I’ve tried to write this post many times. Every time another man or woman is killed by the police and the news comes up on my feed. Another friend, usually a Black friend, sharing, yet again, a sickening story.
I am going to try and write about how it makes me feel as someone who isn’t black but has loved ones who are. I am going to breakdown what happens to my body – the taste of fear that starts to hit the back of my mouth, the hot tingling that runs from my feet up my spine. My mind goes to a place that I can’t explain, it’s primal, and my ability to offer myself some sort of logic ceases. Even inside my own head there here is no passage out. I stop thinking and my body takes over. I panic wondering how the hell I am going to protect my loved ones.
What if they have a moment where they are pushed too far and that tension breaks costing them their life? Will others be around to intervene on their behalf? As we have already seen that often doesn’t even matter.
That’s my body’s reaction. And so what is the reaction of the parents, wives, husbands, and children who find out, that at the hands of someone whose job is to serve and protect, their loved one’s life has been taken? Their bodies must sink into a spot they will never fully recover from. And if they are Black themselves, they have to continue to go out into a world that has proven it’s hostile. There is no way they can reconcile this. Not everything happens for a reason and has a silver lining if you just look hard enough. Things happen because there are systems in place that allow for racism to continue despite the fact that slavery, in North America, has legally ended. Things aren’t in the past because the mechanisms, social structures and economic drivers that positioned slavery as acceptable are still in place.
Andrew Loku. The most heartbreaking thing I read was a friend of Andrew’s who cried out that he survived war in Sudan to be killed by police in Canada.
It’s happening here folks. Close to home.
Do you have someone in your family who is Black? What about your favourite teacher? Or your high school sweetheart? A good friend, your dentist, your therapist, the great neighbours you grew up beside? If these people matter to you what will you do to protect them?
I brought my body to the Black Lives Matter Toronto Die-in for Eric Garner back in December. And who did I see there? Black people.
For all the talk of how Multicultural our society is and for all the families I see that are multi-racial I wondered where were all the people whose cousins are Black, whose friend or lover or business partner is Black? Where were all the people who don’t have to carry skin colour as a burden? Why aren’t they here to help share lighten that burden for the people they care for?
How does this craziness end? By non-Black bodies saying enough – by standing their embodied with a physical presence in the moment to say I am here committed to this cause. Let those being targeted know that you get it that there is a hatred for Black bodies and that even in saying BLACK BODIES it allows a way for us to distance ourselves. Yes, all lives matter but at this time Black Lives are the ones at risk. So what are you going to do?
Because I want you to help protect my loved ones. I want you to help be the buffer that creates a circle of safety around the people I care about who need to be protected.
I want you to show up to Black LIves Matter events because when everyone shows up, not just those who are targeted, that will be how we change this thing.
This just came through my feed:
“For all you crying about this damn lion while it’s open season on black people but remain silent… I see you.” ~ Dayna Danger
Don’t be that person.
#BlackLivesMatter Tonight in Ottawa
Friday, July 21 at 8:22 pm
Vigil for Sandra Bland
More info on the Facebook Event Page
“BlakCollectiv invites you to join us in our Black Lives Matter March. We will be meeting at 5:00pm in front of the U.S. Embassy, 490 Sussex Dr. on May 30th 2015. We will be marching in remembrance of the Black lives lost to police brutality, including cis and trans black women.
We would like everyone to join us in this march to shed light to the issues that our communities are currently facing, and to let the world know that we will not be silent!
This is a peaceful protest so feel free to bring your own posters, family and friends to support. However , we do ask that any organizations that attend to please refrain from using this march as a promotional opportunity. This march is meant for healing and remembering the lives lost, do not come with intentions to disrespect this message.
Allyship: an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people. Allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.”
SUNDAY MAY 31th Truth and Reconciliation Commission “Walk for Reconciliation”
WHEN: 11 am program begins & 12 pm starts WHERE: The Walk will start from École secondaire de l’Île, 255 rue Saint-Rédempteur Street in Gatineau (next to the Robert Guertin Arena, where there will be parking) and the walk will end at The Walk will end at Marion Dewar Plaza (Ottawa CIty Hall), 110 Laurier Ave. West.
