Community Watch: Jahan Maka

Installation view, The Permanent Collection: Community Watch, MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2021. Photo by Don Hall.

21 July 2021

After emigrating to Canada from Lithuania, in 1923, Jahan Maka worked as a farm labourer and railroad extra around Regina; as a coal miner in Estevan; and as a hard-rock miner in Flin Flon, Manitoba, his eventual home. Maka began painting upon retirement and quickly became one of Canada’s most important visionary artist, whose mixed-media drawings demonstrate a sophisticated approach to composition, where lines and shapes intersect to draw the eye in a circular motion through the image. It has been thought that the subject matter may relate to Maka’s experience of war and famine in Lithuania and to his life as an immigrant on the Prairies.

Using pastel colours, organic lines, and flat shapes, Maka depicted a wide range of active scenes, from a starving family wandering through a forest in Nothing to Eat (1984) to an abstract landscape depicting an underground mine in Untitled (1983–86). The absence of depth in Maka’s drawings provides a unique viewing experience. Both the artist and the viewer observe these scenes from an aerial viewpoint—an outsider’s perspective. Maka’s rejection of realism in his artwork, and his iconic style of “child-like” drawing, provide an insight into the feeling of isolation—of being out of place—that Maka’s subjects are experiencing in his distorted landscapes, as well as reflecting, perhaps, his own personal experience as an immigrant, senior, and self-taught artist. 

Maka shares similar aesthetics with other Saskatchewan self-taught artists, including Molly Lenhardt, Ann Harbuz, W.C. McCargar, Harvey McInnes, Roger Ing, Jan Wyers, and Dmytro Stryjek, some of whom also have works in the exhibition Community Watch.