MORE ART & RECONCILIATION AT THE NATIONAL ARTS CENTRE OTTAWA: Going Home Star, Florent Vollant, & 100 Years of Loss Exhibit closes a full month of Indigenous programming

TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson moderates a panel of cultural provocateurs speaking on Art & Reconciliation. 

“It’s time for the rest of Canada to do the heavy lifting” ~ I Lost My Talk composer John Estacio

On Thursday, January 14 the National Arts Centre hosted a panel discussion on ART & RECONCILIATION prior to the opening night of I Lost My Talk, a performance inspired by the poetry of Mi’kmaq elder and poet Rita Joe. The response to this event was tremendous. Hundreds of people swelled up the stairs from the lobby where the 100 Years of Loss exhibit on the impact of Residential Schools is installed until the end of this week. The event also drew political support. In attendance was the Prime Minister’s wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, the Governor General’s wife Sharon Johnston, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde and former Prime Minister The Right Honourable Joe Clark. I Lost My Talk was a commission by Clark’s family for his 75th birthday. A moving and lovely gift that we all got a chance to participate in and benefit from.

Canadian writer Joseph Boyden speaks on his commission to write the libretto for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star. 

It’s encouraging to see a National cultural institution take such a leadership role in implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. It’s also poignantly symbolic to have a National cultural institution recognize, in the present moment, a fact that history has tried to obscure. Both the panel and the performance of I Lost My Talk opened with the National Arts Centre acknowledging that “we are on UNCEDED Algonquin territory.”

On the panel, along with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden and John Estacio, the composer for the musical score of I Lost My Talkwas Rachel Maza, “acclaimed Australian theatre director of Jack Charles V The Crown.”  I had the opportunity to attend this incredible play that delved into the impact of assimilation policies on Indigenous people in Australia. Over the course of 75 minutes Jack charmed us with his beautiful way of presenting his biography – a life full of identity confusion and much loss but also an amazing amount of grace due to Jack’s own incredible resilience. I left with many mixed emotions. Find out more about the play…

Jack Charles receives a standing ovation at the closing of his performance of Jack Charles V The Crown at the NAC. 

Going Home Star opens this week in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre.

As this month draws to a close the NAC is hosting Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Going Home Star. 

“Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation is the brilliant result of a star-studded collaboration between the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, award-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden, acclaimed choreographer Mark Godden, and renowned Canadian composer Christos Hatzis. Going Home Star was ten years in the making, first envisioned by late Cree elder/activist Mary Richard and RWB Artistic Director André Lewis. Searing and sensitive, this powerfully emotional classical ballet is the deeply resonant love story of Annie and Gordon, a pair of contemporary Aboriginal young people coming to terms with a souldestroying past. Hatzis’s multi-layered score incorporates music by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq (winner of the 2014 Polaris Music Prize), Steve Wood, and the Northern Cree Singers.” Read more…

The creative team and performers of Going Home Star speak at the NAC about the ballet during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering in May/June 2015

Going Home Star runs from Thursday, January 28 to Saturday, January 30 and then will continue its tour in Vancouver. Click here for performance dates and tickets. Tickets will be given to Residential School Survivors, more information can be found here.

Also, this weekend at the NAC is Innu author, composer and singer Florent Vollant performing on Saturday, January 30.

“born in Labrador in 1959 and grew up on a reserve named Maliotenam, east of Sept-Îles. He began his musical career in the middle of the 80s and helped to create the Festival Innu Nikamu, which, since its founding, has brought together many musicians and singers from various Amerindian nations.” read more…

And the National Arts Centre has more in store so be sure to follow along with their 2016 programming around Indigenous Storytelling on their website, Facebook  and Twitter @CanadasNAC.

Photography by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

 

WHAT’S IN A NAME: We Are Cities round table sparks discussion on ways to Decolonize & Indigenize Ottawa

Evergreen Cityworks campaign gets Canada talking about city building.