SHUTTLE BUSES FROM TORONTO & MONTREAL: Round trip buses for youth depart from downtown Toronto @ 6:00 am & Montreal @ 8:00 am and will depart home for Toronto & Montreal @ 6PM
“The Walk for Reconciliation is designed to transform and renew the very essence of relationships among Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians. It sounds so simple, but just the act of gathering and walking and sharing our stories can join us all in a shared commitment to creating a new way forward in our relationships with each other. Our future depends on being able to simply get along, respecting each other for the unique gifts we bring.
On May 31, we will walk together in Ottawa to express our determination in rebuilding the relationships among Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians. Join Us.”
Manifesto Festival 8th Annual Art Show features Visual Artists from around the GTA.
I met these two beautiful women, Esie Mensah and Sara Golish, at the Opening Night art exhibit at Manifesto two years ago. Esie was proudly standing in front of the stunning portrait Sara had painted of her. I noted both these women had serious style. But more than that, they had spirit. I have a knack for picking out the good souls in a crowd. They were both vibrant and gracious, two qualities this world needs more of.
“In The Invention of Craft (2013), Glenn Adamson argues that while a hierarchy of artistic disciplines was established during the Renaissance, the modern classification of craft as distinct from fine art and industry developed between 1750 and 1850, during the Industrial Revolution. Fine art and craft have each acquired their particular histories, disciplines, discourses, methodologies, and iconic works. Today, we have inherited a set of persistent binaries that elevates art above craft and defines craft as “non-art.”
Photo of “Making Otherwise” Exhibit by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of the artists.
In speaking with Heather Anderson, the curator for Making Otherwise: Craft and Material Fluency in Contemporary Art, I asked her if the (considerably more blurred) boundary between art and craft has always been of interest to her. “Yes,” she responds but now that she has had the chance to dive deep into the subject her interest has become more passionate. “You find some threads and you want to keep on pulling them,” she answers.
When you view this exhibit you can definitely see why. The show is full of work that makes you reconsider your first impression and move towards the pieces in an act of discovery – give your mind a little tug to unwind it all. Marc Courtemanche’s porcelain works deceive you. The installation is so convincing I feel that I can sense the density and weight of the wood as the grain is so painstakingly etched into the surfaces.
Paul Mathieu’s hand painted porcelain bowls play tricks with your eyes and illusions are created as you maneouver around their preciousness and precarious positioning in the gallery space.
Above and below photo of Marc Courtemanche’s “The Studio” (stoneware, porcelain, glaze, metal, rope) by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of the artist.Above photos of Paul Mathieu’s “Odalisque Bowl, Ian / Edouard” (hand-painted porcelain) by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of the artist.
Sarah Maloney’s Collapse is a chaise longue that dips with feminine curves but becomes anything but inviting upon closer inspection when you realize there are cast bronze flowers jutting up from the soft surface of the upholstery.
Above photos of Sarah Maloney’s “Collapse” (antique fainting couch, bronze, fabric) by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of the artist.
Nothing is quite as it seems and the ‘craftiness’ of these artists to influence and cajole us into deeper reflection shows that Heather did a fine job in selecting talent from across Canada.
The work of Ursula Johnson encourages the viewer to unravel her deceptively straightforward presentation of woven busts. They are accessible, no glass case to separate. They are supple, constructed from curved strips of smooth wood. They appear uniform and seem almost weightless. The light colouring makes them very contemporary – like a succinct comment on a minimalist aesthetic. But the process by which Ursula has chosen to construct her busts is a deliberate act that binds her contemporary art practice to a tradition that reaches way back. Ursula learned the art of basket weaving from her great-grandmother, master weaver Caroline Gould, a Mi’kmaw elder from Waycobah Reserve in Nova Scotia.
The busts are woven with strips of black ash a wood whose current state has been categorized as an endangered species. It’s a wood that traditionally populated the East Coast, the Mi’kmaq territories of Ursula’s ancestors. The procedure to reduce the wood down to the essential strips is a laborious task. Fewer and fewer people have the how-to expertise. Ursula is one of the knowledge keepers.
