Saturday, April 23 Carleton University will convene conversations on conservation
Last year I attended an engaging symposium on heritage conservation put on by Carleton University Students. Last year’s theme was Unsettling Heritage. This year the conversation will be focused on New Identities / Voices in Conservation and will pose the questions:
Whose heritage are we conserving?
Whose heritage is being unrepresented or underrepresented in the heritage conservation discourse of the 21st century?
“This theme aims to critically address missing identities and voices in the heritage field and/or highlight alternative stories and perspectives in heritage conservation.”
“In recent years, the identification and conservation of cultural heritage resources—the built environment, cultural landscapes, or intangible heritage—by heritage professionals, has needed to expand and broaden its understanding of community histories to address the plurality and the multi-narratives that exist in our communities. Events such as: the release of the Final Report on Residential Schools by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Occupy movement, the protests for gender equality rights, the push for youth engagement in civic duties (voting), and the global issue of refugees and immigration, have recently highlighted some of these ignored or unknown identities and voices that exist, and which have been underrepresented or unrepresented in the field of heritage conservation.” Read more…
Online registration closes tomorrow at noon. Tickets will also be available at the venue door Mill Street Brewery, 555 Wellington Street, Ottawa.
WHERE: Mill Street Brewery, 555 Wellington Street WHEN: Saturday, April 23 from 9:00 am to 4 pm COST: $15 Students / $45 General Admission (Online Registration) $20 Students / $50 General Admission (At the Door)
Mixed Bag Mag joins Artists & Curators from Canada at the Venice Biennale.
Mixed Bag Mag has been invited by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto to participate in the Creative Time Summit 2015 at the Venice Biennale. The Creative Time Summit’s theme this year is “Curriculum” and “throughout the Summit, conversations on curriculum will examine the social, infrastructural, administrative, and private conditions under which knowledge is produced and intertwined with social contracts.”
Mixed Bag Mag’s coverage will focus on how art has the potential to change the way we engage with social and political issues. With the appointment of Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor as the head curator, this year’s Biennale has taken on a more political tone. He is the first African to be in this position. He has pushed the discussion around immigration and economy using the vehicle of art. I will be exploring his curatorial approach to engaging with the intersections of art, politics and commerce.
10 Artists from Canada will also be attending along with The Power Plant Delegation.
• Adrian Blackwell (Ontario)
• Deana Bowen (Ontario)
• Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge (Ontario)
• Jen Delos Reyes (Manitoba)
• Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky, of Public Studio (Ontario)
• Justin Langlois (British Colombia)
• Duane Linklater (Ontario)
• Nadia Myre (Quebec)
Thank you to The Power Plant for this opportunity. Also thank you to each of organizations that made it possible for this trip to happen! Thanks to Galerie SAW Gallery in Ottawa for their support.
The Sahmat Collective is another great show at the AGM!
I recently had the chance to get in to the AGM to see this incredible show. The Art Gallery of Mississauga isn’t exactly small and it isn’t exactly large but it seems to be the optimal amount of space and it’s always beautifully utilized. The corridor that takes you into the main gallery feels like an intimate welcome that primes you for what lies ahead. There is also a cave-like alcove that works perfectly for video installations. Every time I see an exhibit here I am impressed!
The AGM is a gallery that is doing a tremendous job making their institution relevant to the broader community of Mississauga – one of the most culturally diverse in Canada. Their current exhibit The Sahmat Collective: Art & Activism in India since 1989 uses up almost every available surface in the gallery to create a time capsule of India at a moment in her history when culture clashes were reaching a boiling point.
“Since 1989, the influential Delhi based Sahmat Collective has offered a platform for artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, and activists to create and present works of art that promote artistic freedom and celebrate secular, egalitarian values. The collective formed in the weeks after playwright, actor,and activist Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked by political thugs while performing a street play. In the more than twenty years since, Sahmat has drawn on India’s secular heritage and an expansive group of collaborators to produce a series of projects that engage in important political and social debates through a mix of high art and street culture.”Read more…
I walked through the show with a friend who had grown up in Gujarat. As a Muslim she had memories of the religious conflicts. The exhibit timeline reached back to touch her early childhood. The Sahmat Collective was the result of a reaction to what was taking place around her, her family and others at this time.