Since April a dialogue on city building has been quickly connecting cities across the nation. The goal, utilizing data collected from round tables hosted in urban centres, is to “build a vision and action plan to make Canadian cities healthy and exciting places to live, work and play.” I got involved because I believe in the power of gathering in small circles. When we come together with a spirit of openness ready to dream about a different kind of future anything becomes possible.

Often the discussion of city building revolves around practical issues like infrastructure and public transportation. My goal, in convening several intimate round table conversations in Ottawa for the #WeAreCities campaign, was to expand the discussion to consider what it means to build cities that offer respectful, safe and celebratory places for everyone.

“Create a big vision for  your city and tell us about it” was one of the exercises each group was given. The round table at Carleton University Art Gallery was stacked with PhD students from Cultural Mediations all working in the space of decolonization / indigenization so naturally the visions encompassed ways to nurture a vibrant Indigenous presence in Ottawa. This city has a large urban Aboriginal community and for many the presence of First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders gathering in Ottawa to work in law, policy, and culture gives the city a richer  dimension. The round table also included PhD student Kanatase Horn (PhD Candidate in Legal Studies) along with Wahsontiio Cross (PhD Candidate in Cultural Mediations). Their vision was to have Ottawa renamed by the Algonquin people from this area. Here Kanatase reflects further on what that vision could mean.

Change the name change the relationship

“Decolonizing and Indigenizing urban spaces is often met with a certain amount of resistance. In a country that has a difficult time balancing individual rights while simultaneously ‘celebrating’ pluralism, it’s to be expected. The atmosphere is tense to say the least. However, this tension should not prevent us from exploring the possibility of decolonizing urban spaces, since considering Canada’s history of colonization, as well as ongoing settler colonial processes of assimilation and erasure, Canada needs to change. Urban spaces provide fundamental locations for that change.

When Indigenous people move to urban areas from their home communities, they usually face economic and social oppression, racism, and increased exposure to police, as well as the criminal justice system as a whole. Rather than the consequence of individual choices however, such negative experiences should be understood as the result of larger structural realities anchored in settler colonialism. And this is why Decolonizing and Indigenizing the urban space, especially in the Nation’s Capital, is important to support and be a part of if you desire to live in a just society for all.

Simply put, these types of actions can initiate the changes necessary to turn Canada from a settler colonial society into a genuine post-colonial nation. It should not, however, be seen as a project that is inherently political. Instead, it should be seen as a project that takes place at every level of society, where there is room and space for everyone to participate. One example of an action with deep symbolic meaning would be the changing of the name of the city of Ottawa to an Algonquin word chosen by the Algonquin people from the unceded territory that Ottawa is located on. Such an action could initiate the kind of social and cultural changes that would make urban spaces more welcoming spaces for Indigenous people as well as Non-Indigenous people since the act of Decolonizing and Indigenizing does not mean prioritizing Indigenous people over others. These types of actions mean placing priority on relationships with each other and the land.

Decolonizing and Indigenizing urban spaces like Ottawa means recognizing that we exist on the land together – land that is the traditional territory of the Algonquin people. While changing the name would be a symbolic gesture, its potential for social and cultural transformation in the hearts and minds of citizens is huge! It would mean going back and trying to adjust our lives so that it reflects the vision that Indigenous people held when they invited settlers to live on their lands with them. This is not about producing exclusions or apartheid like living conditions. Rather, it means living on the land, even in an urban space, in such a way that our traditional hosts would deem appropriate and respectful to all of those around us.”

Is this even possible?

Name changing may seem like a complicated, seemingly impossible task but my co-facilitator Manjit Basi of Citizens Academy was quick to point that India went through it’s own process of name changing that started early in the pre-colonial era after independence. In 1956 the state of Travancore-Cochin was changed to Kerala and then more recently Bombay to Mumbai (1995), Calcutta to Kolkata (2001) and Mysore to Mysuru (2014) proving it can be done without unravelling a country.

There is no reason that we can’t do the same and the participants of this We Are Cities’ round table have proposed an action that could create a lasting legacy that speaks to reconciliation.

