capacity of my work.”

Burke was born in Fort Smith, N.W.T., and has had quite the storied life. His father was an African American soldier and his mother was Métis, and at the tender age of four years old he was sent to St. Joseph’s Mission residential school in Fort Resolution and was there for 10 years.

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Burke met the love of his life Debora on Prince Edward Island, and the two moved from the East Coast to the West Coast in the early 1970s where Burke worked with the provincial government before eventually transitioning into the logging industry.

“I took a log house course with a guy named Allan Mackie and learned how to build log houses,” said Burke. “I wanted to learn more about logs, and become a West Coast logger. That life appealed to me, I raised my kids, and I’ve been married to the same remarkable woman for 50 years. We met at the Enchanted Candle Shop. She was a hippy, I was a hippy and we met and fell in love.”

It was the logging industry that led Burke to Lake Cowichan where he has lived for nearly two decades, and works out of his studio on Somenos Road. Burke spent several years as heavy-duty mechanic for BCFP before starting his own business as a cedar shake contractor. After some misfortune, Burke lost his business in the late 1990s which led him to enrolling at the Victoria College of Art at the age of 53, where he studied for four years.

“I was always an artist,” said Burke. “In my early stages I wanted to become a corporate artist and specialize in imagery, that appealed to corporate businesses because I had the skills to do the artwork. Had I taken the time and energy and devoted myself to that, I feel like I could have been reasonably successful, because with an impersonal painting, if it is well done it will sit in the boardroom. That was my thinking, and what I was focusing on when I first went to art school, because I figured I might as well do it to make money. By my third year in art school I began understanding my Indigenous ancestry which I had never really explored.”

Burke describes himself as a social painter and feels that his ancestry has made a big difference in the artwork. During his last year of art school the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation bought two of his paintings for $14,000 which he said helped put food on the table. Burke has a few other exciting things in the works including having his work on display at the University of B.C., and another that will need to stay under wraps until September.

The power of Burke’s imagery has landed his works in various magazines and school books, and he had an exhibit of 11 of his paintings at the Prince of Wales museum in Yellowknife, and the Northern Lights museum in Fort Smith. Burke was also the 2022 recipient of the Takao Tanabe award for which he was selected by curators across B.C. as an emerging artist and received a $15,000 cash award.

Masked Identity runs from April 20 to Sept. 7.

“Having the exhibition over the summer allows us to share Robert’s work with a broader audience,” said gallery curator Anahita Ranjbar. “The selected works for this exhibition reflect on Robert’s journey and identity as an Indigenous and Black artist and a residential school survivor. This exhibition focuses on Robert’s challenges as a biracial entrepreneur, confronting systemic racism and social exclusion. Masks both reveal and conceal identities, Masked Identity invites visitors to contemplate the intricate layers of human identity.”

“I hope people enjoy it, and that they learn something,” said Burke. “I like my audience to feel whatever they want to feel, I I don’t have any hopes, desires, or ambitions because it is a visual exercise that is happening between me, my audience, and the paintings. As a result of that, they should bring back what they feel through their own interpretation of the painting.”