In urban settings where much of the population comes from abroad arts institutions can become midwives for the emergence of memories that provide a link to the motherland left behind. Galleries can give the members of their community an emotionally deep experience by participating with memory, not as nostalgia, but rather as place to locate dialogue that can impact social change here in Canada.
As part of the programming for The Sahmat Collective show the AGM did just that. “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally” was a panel discussion on “Art, Activism and Artist Collectives” that included Canadian artist duo Condé + Beveridge activists / artists whose careers stretch back even father than 1989. The panel posed the question:
“What is the role of the artist collective and what is the relationship between art and activism from both a global and local perspective?”
Galleries should also be looking at the spiritual topography that New Canadians layer onto the land as a way to be relevant to more diverse audiences. “Stories of our Landscape | Conversations after Sahmat” was an event that brought people out to ride along in the “Architecture Bus Tour” for “an introduction to the migration of various religious architectural traditions to the Mississauga cityscape.”
The exhibit curated by Jessica Moss and Ram Rahman and presented by University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art was
“animated by the urgent belief that art can propel change and that culture can reach across boundaries. Sahmat has offered a platform for an expansive group of artists and collaborators to present powerful works of art that defend freedom of expression and battle intolerance within India’s often divisive political landscape. Based out of Delhi, the Sahmat Collective uses a combination of high art and street art to resist forces that threaten the pluralist and democratic spirit of creative expression in India. In conjunction with this exhibition, the Art Gallery of Mississauga presents programming that interprets exhibition themes within the Canadian context to critically examine the role of the artist collective, the relationship between art and activism and the ways in which art has the capacity to make change.” Read more…
In plurality their is unity. With unity comes strength.
The Sahmat Collective: Art & Activism in India since 1989 closes this weekend October 19.
Meeting with the Thursday Group of H’Art of Ottawa right before heading into the holiday weekend was a great idea. If anyone knows a thing or two about being thankful and present in a moment of appreciation it’s these women. Open arms welcoming me and lots of parting hugs as I said my goodbyes is what I got from the women who are part of one of the Ottawa Art Gallery’s current exhibits – Open Spaces.
In Open Spaceseach artist of H’Art’s Thursday group got a chance to dive into the online archives of the Firestone Collection for their inspiration. OAG is now the custodian of the collection that was begun by O.J. and Isobel Firestone, an Ottawa family that valued Canadian artists. They began collecting in the 1950s and their collection expanded to 1,600 works of art. The artists in the collection include names like Emily Carr, Paul-Émile Borduas, and Rita Letendre – names that show the diversity of background and style of artists working during the 20th Century in Canada. Rotating selections from the collection are always on view at Ottawa’s City Hall Art Gallery (the current home of the OAG Annex) and at OAG’s Firestone Gallery (where this exhibit is being held) but this show engages with the collection in a unique way. Each artist was asked to pull from the collection work that they would combine in a grouping with their own.
Curator Stephanie Nadeau (Curator of Public, Educational and Community Program at OAG) had already spent time volunteering with the women and had a strong rapport with the artists prior to the production of the show. Her special connection with the artists (Malinda Caron, Anna Coulombe, Jenny Francis, Carol Gregory, Christine Hammond, Jessie McComb, Debbie Ratcliffe, Alexa Vanveen, and Mandy Wellman) was evident the moment she stepped into the H’Art studio at the Bronson Studio last Thursday. It had only been a week since the opening but they expressed how much they were already missing Stephanie and her positive presence in their art practices.
Under Stephanie’s guidance the women explored the digital archives to find works that spoke to them. Sometimes the searches were straightforward and other times more serendipitous. For Jessie McComb, who loves the ways ducks form V patterns as they fly, a random photo from a Google image search became part of her grouping that also includes works by Jacques de Tonnancour, A.J. Casson and AY Jackson. In a vitrine Jessie partnered Florence Wyle’s small plaster and iron casts Totem with her collection of rubber ducks. For her birds are the most beautiful thing and on Thursday she showed me a stunning new work of a circle of feathers looping back into each other.