Mixed Bag Mag would like to thank Carleton University Art Gallery for providing the space for us to convene. Thanks to Citizens Academy for co-facilitation support and materials. Thanks to poet Jamaal Jackson (Just Jamaal) for closing our session in one of the most beautiful ways – a poem. (read here)

And finally thanks to all the participants for your thoughtful contributions.

More about We Are Cities at www.wearecities.ca and follow on twitter at #WeAreCities.

Want to host your own round table in your city? Find out how here!

All above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

THE CURATOR AS A 21ST CENTURY AGENT OF CHANGE: Leah Snyder presents at the Michaëlle Jean Foundation’s Power of the Arts Forum

Since the end of August life has been a blur of important events, all of which focus on CHANGE.

Change the way we protect the environment. In August, at the People’s Social Forum Ottawa, I was introduced to people who have become activists out of the necessity to ensure that the land we share is safe.

Change the way we fund community initiatives. In September I was one of 40+ professionals invited by the Governor General David Johnston to be part of a think tank at Rideau Hall that was centred around creating a new Foundation for Canada.

Change the way we construct historical archives. In October I participated in the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective Colloquium in Montreal where one of the main focuses was best practice design for the structure of digital archives that challenge entrenched national narratives.

Change the way we think about diversity. In November I presented at the Michaëlle Jean Foundation’s The Power of the Arts Forum. I encountered many cultural provocateurs who are adding to the discussion around what diversity looks like.

My own presentation assessed the role the institutional curator can play in facilitating deep cultural transformation in Canada.

Since 2010 when I began to write about contemporary culture in Canada I have been fortunate to to attend hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds!) of events. What this gives me is a bird’s eye view of the changing cultural landscape. I have the luxury of being able to stand back as well as step in allowing me both critical distance and intimate knowledge of the environment.

It was a great opportunity to speak at The Power of the Arts and my fellow presenters offered me even more inspiration, ideas and provocative food for thought around broadening the definition of what we mean when we say ‘diversity’.

Below is the transcript of my presentation as well as the Powerpoint images with the accompanying text. If you want to read the presentation along with the images you can click on the top left image and the rest will follow!

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2013 was a year that Canada experienced a lot of growing pains. We are a young nation and sometimes we act with youthful grace and other times with the messy inappropriateness of bodies not yet used to the skin they are quickly expanding into.

Idle No More was a movement that probably wasn’t on most people’s radar when it first formed but it rapidly spread thanks to the brilliant ease that technology allows messages to travel.

What it also did was start to shake the foundational narratives and pushed Canada into a bit of an identity crisis.

And an identity crisis can be good a thing. Even healthy! If it is recognized as a moment to reflect back on who you were before the rug was pulled out from underneath you.

And like any identity crisis the signs were already pointing to a breakdown long before it happened. If you step away from the history of colonization and the impact it has had on Indigenous populations there are other histories Canada has had trouble acknowledging – slavery in Canada, the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and the unfortunate history of the community of Africville, Nova Scotia to name a few.

Canada has not always been a safe place for new immigrants and there are still areas where many Canadians feel they are outsiders in their own nation. LGBTQ rights have been a work in progress and away from urban centres it can still be unsafe to be open about your sexuality.

But I have hope. BIG HOPE! I know Canada is going to make it through this incredibly painful time where collectively as a Nation we are having to acknowledge hard truths about our history.

WHY am I so hopeful? Because I have the wonderful fortune of working in the Arts (and with people like this)

This is where I see amazing work being done. And I see a lot of that work happening in institutional settings.

Outside of producing Mixed Bag Mag I am also a web designer. Many of my clients are artists, and more specifically Indigenous artists whose work is about dialoguing with national narratives regarding historical and contemporary realities of First Peoples in Canada.

One of my clients is Jeff Thomas, a self-described Urban Iroquois, and who I have dubbed “The Godfather of Indigenous Urban Photography.” I will come back to him later but where I want to start my story is on a cold, winter night in Toronto that included a snow storm, a Tribe Called Red and a gifted ticket from a stranger on Facebook. I found myself, last minute, at the Art Gallery of Ontario for First Thursdays.

