SEWING CIRCLES & SOUNDSUITS: The Art in Embassies initiative connects social nexuses in Ottawa

Marie Watt’s sewing circle and Nick Cave’s SoundSuits provide ways to start discussions around challenging issues. 

As our long winter was on it’s way out and a new spring beginning an interesting initiative began here in Ottawa. Vicki Heyman, wife of US Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, launched Art in Embassies, a project started by John F. Kennedy as way to share the talent of American artists abroad as well as “start cross-cultural dialogue“.

Maria Watt was the American artist chosen to open what has become a series of events focused on the role of art as a catalyst for social change. The timing seemed oddly predestined. Marie, a woman of mixed Settler / Indigenous heritage sat on the stage at the National Gallery of Canada speaking to Greg Hill (the NGC’s Audain Curator of Indigenous Art) about the connecting quality of her work.

“My work draws from my experience as a Scottish German Seneca person in the US growing up in Oregon…[I explore] Indigenous moments in history and European history – those nexuses.”  

This was on the eve of the Roundtable Discussion on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that was also taking place in Ottawa that week. On the Friday, as Carleton University was hosting the National Roundtable, the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG), in collaboration with Art in Embassies, was holding a roundtable on Indigenizing the Gallery with Marie as the honoured guest participant. If a nexus “is a series of connections linking two more more things” than what was happening at that precise moment in Ottawa, in the social spaces where art, academia and politics converge, was a moment where Indigenous women’s voices were being prioritized.

One of Marie’s well known works is Blanket Stories: Seven Generations, Adawe, and Hearth. The piece was installed during the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn: Indigenous International Art exhibit and true to Marie’s practice it involved sending a call out to participate. A request was made for anyone who wanted to contribute to drop off or mail out a wool or natural fiber blanket to the NGC. The original call out on the Sakàhan website describes how the installation:

“will highlight the rich history of commerce and trade in Ottawa. The word “Ottawa” comes from the Algonquin word adawe, which means “to trade.”

Along with their blankets participants were requested to write a story that illustrated the importance of that blanket to their family. The stories become the currency and their richness is revealed in their ability to criss-cross countries and cultures, span many generations and fuse past with present. With her works involving blankets Marie does what she can to have the stories available for audiences to read (view some of stories from the NGC install here). At her National Gallery talk she related a few of them to us. One story was Peter’s. The blanket he gave to Marie came from a concentration camp. If I remember correctly, it was his wife’s and it was all she had when she was liberated from the camp. Eventually that same blanket would be used to wrap and protect art work purchased by the couple in the life they created together. Marie feels that such a story flies in the face of Hitler’s denigration of art and is a perfect symbol of reclamation – a blanket’s meaning transformed by its new role.

The stories are also ways for people to enter into the intimate space of another. In this complex historical moment where we struggle to understand the meaning of words like reclamation and reconciliation sometimes the way of navigating that complexity is through the simple act of creating a space for people to share moments. This is the strength of the Art in Embassies initiative which has been infused by Vicki’s desire to explore art as social practice precisely because it can build bridges and foster understanding between disparate social circles. As a way of gathering a diverse group together for a common goal, another event that was held as part of Marie’s visit to Ottawa was a sewing circle. It was moving to see people of all backgrounds, ages, and genders stitching together in the Great Hall at the National Gallery. And the artist was present! Marie took the time to speak with people as well as listen to new stories being shared. For Marie, it’s about being affable in her process. As she says, a sewing circle is about “tucking yourself into something as humble and familiar as cloth. It’s a safe space that’s a much more informal space – getting together in a neighbourly way.”


In these informal spaces people can digest what they might otherwise feel challenged to confront. Marie’s work, although not overtly political, is charged by a political climate that does it best to ignore Indigenous rights and a national leader who publicly declared that the issue of #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) as not “really high on our radar.” As a Seneca woman she uses her art as a way to generously share Indigenous teachings to a non-Indigenous audience.