An older work by Jenny Francis (The Smiling Pig) includes her signature motif of repetitive lines. The same lines are echoed in one piece she chose for her grouping – Norval Morriseau’s Bear-Fish. Jenny is a quiet spirit but her work is complicated and layered. Worlds inside worlds – you could spend hours exploring her visual vocabulary.
Debbie Ratcliffe (aka “The Dragon Lady”) likes to construct elaborate narratives in her paintings that are informed by the novels she reads. I love Debbie’s technique of grounding the images that build her story on top of an inky background. The way she renders her colourful compositions to involve her storytelling articulates her outgoing personality. What I found interesting about the choices she made was that for how detailed her own work is are she decided to pair her pianting with simple compositions – two paintings of landscapes (Alan Collier’s Near Squamish, B.C as well as H’Art artist Malinda Caron’s Mexico) and two paintings of homes (Alan Collier’s On the Spit, Homer, Alaska and Bay St. Lawrence, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). For Debbie the image of a home is symbolic of life.
Malinda Caron selected an AY Jackson drawing of an iceberg because it made her recall a beautiful memory she had of seeing icebergs on a trip she took. It’s lovely piece that I have to say I much prefer over Jackson’s sketch! Malinda was really touched by her experience working with Stephanie, who she says is like a big sister. Along with working with her “big sister Steph” Malinda appreciates that each week she can create alongside her best friend of almost 15 years, Alexa Vanveen.
Alexa Vanveen’s way of engaging with the collection was to include a sound component. Some of the other ensembles include audio of the women sharing background about their work but here, in front of Alexa’s choices, she encourages us to have a seat and pause for awhile. Beatles tunes pump through the headphones while viewing Philip Surrey’s Listening to Music and three of Alexa’s own pieces – The Great Blueberry Pie, Strawberry Cheesecake with Lemon Squares and Music is My Life!
Relax for while and enjoy the space she has created for us to sit with the work.
Carol Gregory rediscovered her love of architecture and passion for buildings. As a child she was an avid reader on ancient architecture. Her choices from the Firestone Collection were works of small buildings against expansive horizons but in the works she produced after engaging with the collection she reflects the contemporary reality of how Canada has shifted from a rural population to an urbanized one. Her buildings are bigger and in Happy Day in Old Montrealthe horizon is completely erased from view.
Anna Coulombe is another H’Art collective artist who is interested in both landscapes and cityscapes. Her paintings are vibrant. She works with a gorgeous palette we don’t often see used to depict the landscape of Canada. I applaud Anna’s breaking with tradition and seeing the world through rainbow-coloured glasses! You can understand her selection of Marian Scott’s Quebec Fields from 1932 – kindred spirits connecting to each other through lines, form and most obviously colour!
Mandy Wellman asks us “Imagine that the sunset came close to you?” On the gallery wall beside her striking drawing of a section of the sun’s rays the question is written and posed to us. The work that she showed me at the studio was a collection of drawings on paper that incorporated great use of lines so it is of no surprise that she selected two Marian Scott works (Untitled, 1968 and Untitled, 1969) to partner with her own.
The biggest hugger of the bunch is Christine Hammond and much like Debbie, she is a storyteller as much as she is a painter. Her paintings are filled with an array of animals going about their business. Illustrative in nature, she paints what she loves most! “I had a lion fetish as a kid and still do!”
One of the curatorial decisions Stephanie made with the assistance of the group was to have the signature of each artist cut in vinyl and placed on the wall. Another way that delineates each woman’s grouping is a band of colour at the base of the wall. Each artist decided on the colour that would represent them. A decision was also made to include audio of the women’s voices speaking to us about their practice, their passions, and their memories. The group process resulted in these meaningful details that allowed for each artist to mark the space in their own individual way resulting in nine distinct vignettes of nine wonderful women.
Before we left the studio that day the group presented Stephanie with a painting they knew she admired because it reminded her of organ pipes (Stephanie’s dad is in the organ business!). “Stephanie you are someone we trust more than anyone and you are always welcome here” Christine shared from her heart then the rest of the group chimed in with their praise for a woman who has become near and dear to them.
And along with their presentation to Stephanie came numerous farewell embraces. Through them and their process as artists we can learn a lot about warmth of the human spirit. Their openness and the generousity in the space they provide is both their asset in life and the gift they give to us.