If you don’t know about first Thursdays, it’s a great event that happens the first Thursday of every month at the AGO. The night includes entry to the exhibits, live music, performance art, interactive demos and food. This particular Thursday A Tribe Called Red was performing.

Despite the cold it was a hot night! Sold OUT! I left my decision to go so late I couldn’t even get a media pass so I put a call out on Facebook and a friend -of-a-friend gave me his ticket.

I stood above the crowd packed into Walker Court in order to get a good photograph. What I witnessed made me stop and put my camera down to take it all in. I have these times as a photographer where I know I need to stop and spend time with the moment – to just feel the energetics of the space. I was having one of those moments.

Duncan Campbell Scott, the man who was head of Indian Affairs in the early 1900s was quoted as saying “The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object and policy of our government.” Here were 3 men – 3 men that if Duncan Campbell Scott had his way would not exist – being unapologetically Indigenous. And the crowd could not get enough of their beats that include mixing dance hall, reggae, hip hop and powwow.

One of the members of Tribe is Jeff Thomas’ son – Bear Witness.

I know he is damn proud of Bear’s work because as he says “he is reaching people I never could.” So why is Bear, a DJ who re-mixes club music, playing for a young, fashionable crowd so important? Because traditionally spaces of Western Culture are not welcoming spaces if you are someone who lies outside the dominant culture. If you are Indigenous, African, South American, basically any culture conquered by the European Countries and colonized you have undoubtedly found your culture being reduced to relics in the structures that dictate what is culturally relevant – even what is culturally ALIVE.

And now a quick history lesson on Museums and Galleries.

The history of what Philippe de Montebello, former director of The Metropolitan Museum Art, calls the “Universal Museum” is around 200 years old. The concept, which we are all familiar with, is to take a look at the world, in chronological order, a linear space where we move through time – a documentation of “PROGRESS.” This type of space allowed for aesthetic connections to be made between culture objects from varying places from the same points in time – a visual record of history – but whose history?

The Louvre was the first public museum. The princes wanted to show what they had “acquired.”

As de Montebello says “Western museums started because they felt legitimately entitled to take the art of the places they were conquering and bring them back to study them.”

With this start as the backdrop it is easy to understand how objects became festishized for their aesthetic and stripped of the human stories that accompany
…their creation,
…their use within their own culture context,
…and then the often tragic events that lead to their acquisition in the collections.

But in the context of the pluralistic realities that we live in now this way of organizing what is our experience of culture is highly problematic. We know there is more than one entry point to history and multiple views are not only valid they are necessary to reconstruct a strong foundation upon which to move forward.

While on a recent trip to New York City I visited the Brooklyn Museum. They had this tremendously beautiful gallery space that was about just that – the act of reconstruction.

As you entered into the space you were met with the words “CONNECTING CULTURES…Museums bring the world’s treasures to the public. Like many other museums The Brooklyn Museum collects works of art in order to inspire, uplift and inform.”

The room was a glorious hodge podge of exquisite and ancient craftsmanship and work by contemporary artists. It was clear that in this space notions of hierarchy were dissolved. A linear progression was abandoned. Instead there was a conversation between equals. And that is an important note of difference.

This image says it all because this young boy who was there studying and taking notes would have been denied access to this museum in a recent past.

Everywhere you turned in the museum you were met by thoughtful curation and diadatic panels that added more voices to the mix. And their emphasis on presenting contemporary African-American artists like Kehinde Whiley makes sense in a community where there is a huge Black population.

Ok, so enough about America, let’s get back to Canada and that night at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The AGO, at the height of Idle No More movement, just weeks after Chief Spence ended her hunger strike, had Tribe programmed to perform. Inside an institutional space that traditionally was about implied exclusivity the performance of 3 men related the message:

NOT ONLY AM I ALIVE, BUT I AM YOUR CONTEMPORARY.
NOT ONLY HAVE MY PEOPLE SURVIVED BUT WE THRIVE.