The lightness of the materials conceals the weight of the subject matter. The busts are about the policy of assimilation – the convoluted categorization of Indigenous people in Canada by way of the Indian Act.
“L’nuwelti’k (We Are Indian)” is an ongoing series of portrait busts that memorializes individuals and explores Indian Registration and Membership Codes. Johnson called for volunteers who self-identified with a particular code defined by the Indian Act, such as “Male 6.1, Off-reserve.”
Unlike an assigned number that renders an individual’s personality, character and history invisible through the device of a constructed code, when seen as a collective, the busts actually shift in their contour and size, breaking the initial impression of indistinctness. Each bust speaks to the physical form of the sitter who has participated with Ursula. Ursula’s “de-briefing” process as the sitter comes out of the cocoon-like structure she weaves around them ensures that they are more than a number. Hidden from the sight of the viewer, inside the recessed head of the bust, is the person’s name and details of the encounter Ursula has had with them during a performance of her weaving.
Above photos of Ursula Johnson’s “L’Inuwelti’k (We Are Indian)” series (black ash) by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of the artist.
It is amazing to watch Ursula weave, for many reasons – she is fast and efficient as well as full of grace. She is present with her participant and will do what she can to ensure they are comfortable and supported. Her performance is not set up as though on a stage separated from a crowd of onlookers but rather a shared experience of intimacy she has with both her audience but most especially her sitter.
As I witness Ursula’s performance at Carleton, the beginnings of the framework looks like the yarmulke worn by Jewish men. Soon it resembles the bonnet my Mennonite great-grandmother wore to symbolically identify who she was spiritually and the community she was connected with. Her choice to cover her head was what people would see first, perhaps making assumptions about what they thought she might be before discovering more about the woman she really was.
When completed it reminds me of the medieval chain mail armour that served as a means of protecting but also masking the identity of the men inside the metal mesh. Heather reflects on something a visitor to the gallery had said about how the busts look like the niqab worn by some Muslim women. She shared with Heather that she believed that the western eye is conditioned to see a Muslim woman who covers her head as part of an unknowable mass rather than as an individual. Heather remarks that “our tendency is to assume very quickly that we can’t differentiate but perhaps we can.”
And we should.
Making Otherwise ends this weekend.This great exhibit offers us a chance to see the art of craft and the politics of identity in a new way.
Above image of “Making Otherwise” by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of the artist.
Images of Ursula Johnson performing “L’Inuwelti’k (We Are Indian)” at Carleton University by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the midst of researching and writing about this exhibit I was invited to join the CUAG Advisory Board. This came as a welcomed surprise. My experience with CUAG as a reviewer of their exhibits over the past year has been positive and I look forward to starting a different kind of relationship with the team at CUAG.
Rebecca Belmore “Sister” 2010. Image provided by Scotiabank Contact.
“KWE delves into the complicated and fertile relationship between Indigeneity, art, and colonization. Kwe is the Anishinaabe word for woman and is a term of respect. Rebecca Belmore’s artistic practice engages the question of what it is to be an Anishinaabe-kwe artist working today through photography, sculptures, videos, and performances.” Scotiabank Contact website
Crammed into a confined space at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery are four videos that span the career of artist Rebecca Belmore. The combination of the tight squeeze, the darkness and the haunting sounds seeping from the headsets feels like an assault on the senses – as it should be. Because Rebecca’s work isn’t about being conceptual – it batters you, hits you hard, compels you to have some sort of reaction even if that reaction is to go deeper into denial because the uncomfortable truths she tells are too painful to wrap your head around.
Above images of Rebecca’s October 2013 performance in Toronto. All images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.
At a performance last fall as part of the Symposium on Decolonial Aesthetics From The AmericasRebecca scraped stone, blood, oil, over a window from the outside as we looked on as witnesses from the inside. The blazing lights of a parked car in a dark lot (aimed at the window and framing Rebecca’s body in silhouette) summed up how murdered and missing Indigenous Women (the current count according to the RCMP is 1181*) may have spent their final moments. I’ve travelled alone many times. I think of the close calls I have had on dark roads alone in cars with a man / men. There go I but for the grace of some god.
Why her, that Kwe? And why not me?