Thank you Jessie, Jenny, Debbie, Malinda, Alexa, Carol, Anna, Mandy and Christine for a great morning!
Ladies – I will be back!
Past history and present tense invoked with installations at Fort York, Toronto.
Today we know of Fort York as the (barely visible) small patch of green space that buffers the expansive condo development that now grinds against the north and south sides of the Gardiner and barricades us from a view of the sky.
In 1793 the plan for a garrison was put into place by John Graves Simcoe. At the time, Niagara was the capital of the province but Simcoe felt that Toronto was a more suitable place for a naval base that would protect the area from the possibility of an American attack. Soon after, it was decided to move the base again – to Kingston – but a community had already developed around the area and by 1800 there was a residence built for the lieutenant-governor on the site.
In the spring of 1813 the Fort was attacked by the Americans. Both the Indigenous nations of the Mississaugas and the Ojibwa assisted Canadian and British forces to keep the Americans at bay but in the years the followed Fort York was continually attacked and occupied by American Forces. Eventually, due to the victory of the British in the War of 1812, Fort York became a more stabilized community that grew to become the settlement that was renamed Toronto in 1934, from the Kanienke’haka (Mohawk) word Tkaronto meaning “the place in the water where trees are standing.”
Two centuries of peace have passed but the site still remains to commemorate the battles and lives lost.
It has also become a great place to showcase dramatic and large scale art and performance.
Luminato does Fort York.
In 2012, as part of the commemoration of the 200 years since the war of 1812, Luminato staged a massive art install at the Fort called “The Encampment.”
“Marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812, The Encampment is both a luminous large-scale art installation and a kind of metaphoric archaeological dig—one that unearths not physical artefacts but long-buried shards and strands of human experience. Conceived as a “temporal village,” the installation comprises 200 A-frame tents pitched on the grounds of Fort York, which fell to U.S. forces during the war. Each tent contains an installation by one of 200 artistic collaborators, selected via an open call for contributors. Each creates a visual representation of an aspect of the war’s civilian history, gleaned from research into real-life stories of family, love, loss, survival, patriotism, collaboration and betrayal. Visible at a distance from several downtown locations, the massive assemblage of tents presents a wondrously glowing sculptural landscape. Explored at close quarters and through social activations, it offers poignant insights into the lives of ordinary people swept up in the epic drama of history.” More info…
Kaha:wi Dance Theatre participates in remembering and honouring the lost lives.
“Body of War reflects on how man becomes a soldier through the relentless repetition of acts of violence. What happens to the psyche as it learns to transgress social principles and integrates the willingness to kill? Set in the geography of the Normandy Landings and punctuated by testimonies of retired and serving soldiers, a mis-en-scene of visceral hand-to-hand combat is gradually deconstructed. The viewer is invited to engage in the relationship between human intimacy and the brutality of war choreography.
CHIC POINT by Sharif Waked (Nazareth, Palestine / Israel) Video Installation
“Chic Point ponders, imagines, and interrogates “fashion for Israeli Checkpoints.”
Male models expose body parts – lower backs, chests, abdomens – peek through holes, materials and standard clothes are transformed into pieces that follow normative fashion standards while calling them into question. Chic Point bares the loaded politics of the gaze as it documents the thousands of moments in which Palestinians are forced to undress in the face of interrogation, as they attempt to move through the intricate and constantly expanding network of Israeli checkpoints.”More info…
“The work is an attempt to explore world orders that defy geo-political definition. A red carpet-flag allows the audience to experience the glamour of walking down the catwalk, while unexpectedly being confronted with different political ideas regarding the fall of a totalitarian system.”More info…
MELTING POINT, 2014 by LeuWebb Projects (Toronto), Jeff Lee (Toronto), & Omar Khan (Toronto) Light Installation
“Located on the original shore of Lake Ontario, Fort York was built for defense. Over time, the Fort has stood its ground against enemy advances, expressways and condos as the lake’s edge has pushed further away. Situated in this context of protection and resistance is Melting Point, a sound and light based installation. Melting Point stocks a pair of cannons with an artillery of glowing good feelings, in the form of sparkling tributaries of light pouring from the mouths of the old weapons. Accompanied by a chorus of rolling waves and trilling harps, the work lays a defense agsinst the swirling market forces beyond, countering hard with soft and dark with light and creating a safe space for Art.”More info…
“Mismatched chairs are gathered from households for re-creation of the moment of a family function. Initiated by the audience, the movement of these objects creates the sounds of a family shuffling their chairs into position at the table.