That’s powerful stuff, especially in light of the historical documents currently being uncovered that speak to the strategies to annihilate Indigenous populations here in Canada.

A few months after that Tribe performance at the AGO the National Gallery of Canada had an exciting opening – Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art Exhibit – that included 150 works of recent Indigenous art by over 80 artists.

This exhibit was the groundbreaking because of the fact it was the first of its kind – an exhibit that took an international scope of Indigenous artists alive, THRIVING, today. This wasn’t a show about surveying artifacts. This was an exhibit about the relevance of Indigenous artists using their practice as social commentary. Sakahàn was long in the making before Idle No More but the timing was certainly interesting as it situated the work of Indigenous artists working in Canada in the present tense. Canadians could frame the work with current events of Idle No More, Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the call for an inquiry into the  Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Sakahàn means to strike a light, a fire, in the Algonquin language. Algonquin people, part of the greater cultural group of Anishinaabeg peoples, are the traditional custodians of this land where Ottawa is now located so it was an appropriate and important gesture to use this as the show’s title.

The three curators who organized this immense project were Greg Hill (Audain Curator of Indigenous Art) and Christine Lalonde (Associate Curator of Indigenous Art) of the National Gallery as well as independent curator Candice Hopkins (Elizabeth Simonfay Guest Curator).

I am grateful to Greg, Kayen’kahaka (Mohawk) of the Six Nations of the Grand River, for giving me an thorough tour of the show. What blew me away was the fact that the artists in this show were working way beyond being concerned with just an aesthetic. They were working from deeply personal spaces. They understood their role as artists and their responsibility as cultural producers to make visible what has been buried.

It was overwhelming, emotional, beautiful, and I went back 5 more times. One of the most powerful things that Sakahàn did was it reached out to the larger arts community in Ottawa. Auxiliary shows and events happened all over the city. This is where I felt Sakahàn had it’s most transformative impact. In Ottawa last summer, you encountered contemporary Indigenous art everywhere.

But Sakahàn wasn’t the only show that year that managed to squeeze itself into the institutional space to force open a crack to allow change in.

Between  2013 to 2014 I have lost count of how many shows I have attended that are about using an institutional space to create meaning around contested histories, controversies, and current events. This doesn’t even include the shows that came prior to 2013. Many people have invested blood, sweat and tears and had doors shut on them. It’s the legacy of their labour that allows for the incredible explosion of culturally transformative work we are witnessing now.

I have seen these types of shows in New York and here at home in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa as well as smaller cities like Kitchener, Oakville, Oshawa, and Markham. Something has definitely shifted!

The door is now open and there is no going back into the shadows.

In recent news The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has been open about their epic fail when they launched “Into the Heart of Africa” in 1989 – a re-framing of the Africa collection through colonial eyes. Although meant to be a critique, once it opened what was demonstrated was that the curators were still not willing to consider that perhaps their framing perpetuated hurtful narratives. There were protests that had little immediate impact but what we see now, as we approach the 25th anniversary, is a demonstration in best practice around the complexities of reconsidering history from alternate perspectives.

The ROM has brought in Julie Crooks and Dominique Fontaine to curate “Of Africa” a “multiplatform and multiyear project aimed at rethinking historical and contemporary representations of Africa.”

On October 24 the ROM Hosted a symposium in preparation for “Of Africa” that included panel discussion on “Learning from Into the Heart of Africa.”

“The elephant in the room” as Silvia Forni the ROM’s curator for African programming calls it has now become a moment upon which something transformative AND truthful can be built.