On might say because “she was in the wrong place at the wrong time” – the English phrase, that in this case, is a misnomer that actually means she was in a place where one is caught in a web of systems (beyond her control) that ensure that oppression won’t quit. An Indigenous woman’s body is still genocidal ground zero, lying under the immovable mass of Colonial rubble. At present very little is being done to protect our Indigenous sisters.
Despite the tragedy, Rebecca’s work has a beauty, and I am sure I am not the first to say this, a spirit of resilience. The KWE (pronounced K-way) exhibit demonstrates her ability to embed elegance into any composition or object. One exits from the room housing the videos into the main room inhabited by photography with a striking and succinct presence – a woman’s back, a worn jean jacket, outstretched arms, gracefully positioned fingers reach out as if to soften, with her touch, the room’s sharp corners.
In the series Untitled a woman is wrapped in the swaddled style of a mummified corpse. The spirit of the woman breathes into the negative spaces; her shadows extend beyond her physical presence. Rebecca’s compositions are laconic phrases that speak of life enduring.
KWE closes this weekend at the Justina M. Barnicke with a performance by Rebecca. The performance Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother Gathering will include taking the megaphone Rebecca constructed in 1991, as a reaction to the Oka Crisis (Kanien’kehaka Resistance), out of the gallery space into the periphery of the city – Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island.
“We are living through the pollution of our waterways from unregulated industry, and both Indigenous people and Canadians need to stand together to protect what Anishinaabe people and scientists believe is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. Many Indigenous women have brought attention to the issue through water walks, which actively heal the spirit of the water. Come lend your voice to their action or just hang out in support.” Read more…
This event is tomorrow, Saturday, August 9, at 1 pm on Toronto Island. Join the Facebook Event Page to find out information on shuttle buses from the Gallery and pricing for ferries to the island.
In light of what has happened this week around water this has become a more imperative event.
*NOTE ON THE NUMBER 1181: When I asked Métis artist Christi Belcourt of the Walking With Our Sisters Project to confirm the latest stats on the missing and murdered sisters she pointed out that the number doesn’t include deaths of Indigenous women who are ruled as suicide but whose death might actually be a murder. This number, she says, also doesn’t include trans women. Or women who were lost in the system of residential schools, adoption, and foster care. Or women who are non-status. So the number, in truth, is much higher. It is also important to note that Indigenous men are going missing and being murdered at an alarming rate.
LEFT: Rebecca Belmore at KWE opening. RIGHT: KWE’s curator Wanda Nanibush. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.
Image courtesy curator Lisa Truong.
“Skin Deep explores the enormous importance of skins and skin clothing in Inuit culture, past and present. In Inuit narratives, skin is something that can be worn, shed, and manipulated. People tattoo their own skin to affirm personal and cultural identities, and wear clothing made from animal skins for aesthetic adornment and protection from the elements. Skin Deep features the tools used to hunt animals and prepare their skins; prints, drawings, and sculptures depicting stories and objects in which skin plays a central role; and objects made from skin, such as mitts and boots. The exhibition includes the work of artists like Ningeokuluk Teevee, Jessie Oonark, Arnaqu Ashevak, and Helen Kalvak.”
Photo of curator Lisa Truong by Justin Wonnacott courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery.
Inuit Art: Skin Deep is a small but impactful show selected with care by curator Lisa Truong. The exhibit currently on at Ottawa’s Carleton University Art Gallery, opened with uncanny timing this past spring after a winter of (justifiable) discontent from the Inuit community in response to Ellen DeGeneres support in the banning of the seal hunt.
The twittersphere was alive with #Sealfies as acts of self-determination. Some guests to the CUAG show expressed to Lisa that they had no idea until viewing the Skin Deep how vital seal was to the economy and culture of the North and now understood the reaction of the Inuit community.
Photo by Justin Wonnacott courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery.
With the coming of Christianity to the North tattooing became a shamed practice. Unlike other traditions that went underground but were still practiced in secret, tattooing disappeared. Alethea’s decision to tattoo her own face, initially, was not met with support from her Inuk mother. The shame around marking one’s body to embrace one’s identity as an Inuk person has been etched deep into the psyche of the Inuit. Breaking with traditions became a strategy of survival once the European arrived and took control.