The mirrored floor captures the physical reflections of the audience and the chairs, imbued with personal nostalgia, thus becoming the medium that retains and reflects private experience and memory.” More info…
BRIGHT BUNDLE 2014
“Bright Bundle is a light sculpture ablaze with pulsating light and sound representing the past and present of growth, prosperity, culture and the future. Set in the centre of Fort York, this 1000 metre ribbon of LED lights will glow and pulsate in a golden-white colour seen from a distance and beckon audiences from surrounding pathways towards it to bath in the glow of its pulsating lights and sound.”More info…
Wishing everyone a safe (and dry) night!
NOTE:Ascendant Line & Melting Point will continue to be on display until October 13.
“Before Day Break contemplates a sensitive artistic practice. Evoking the complexity of life itself, artists from diverse regions will offer singular perspectives in an attempt to cover different angles of reality. Through these practices they enable the audience to turn the ordinary into extraordinary artistic memory. Like the pixels in a photograph, human relationships, religion, socio-political and cultural behaviour are among the themes used to present a deeper message that speaks to the universality of the human experience. Motivated to challenge and surprise the viewer’s expectations, this vibrant environment will invite reflection on contemporary history, while juxtaposing it to Canada’s quest for inclusion and plurality. All of this leads to satisfaction of the eye and the intellect.Before Day Break defends and trusts the restorative power of art.” More info…
All images above by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag unless otherwise noted.
Theaster Gates moderated by Pamela Edmonds of Third Space Art Projects
Whenever I bring up the “Urban Field Series” with my Toronto artist, designer and curator friends everyone remembers a talk they went to that was phenomenal. This annual series brings to Toronto cultural provocateurs from around the world to discuss how culture grafts its expressions onto the urban space.
This Thursday Prefix welcomes Theaster Gates to Toronto.
“[Theaster Gates] the award-winning artist and director of the Arts and Public Life initiative, University of Chicago, speaks about his extraordinary community projects that critically engage with the public, including Dorchester Projects, a cluster of abandoned buildings on Chicago’s South Side that has been transformed into a vibrant cultural locus. Moderated by Pamela Edmonds, independent curator. Presented by Prefix and Third Space Art Projects.”
Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art
401 Richmond Street West, Suite 124
Toronto, M5V 3A8
Doors Open at 7 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the door.
$8 Prefix Photo subscribers, students & seniors
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.”
From Haida artist Robert Davidson to American artist Kara Walker Mixed Bag Mag covered a lot of artistic ground.
My art muscle is damn strong! In 4 days I was able to cover (almost) everything. It was a major marathon (Bed-Stuy to Manhattan – up to Harlem – back to Brooklyn) but I arrived at the finish line inspired by all that New York has to offer right now.
It was the small-but-mighty shows that grabbed my attention the most and made me regret that I wouldn’t be staying longer.
& of course Surveillapocalypse with the 007 Collective and artCodex at Five Myles Gallery Brooklyn. The work of Brooklyn based artist David Wallace was beautiful to witness.
I have been around the world – East Berlin during the Reunification of Germany, L.A. during the Rodney King riots, even Johannesburg leading up to the elections where Mandela’s win changed the course of history…
…but never New York!
Sometimes living close by a place makes you take it for granted. This trip was about righting that wrong and finally showing some love to New York. And the timing couldn’t have been better for gathering MIXED BAG MAG style content! Also on the agenda was Kara Walker’s A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn as well as seeing Ai Wei Wei’s According to What for a second time at the Brooklyn Museum. It was interesting comparing this iteration of the show to last year’s at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Another chance at comparison will be when the AGO hostsBefore and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, currently on at the National Museum of the American Indian.