We are in a beautiful moment in time. We can be intentional about how we move forward to create change. There is opportunity for everyone’s voice to be represented at the table. Best practice around how to navigate this new space we are in is:

  • First acknowledge the hard truths

  • Second, like the ROM, acknowledge how communities were wronged

  • Be ok with being uncomfortable

  • Be open to learn something new

  • Inquire about Protocol

  • Outreach to communities

  • Get to know the leaders

I am going to book end this talk by finishing where we started at the AGO’s Walker’s Court. On July 30 this year, on a little warmer of a night, with no snow storms in the forecast, Beyond the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes opened. At the very top of the court were a series of drums by Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle, who was also in attendance. The drums hang in the place where the German artist Lother Baumgarten was commissioned, in 1984, to do a site-specific work that he titled Monument for the Native People of Ontario. In this piece it was clear that neither Baumgarten nor the AGO did their research. The recent AGO renovation did away with the install and now Robert’s work intervenes in the neo-classical space with his series that references the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabeg peoples.

  • Zaagi’idiwin / Love

  • Nibwaakaawin / Wisdom

  • Dabaadendiziwin / Humility

  • Minaadendamowin / Respect

  • Debwewin / Truth

  • Aakode’ewin / Courage

  • Gwayakwaadiziwin / Honesty

The opening began with prayer and song by Elder Garry Sault who spoke in both Anishinaabemowin and English followed by a welcoming by Chief Bryan LaForme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

Also on the agenda that  night was an awards ceremony. Metis artist Christi Belcourt, the woman behind the initiative Walking With Our Sisters, received the Ontario Arts Council’s Aboriginal Arts Award. When Christi got up to accept her award she used it as a platform to educate the audience about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Her act was an important intervention into the space.

In the palatial court part of the Beaux Art structure built in 1920s and revamped by architect Frank Gehry in 2008 what could have been just-another-art-party became a somber and important moment of remembering.

When Andrew Hunter, Curator of Canadian Art at the AGO, came up to the podium to speak he made one thing clear – this was not a show of contemporary art paired with “artifacts” but of contemporary artists juxtaposed with past masters. Indigenous art has often been presented as relics of a dead culture far removed from contemporary realities and without relevance to current events.

This small statement powerfully defines how today’s institutional curator can be an instrument for change.

Andrew stood in solidarity with a community who has had the institutional door closed on them many times.

At some point in the evening I took a moment to go back up to the area where I watched A Tribe Called Red perform over a year before. Again, like that night, Walker Court was packed full of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. I took a few photos. Then I put my camera down.

I listened to the moment.
I heard change.

Thank you. Merci. Miigwetch.
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Check out Mixed Bag Mag’s poster submissions for The Power of the Arts. Top poster features talented dancer / choreographer Emily Law, middle poster visual artist Ekow Nimako with his amazing work, and dancer / choreographer Esie Mensah, another beautiful talent!



WHEN ART DEALS WITH THE DISTASTEFUL: Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory

Creative Time presents “A Subtlety” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I make a scattered dash to get to the Kara Walker exhibit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hot day, with an intense late-spring / almost-summer sun blasting me and the pavement I am pounding. I get lost then located. I turn the corner to see the longest lineup I have seen for art in sometime.

Kara Walker. A big sign makes it clear this is an event!

“At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:

A Subtlety

or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”

 

Once inside the Domino Sugar compound there is a long march into the factory where another blast of heat hits you. This time it’s combined with a sweet smell.

The immediate feeling is of being overwhelmed. The scene is fantastic! Honey coloured light dappling a cement floor textured by the wear and tear of once busy workers. More texture on the rusted out walls that offer a palette of cobalt blues and deep muscovado browns. Beyond the crowds, at the far end of the factory, this gorgeous, towering, powder-white statue rises up – intense with her omnipresent stare.

But then your eyes adjust to the dim warehouse light and your nose notices that the once inviting smell has turned into a toxic sweetness. The scent becomes more rank as you move closer to the sugar sphinx. It mixes with dust and hot human sweat. It doesn’t smell good and the scene that at first seemed stunning loses its charm as you notice you are surrounded by statues of small children, barefooted and barely clothed, standing so they reach slightly above the level of your heart. They each hold a gathering basket. Although they are fixed in their location they seem to multiply and move because as groups of sightseers wander off another child emerges through the dusty light.