Knowing this, when you see Arnaquq Ashevak’s “Tattooed Women” in Skin Deep you understand that it contains loaded histories and contemporary victories in its quiet presence. Much like Rebecca’s Untitled series, the way the women are wrapped by the bands of ink can be read as simultaneously binding and protective.
“Tattooed Women” by Arnaqu Ashevak. Image courtesy of Dorset Fine Arts.
“when I saw Alethea’s documentary I knew I wanted to do something on the body and “Tattooed Women” was the first piece that popped into my mind. Alethea’s documentary shows reclamation of knowledge and a decision to go find that knowledge even if it is obscure – to go hunt it out – and place it on the body.”
Alethea’s choice to score her face with ink was a radical act of decolonizing her body. Her reversal back into time to bring forth a lost tradition will have dramatic impact on the future of her community. Already we see other Inuit women following her example.
Of Arnaqu’s work Lisa says:
“This piece is a reflective piece looking forward and looking back so on the right you have the woman who is representing the traditional body and facial tattoos as well as traditional forms of beauty. You can see ever so slightly the tattoos on her cheeks and two braids on the side of her head.
On the left a woman is clothed in tattoos that are contemporary, not to be literal, but as a symbolic decision on what parts to reveal and what parts to cover.
The way the women are posed, their arms up, they are asking people to look at their bodies. There is this gaze that travels across the body.
It’s a very warm piece and thought provoking piece because of the body language of the women – they are modest but have their arms up as to expose.”
For me, the power in this piece is the agency is expresses regarding women’s bodies and spiritual selves. As Lisa says, this work, like Alethea’s decision to tattoo her face “demonstrates the body as a place of political and cultural sovereignty.”
“Shaman Revealed” by Ningeokuluk Teevee. Image courtesy of Dorset Fine Arts.
The other piece in the show that as a woman moved me was “Shaman Revealed.” In a time when we desperately require (s)heros the unzipping of a woman’s skin to reveal the animal spirit inside speaks to the importance of personal transformation in finding the source of one’s influence.
The artist, Lisa says, “combines a traditional legend [the legend of Kiviuq] with contemporary flair. The story is about staying true to oneself and not criticizing others for being who they are.”
There is alchemic power when we reveal what we hide inside.
Both KWE and Skin Deep present the female/kwe body as the conduit of great strength and locate her beyond victimhood.
Sometimes demolishing the past doesn’t change the present.
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
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
On June 30 “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit” was posted in The Indypendent. This powerful article touched on several issues that I felt needed to be addressed. I applaud the writer, Nicholas Powers, for punctuating the space with an action that wasn’t a planned intervention or a performance piece. It was a unprompted visceral response – an appropriate (re)action.
In his article he asked a very important question – what is the role of the curator? I ask – when the curator knows that they are putting out work that is loaded, even potentially volatile is it acceptable for them to just step back and let things play out? Do curators have an obligation to facilitate dialogue and create a safe space for emotional release?
Many people found their experience in the physical space to be quite painful “Black Pain, White Laughter” as Nicholas puts it. The online experience provided an almost unchallenged area for people to act ignorantly – even racist and misogynistic.
Should Creative Time (the team behind “A Subtlety”) have immediately stepped in to address the racism and misogyny? In both spaces they could have intervened. There was an opportunity for a whole other dialogue to take place that would perhaps have lead to more understanding and empathy therefore more respectful behavior.
“It was like a sleeping beehive had been kicked over”
Nicholas called out people for the types of photos they were taken at the back of the sphinx, the location where much of the problematic behaviour has occurred. A Creative Time curator, in an effort to distance the organization from his spontaneous intervention, asked him to tell people he was not part of Creative Time. He writes:
“ A friend cut in, saying loudly that I didn’t have to say shit. They got into a debate that heated up into a verbal fight. Visitors came up to me, some saying I was wrong; others saying I was right.
…It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors. But why did we have to?…wasn’t the job of Walker or at least Creative Time’s staff to curate a racially charged artwork? Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. Yes, Creative Time has the freedom to organize it. But what do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space.
