CLOSING THIS WEEKEND: Making Otherwise – Craft and Material Fluency in Contemporary Art at Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa

woman weaving basket shape on head of man, sitting outside

The Art of Craft at the CUAG in Ottawa.

“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.”

Long shot of gallery with art installationsPhoto 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.

Image of what looks like wooden chair and planks but is actually porcelainWhen 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.long shot of installation of what looks like wood objects in old antique style shed or wrecking yardPorcelain bowl with classical style of painting of man reclining like an odalisque Porcelain bowl with classical style of painting of man reclining like an odalisque Porcelain bowl with classical style of painting of man reclining like an odalisque 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.

Upclose shot of bronze cast drooping tulips rising from a paisley upholstered couch
long shot of bronze cast drooping tulips rising from a paisley upholstered couch 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.

woman weaving basket shape on head of man, sitting outside

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.

woman weaving basket shape on head of man, sitting outside
woman weaving basket shape on head of man, sitting outside
woman weaving basket shape on head of man, sitting outsideAbove 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.

woman weaving basket shape on head of man, sitting outside

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.

Image of what looks like wooden chair and planks but is actually porcelain

Also in the show are artists Richard Boulet and Janet Morton.

The exhibit will tour to the following locations:

Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in Halifax, NS
(9 October – 30 November 2014)

Cambridge Galleries, Cambridge, ON (10 April – 17 May 2015)

Above image of Richard Boulet’s “Keeps it All Neat and Tidy” by Justin Wonnacott, courtesy of the artist.

Follow CUAG on twitter @CUArtGallery and Facebook.


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.

SOMETHING ABOUT CANADA: An interview with Deepa Mehta

Deepa Mehta In Profile by Nettie Wild, National Film Board of Canada

In this short NFB interview with Canadian Director Deepa Mehta she comments that there is something about Canada, the physical and emotional space that gives the Indian born director “room to breathe.”

“Canada has its own values, which are very different from the values I grew up with and I like that conflict as well.”

Deepa speaks on how she uses the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian instructional text for artists and performers, as the base for her actors’ character development process.

A grid of the 9 “pure” emotions is drawn with chalk on the floor, silence being the centre that anchors all the emotions together.

 “Then it’s very easy for the actors to actually walk through with their lines and interpret it through every different emotion and maybe put one foot in bravery and one foot in cowardice and how would you say your line then? One in hatred and one in love? Or one without saying anything?”

When watching her films you can see how this process allows her cast to add incredible depth to the characters.

“Heaven on Earth”, Deepa’s film on the subject of spousal abuse, is one where the characters utilize the emotion of silence to add an intensity that dialogue would not have been able to achieve. Through frustrated, awkward and often palatable silence something deafening is heard.

“All art is political. We all know that and it should be but it has to be about a story; it has to be about real people within that story that are maybe dealing with an issue.  It has to be honed in and represented by something that is living, breathing, that talks,that stops, that decides to sit in a corner and weep. Issues are boring. Feelings are important.”