It is these children that become the most haunting part of this installation. Constructed from resin and covered in molasses, their bodies leak onto the concrete floor leaving a puddle of black gummy moisture that traps your feet. The dark slick reflects back the faces of the meandering masses that approach the bodies like they are curios.

They are fascinating. Their technical production makes them close to life-like despite the fact that their heads loom too large on their spindly frames. Some even seem to smile but you can’t be sure if it is the case because their face may have shifted as the molasses melts.



The crowd bends to see them face to face, the crowd comes close to touching, but only the little ones, without socialized inhibition, reach out. As they do their parents snap photos, telling them to hold still and smile.

What becomes even more curious then the sugar statues is how the crowd reacts. Met with the visual reminder of the slave trade people pose with the sugar babies flashing a tourist’s grin.

When confronted with the sweetness of life gone sour what should be our appropriate response?

I wonder why they smile in a scene that, if you pause for a moment to think of the reasons Kara Walker’s sugar mammy and molasses children have been constructed in this space, is distressing. At the edge of the East River, for over 150 years, the Domino Sugar building was used as a processing plant for the imported cane that came to America from the colonies. Blood sugar –  a term used to demonstrate how the sugar trade was bound to the slave trade yet the crowds want to be memorialized with the look of pleasure on their face.

It’s not that the crowds seem unsympathetic to the histories Kara references. Racially mixed (albeit predominately white), I am sure the majority are aware of what they are witnessing.

So how do we commemorate our experiences with art that is meant to be challenging? As we ram head on into the digital (sur)realities of the 21st Century have we stopped to think about our decorum when we bear witness to problematic subject matter? Have we been educated on how to be critical; have we considered how to be respectful?

Historically cameras were restricted in art spaces but now, often, they are allowed. With a population that is snap happy and needing to share they were there what does this mean for the way we now interact with art?

Are we in the actual moment or does the camera mitigate us from needing to be fully present in those times when we are confronted with difficult realities, realities that may even challenge our lifestyle choices?

We are primed from a small age how to interact with a camera. Like the parents instructing their curious kids, we are told to ‘smile’. Should there be times when we ask ourselves, is our documentation appropriate? Could there be a better way for us to use this ubiquitous technology we have access to?

Upon entering the exhibit a sign reads “Please do not touch the artwork but do share pictures on social media” and the hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino supplied.

As I write, the trending content for this tag is Jay-Z, Beyoncé and their baby daughter Blue. They have been spotted on a Father’s Day outing to the Brooklyn location.

Besides Beyoncé (and the occasional off-colour comment alluding to the Sphinx’s sexualized nudity), the tweets are mostly of people expressing how impressed they are by the artist’s work but the opportunity for a more expansive discussion, even if only in 140 characters is missed.

People seem willing to participate in the spectacle but are they willing to participate in active change?

This sweet stuff is serious stuff.

Kara Walker’s work is not just a memorial to a past travesty. Everyone’s sweet tooth is still sucking bodies into modern slavery and bonded labour. The syrup that drips from the statues of the children is like a living organism that marks the space in real time. The legacy of the sugar trade is in our present moment.  When the Domino Sugar Factory is finally demolished, clearing way for condos, what will have changed?

Social media exposes where we are at culturally. The evidence left behind by hashtags demonstrates that there is much work to be done around how best to digest what we should find distasteful.

Inside our pockets are powerful tools. Technology has given us the means to not only discuss our reactions beyond our immediate circle but also archive them for a future population of new users. We each have the capacity to participate in building extensive and transformational legacies around the art that impacts us.

When the molasses evaporates and powdery dust swept away what remains?

Hopefully an expansive documentation of how people were deeply moved by the work and a record of thoughtful interactions in 140 characters or less.

#KaraWalkerDomino

#ModernSlavery

 #Sugar

“A Subtlety” is presented by Creative Time.

 “Over the past four decades, Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects with thousands of artists throughout New York City, across the country, around the world—and now even in outer space. Our work is guided by three core values: art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression.” Read more on Creative Time

The exhibition continues through until July 6, 2014.

Hours:
Fridays 4–8pm
Saturdays 12–6pm
Sundays 12–6pm.