…Instead of challenging the racial power dynamics of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time, in their naivety or arrogance, I don’t know which, simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe place for it.”
For me, that is where the installation failed. The safe space that was created was for those who needed to be challenged the most. The historical dirt, literally baked to the walls of Domino Sugar Factory, was sanitized – much like the process of whitening sugar, a process that requires crushed up bones to do the bleaching. The act of allowing people to document the art with cell phones, cameras and a hashtag also allowed people to mitigate their experience of the work by not being fully present to what was in front of them – the ugly truth and the shadow side of sweet consumption. Instead, the Sugar Sphinx became a tourist trap; like flies to sticky paper people got stuck to the spectacle but emotionally never moved beyond.
This work should have been about collective mourning of a disturbing past and collective consideration as to how our current lifestyles still support modern day slavery.
“One of the worst things about my experience with the Kara Walker exhibit in Brooklyn was the lack of space available for me to mourn the devastation of Blackness, nor appreciate its power. There were white bodies everywhere I turned; white bodies laughing, white bodies posing for pictures, white bodies giving me strange looks as I solemnly shuffled around the warehouse, white bodies overflowing the space, white bodies spilling into my physical and mental space…
I became uncomfortable, realized that even though this was obviously a cemetery, a place of remembrance and mourning for how Blackness has been distorted and destroyed throughout history, the pain I felt would always take a backseat to the comfort white people seek in lies. In that moment, I began remembering what violation felt like.”
Malik and two friends decided they needed to intervene in the space between the mammy’s breasts in an attempt to reclaim it.
“I suggested to my friends that we pose in front of the mammy sphinx holding up the Black Power fist, with a picture of us doing so to be taken by our white chaperone from our youth organization.
As we stood there, with our fists defiantly raised to the ceiling, the mostly white people in front of us became much quieter, they seemed offended even. Khadijah says she heard people whispering, “It’s not about that…”.One white man gave us a look of bemused indignation, rushing to the space we had just claimed as our own after our picture had been taken, only to pose for yet another smiling portrait in front of the mammy sphinx. Perhaps he did that to prove a point, a point sprung from the murky waters of privilege and ignorance.
And my spirit sank lower into my gut; I could feel it dragging me down towards the molasses-resembling-blood splattered ground.”
The lightness of whiteness and a burdenless history
When one reads the comments in Stephanie Wyatts “The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instragram Capital” the good ol’ ‘reverse-racism’ argument starts to bubble up. She called out white people in her article and that, is just not socially acceptable, even in the context of art speaking on Black Slavery. If this is not an appropriate time when is it?
Stephanie, a Black woman, had to bear witness to jokes about “sugar tits”, “big ass” and “sweet lips” as her racialized body stood in front of sculpture of another racialized body. The sexualized talk directed at a lifeless sphinx (as her own physical presence was ignored) was talk also aimed at her. As the human being standing next to the the ones saying such things she should take it personally.
“I stood in front of a sugar boy carrying a huge basket oozing what began to look more like blood than molasses. I looked to my right and a white kid was licking one of the boys while his parents stood there unfazed. I walked over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself.
I obviously didn’t expect to start crying, but it happened and I let those tears run free. I was snapped out of my sob by a white guy yelling, “This is boring!” Tears for my ancestors turned into hot, angry tears. “
Stephanie’s response to all of the callousness, built up upon other times she has had to bear witness to people acting with insensitivity, lead her to write:
“…I’d gotten the sense that deep reverence may not be white people’s spiritual gift. But where’s the respect? How do you not realize that you are currently standing on sacred ground and staring the sickness of our country dead in the face?”
All of these articles are written by African Americans. I didn’t come across any other articles of this type, speaking to a visceral and painful experience, written by anyone that wasn’t Black.
Whiteness / ‘lightness’ is a privilege. It gets you a pass in a lot of places. It shouldn’t get you a pass on ignorant behaviour. The Mammy Sphinx and Sugar Babies speak to a mutual history, slavery exists in the collective memory(s) and the weight of it should be shared. Unfortunately “A Subtlety”demonstrated that many people still see it as a burden belonging only to Black people.