The next artist speaking as part of the series is Nick Cave. Nick’s work is also about looking at social as well as disciplinary nexuses of art, dance and fashion. Like Marie, he uses the act of sewing and assemblage to move a challenging conversation forward. The intense subject of racial profiling prompted Nick to look at ways we disregard and denigrate. His first “soundsuit” was created by gathering discarded sticks and twigs, the things that surround us during our day that we ignore and allow to become invisible. The final product functioned as both apparel to be worn by a dancer during a performance and sculpture to be inserted into a gallery space. Whether still or animated by performers whose race and class are concealed inside the soundsuits, Nick’s work is meant to break open a space. They are impossible to ignore. As performers climb inside they have a chance to access the feeling of being connected with something seemingly foreign from their everyday but yet some of the materials that Nick utilizes, like Marie’s blankets, are humble ones that are familiar to all.

Again, the timing of this event is important. After months and months of the heaviness of how racial profiling is being executed – literally – by agents of power, we need to widen the discussion around race that has been split open by the murders of black men at the hands of the police. The problematics of race isn’t just an American issue. Here in Canada the erasure of Black bodies in cultural, academic and political institutions has the potential to fester and become a much deeper problem. We need to have the challenging conversations immediately and those conversations have to happen in places like the National Gallery of Canada, an institution where Black contribution to Canadian history and art has been close to absent. No time like the present.

I applaud the audacious spirit that Vicki has brought to the cultural table here in Ottawa and I look forward to participating in more of these types events that create a nexus for change by widening the circle of social influence.

You can follow the conversation at #artconvoAIE. More events will be coming up in 2015!

All images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

FICTIONS & LEGENDS: Jérôme Havre Closes at the Textile Museum, Toronto

Jérôme Havre, Untitled (Hybrid Series), 2010, fabric, kapok. 75 cm tall. Photo: Paul Litherland. Image from Textile Museum

I had two different experiences of Jérôme Havre’s work.

1. VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE

Images taken of a past exhibit showed a presentation that was unique in the way it utilized almost the entire square footage it occupied within the gallery space. A pattern in black and white had been painted onto the wall, wrapping the room and melting onto a grayed floor. I didn’t know what the pattern represented but I knew I loved it. The repetition was calming and invigorating at the same time.

Standing on pedestals (or as I later realized hovering slightly above them suspended from the ceiling) were these beautiful beings that you could tell had been handcrafted with colourful textiles that added more pattern to delight the eye. They were fashioned with lumps and bumps but also with feet so I got the sense that some hybrid being had emerged from the artist’s imagination.

Nothing immediately came to mind to compare them to but the entire effect of the patterned wall, free floating sculptures and pedestals that felt more like architectural remnants made for maximum impact!

I was excited to see the show at the Textile Museum so that I could get a sense of it all – up close and personal.

2. PHYSICAL EXPERIENCE 

What I was looking forward to the most in seeing Jérôme’s work in the flesh was the experience of being enveloped by the install. I admire artists who know how to create an environment that makes me feel as though I am walking into a very different kind of space, one that catches me off guard – disarming me a little or provoking me a lot.

Heather Goodchild, installation view. Photo: Naomi Yasui. Image from the Textile Museum

Fictions and Legends, that also includes the meticulous and stunning work of Heather Goodchild, did not disappoint! Immediately upon entering the exhibit you know you have walked into a show that is going to be a very different experience than one would expect at the Textile Museum or any other gallery for that matter.

The first room I walked into was wrapped with fabric on which Heather had painted symbols that felt religious and words that felt sacred. Thick curtains closed off secret spaces. Once inside those spaces I was met with rug hookings that seemed antique in their technique but the scenes depicted didn’t match the pastoral compositions you would expect. They felt foreboding – almost apocalyptic. The scene on the last rug before the entrance to Jérôme’s space made me particularly uncomfortable but I will come back to that.

Heather Goodchild, Get Behind Me. Image from the Textile Museum

I then stepped into the space that Jérôme had constructed. This room was devoid of the curtains that acted as barriers in Heather’s install. In fact, just like the images I saw online, everything was installed without obstructions.