& FYI – be prepared for a long line up!


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RECOMMENDED READING ON KARA WALKER AT THE DOMINO SUGAR FACTORY:

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: The Price of Sugar

“Midway through Candide, Voltaire’s famously naive protagonist enters Dutch-controlled 18th-century Suriname, where he encounters “a negro stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.”

“Good God!” exclaims Candide, who proceeds to ask the man why he’s in such terrible shape.

“When we work at the sugar-canes,” the man answers, “and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.”

We still eat sugar at a similar price.

And not just in Europe, but all over the world.”

Read more of Edwidge’s essay…

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SHAILJA PATEL: Unpour

“White sugar has always been for rich people. White sugar has always been guest sugar, company sugar, sugar for public display. Parlor sugar…

…It takes bones to get sugar white. Thousands of pounds of cow bones burned to bone char are used to bleach sugar in processing plants. My Hindu parents, for whom beef was the ultimate taboo, did not know this when they proudly displayed white sugar lumps in their silver sugar bowl…

…Some of us take our sweet dirty. Extracted. Not poured.”

Read more of Shailja Patel’s Unpour…

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JAMILAH KING: The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art

“The overwhelming whiteness of viewers isn’t unique to Walker’s exhibit. There are more than 17,500 museums in the United States that are visited by 850 million people annually, the vast majority of whom are white. Art, particularly when it’s commissioned and it’s covered in important publications like the New York Times, is often seen as the exclusive domain of white folks. Museums, dating back to their modern origins in the 18th century, were usually built by wealthy white patrons and enjoyed by middle and upper class European families. In the American context, they served a specific purpose for opening up and exploring a new continent, according to Ford Bell, head of the American Alliance of Museums who was quoted by NPR in 2008. People of color — their customs, their cultures and, in the infamous case of Sara Baartman, their bodies —  were usually the object of those white gazes. But in recent years, as the country’s demographics have shifted in favor of a so-called majority-minority, the art world has made great strides in featuring the work of artists of color. It’s hard to imagine any work by an artist like Walker or Carrie Mae Weems, at the Guggenheim 50 years ago.”

Read more of Jamilah King’s article…

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CAIT MUNRO: Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Spawns Offensive Instagram Photos

“…Meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, “Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.”

And sadly, she is correct. While few appear to have responded to the work with charges of indecency, some visitors have been unable to stop themselves from mocking and sexualizing the work, uploading photos pretending to cup its breasts or tongue its buttocks. This gross behavior has, understandably, struck a nerve with feminists and racial equality activists alike. Yesha Callahan of The Root writes, “History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.”

Read more of Cait Munro’s article…

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RESOURCES ON MODERN SLAVERY AND HOW TO CREATE CHANGE:

Walk Free

Not For Sale Campaign

Made In The Free World

Do you know your Slavery Footprint?
Find out by taking The Made in the Free World Survey


Images of Kara Walker “A Subtlety” installation by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

FAIR TRADE: Timeraiser Event in Ottawa @ The Canadian War Museum

Trading Art for Volunteer Hours

TIMERAISER is an initiative that began in Toronto by Anil Patel, a community activator who believes that we all can improve our “civic footprint”!

Tomorrow night (Saturday, November 23), if you are in Ottawa, you can take part in a Timeraiser Event.

WHEN: 7 pm
WHERE: Canadian Museum of War, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, K1A 0M8
HOW MUCH: $20 (purchase tickets here!)

“Speed dating for Volunteers”

“Timeraiser is a volunteer matching fair, a silent art auction, and a night out on the town. The big Timeraiser twist is rather than bid money on artwork, participants bid volunteer hours.


Throughout the evening, participants meet with various non-profit organizations in the room to find available volunteer opportunities that meet their needs. Once matches are made, the bidding can begin. Winning bidders have 12 months to complete their pledge in order to bring the artwork home as a reminder of their goodwill”

Find out more about Timeraiser on their website, Facebook Page and follow along on Twitter @Timeraiser.