Whether we like it or not, history has intimately intertwined us all and the unknotting shouldn’t have to be done solely by the people who can trace their ancestry back to those who survived the Middle Passage.
Both the physical and online spaces that “A Subtlety” provided were spaces where white people could have at least helped to carry the burden. Instead the actions of many led to the piling on of more weight.
“A Subtlety” exposed that the not so subtle expressions of racism exist even in places created for homage to its impact.
The Black female body is never neutral. She can never rest.
“I walked into the exhibit feeling alone and I walked out of the exhibit feeling lonely. To be a parody and a parent. To be a black woman and pun.
It is here when I decide that I will bring my daughter next weekend. She should know how to arm herself against a world that never considers her skin, her ancestry, her people. She should know her body is always up for discussion, whether she initiates the conversation or not. She should know her pain will always be greeted with a whimsical patronizing hand.
She should know how to celebrate, defend and demand her own song and rich history be acknowledged and honored.”
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:
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“…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.”
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.
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!
When Worlds Collide How Do You Return Back to Home?
Last Friday I experienced Akram Khan’s DESH at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Akram is one of Britain’s most exciting contemporary dancers / choreographers and like so many people in the 21st Century he is attempting to perform a balancing act between two (or more) worlds. There is the England of his own biography peppered with the history of the Bangladesh his parents left when they came from Dhaka to Wimbledon where Akram was born.
Once caught mimicking Michael Jackson dance moves, Akram (who also credits being inspired by the moves of Bruce Lee, Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplin) was immediately put into Kathak classes – his parents attempt to keep him rhythmically attuned to the sub-continent rather than the beat of American pop culture.
Eventually though the mash-up masala that London was produced this phenomenon of a performer who brilliantly synthesizes Occident and Orient into the most moving experiences for his audiences. Akram has also worked with other Brits who have built their careers around the psychological space created by cultural hybridity – writer Hanif Kureishi (Sammie & Rosie Get Laid, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia), internationally renowned artist Sir Anish Kapoor, and musician-composer-producer Nitin Sawhney who has worked with musical ‘fusion-aries’ like Natacha Atlas, Cheb Mami, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and most recently produced the score for Canadian director Deepha Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – a poignant narrative on the agony and the ecstasy of hovering between many states of being.
“Contemporary dance can have more ambiguity which means it can also have many more stories”
DESH (which means homeland in Bangla) starts in a pre-Partition place then moves forward and backward through memories around the birth of modern day Bangladesh and the genesis of the dancer’s career in Great Britain.
When asked after his NAC performance if DESH is based on the biography of his and his father’s lives Akram replies “it was personal, but not so much to be about me but to be universal.” Akram and his team went to Bangladesh to gather stories they could link to his own and from that experience arose DESH. He went on to say that in contemporary dance there is more ambiguity in the delivery so the interpretation is able to hit closer to home for more people regardless of whether the audience has a historical connection to the story.
The miracle of multiplicity.
A day after viewing DESH I found myself at DOPPELGANGING: A Master Class held at Galerie SAW Gallery and facilitated by Kuwati-born Palestianian-American media artist Basma Alsharif. Basma’s Master Class was based on her struggles as an artist and human being to come to terms with her own shifting identity(s). She relates that when in America she would put on her American identity like a cloak. On the family’s yearly visits back to Palestine she would switch her psychological attire. She would flip flop back and forth with desire for the place she wasn’t physically in “living two lives separated from each other but existing at the same time.” She says she began to “perform” her identities “either defending an identity or denying it” and always trying to find a way to solidify all of herself(s).
The Story of Milk and Honey قصة حليب و عسل
“I decided to explore the psychology of endless travel, isolation and escapism…I discovered a letter without an envelope or address”
The question she put to us – is there a way to take this bifurcation of our beings and turn it into a position of strength?
I would argue that many already have.
At a time when we have a multiplicity of narratives these voices did not descend into dissonance, rather they have become a well articulated melody that many hear.
The ability of artists to translate the universality of experience is what helps us remember how to listen to each others words and respect our shared humanity.
We all understand a desire for home, for sovereignty of state, for peace of mind.
Cultural provocateurs, like Akram and Basma, offer us a road map to recover the treasure of deep empathy and a way back to “home”.