I had yet to see all of Heather’s work so I left Jérôme’s area to enter into the final scenes she had created. This time, instead of textiles on the walls, porcelain figurines, bigger than dolls but smaller than life-size, were configured into scenes that read as vaguely Biblical, some sort of moral tale was being told even if I couldn’t call up an immediate reference as to who and what. The scenes, much like the rug hooking on the walls, were haunting. Some of the female figurines seemed to be committing dirty deeds done dirt cheap. As I overheard one person say Heather’s work contained “creatures we don’t understand and stories we don’t want to tell.”

Heather Goodchild, installation view. Photo: Naomi YasuiImage from the Textile Museum

In all of the scenes Heather constructed there was an implied demarcation where the viewer was to stand, like an impotent witness.

Heather’s work was cloistered, staged and secretive; precious and breakable therefore untouchable. Her figures were stark white and clearly female with contrived faces with unbroken expressions; poses that were rigid and fixed.

When juxtaposed with Jérôme’s work I couldn’t help but feel that the two installs where pushing off each other with an intense force – in binary opposition.

For everything Heather’s work was Jérôme’s was not – out in the open and close enough to touch; made of fabric that was flexible enough to withstand impact. The hybrid beings referenced ‘blackness’ and their bricolage bodies were stitched together from fragments of nylon and cotton leftovers making them uneven and soft, although sturdy. They each hung suspended, turning slowly to animate the space. In Heather’s install there was silence. In  Jérôme’s the sound of wild birds.

I didn’t recall, from my reading of the exhibit prior to entering, that it was meant to be an exhibit speaking on the subject of race but in this space, the realities of race seemed inescapable.


I returned many times trying to reach back to that first moment when I saw Jérôme’s work and had read it so differently.

My experience provoked me and I needed to get to the bottom of it. When I attended a LUFF Art + Dialogue’s Open Sesame Event discussing the Fictions & Legends show I entered into a room full of knowledgeable art professionals but it was a predominately white space. Jérôme was in attendance. Would he would let the cat out of the bag that the artist was present? Even if he didn’t it, the obvious elephant in the room was the fact that he was the one black male in a group of mostly white bodies. How would this fact impact the discussion?

Just prior to seeing Jérôme’s work I had attended the Vodou Exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilzation. In an effort to works towards better understanding of their spiritual practice, hopefully resulting in new found respect, members of the Haitian Vodou community in Montreal were involved in the organization of the show. As I walked through the exhibit though I wondered if people would be able to see (feel) past their preconceived notions. We grow up on a steady diet of stereotypes so much so that the unconscious must store those unsettling thoughts, maybe even keeping them under wraps, but they aren’t so buried that they can’t emerge in an unfortunate moment.

And just before the Vodou exhibit  I had visited the National Gallery in Ottawa where part of Carrie Mae Weem’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried was installed on a wall. On the four red tinted ethnographic daguerreotypes of black men and black women are the words:

You become a scientific profile,

a negroid type,

an anthropological debate,

a photographic subject.

In reviewing Jérôme’s work to sit down and write out my thoughts for this post I look again at one of the first images I saw of his work. I see something I hadn’t noticed before. A framed image hanging on the wall that reads:

When will we be just beautiful?

The Fact the lies in Fictions and Legends

In Fictions and Legends, the scene in the rug hooking that left me so unsettled was of a white female body lying on the ground with her back to the viewer. Overshadowing her body like a storm cloud is a black animal-like being, pressing itself into her skin.

In the Exhibition Overview I read:

“Both artists tease out our deepest collective cultural experiences, practices and beliefs by proposing evocative truths in the form of fictions and legends.”

For as far as humanity has come regarding race, in a mind’s deep recesses not consciously inhabited, what lies in opposition to whiteness is still blackness.

Fictions and Legends closes this weekend. Don’t miss a chance to experience this engaging exhibit without comparision!

View more of Jérôme Havre’s work here.

For more of Heather’s work visit www.heathergoodchild.com.

All above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag unless otherwise noted.