When you deep dive into a city’s art scene to explore different neighbourhoods with their private galleries, artist-run centres and national institutions you witness how much art enriches the lives of the inhabitants as well as the visitors. Life wouldn’t be as wonderful without artists!
I got a little lazy pulling out my clunky pro camera so I decided instead to capture New York thru the lightness of a cell cam. Here is just a small sampling of what I experienced. There will be more trips south of the border in an effort to uncover how artists transform urban spaces and cultural places but for this moment I was just a 21st Century flâneur with a phone.
Maria Hupfield stands in front of “Splash” a sculpture by Haitian-American artist Engles.
Left to right: Actor / Writer Cliff Cardinal, youth worker Rob Chief, co-creator of huff Elizabeth Kantor and Sarah Garton Stanley, Associate Artistic Directory of English Theatre at the NAC.
Bravo to the National Arts Centre / Centre National Des Arts Ottawa for creating safe spaces for tough conversations.
As the Q & A (Talk Back) session wrapped up after NAC’s Tuesday night performance of huff Sarah Garton Stanley (Associate Artistic Directory of English Theatre at the NAC) passionately declared “We are so proud of having this piece and it’s a piece we want everyone to see!”
If you don’t know about huff it’s a play by Cliff Cardinal that explores what he believes is the most taboo subculture existing in Canada – Aboriginal children who are addicted to solvents. And because of the subject matter the play is understandably intense and difficult to watch. Cliff’s strategy of immediately making the audience complicit as witnesses pulls people in so they can’t back out despite the uncomfortableness. It’s the right tactic because now Canadians can no longer say they aren’t aware of issues facing First Nations children. This country’s shame is ever present in the media and as witnesses we have a moral obligation to be part of the process that will lift this intergenerational burden off these children.
Local Métis artist and tour guide Jaime Koebel (www.indigenouswalks.com) was so moved by the play seeing it once wasn’t enough. She has now seen it three times in order to absorb what Cliff accomplished with this piece. She says:
“Cardinal’s ability to take on 16 characters in a one hour time span mirrors the intensity of the content within the show itself and provides a peephole’s view of life on a reserve soaked in destitution. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the fact that Cardinal is presenting this play at all is a testament to the resiliency of the fastest growing population in Canada.”
When a gentleman in the audience asked “Is there any way of knowing that we are progressing in the treatment of Aboriginals” panelist Rob Chief, a youth worker, answered “Cliff is here [performing the play] and you are here [watching].” Perhaps for all the steps forward that seem to follow with several steps back, slowly but surely, there is an illumination that leads out of the darkness and artists are leading the way!
A friend who accompanied me was impressed by all the interconnecting issues that were touched on beyond the issue of addiction – the educational system on the reserves, poverty as well as incest. “The parts on incest were hard to watch but these are the things we should be talking about because it is the first step to collectively contribute to the solution.”
She feels that “having these stories on stage is a good starting point to build connections between First Nations people and Canadians around the issues” and she “appreciated that all of the people on the panel mentioned that this is all of our history.” She reflects that “by watching a play like huff and talking about these stories we create the on-going dialogue that needs to happen.”
An experience that leaves you with action steps as to how you can help.
Another strategy Cliff and co-creator Elizabeth Kantor deployed was to have resources on hand for each person in the audience to leave with. These resources give lists of organizations, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, that provide services around these issues. They also gives online links you can visit to read up and become more informed.
This was the most effective part of the performance – the “Talk Back” and provision of educational and support tools. So often we leave a performance (or film or lecture) dealing with heavy topics stunned by what we have just discovered but also lost as to how we can grapple with it. To create an experience that goes beyond just a performance to ensure the audience walks away with action steps as well as support is a strategy I hope to see more of.
I love that the NAC understands the important role they play in fostering these types of safe spaces! Sarah provided the audience with name after name of Aboriginal artists who “shine a path by either entering into the academy [to teach arts education with a different perspective] or not entering but teaching in their own way.” These are the cultural provocateurs who will lead this country to a renewed place.
So the future is hopeful but only if we all reach into our deepest empathetic places. I had some trouble with the play’s ending and final message that the help the main character needed lay just beyond in the spirit world because the help needed in these desperate times lies in the here and now. We need to make intentional decisions around moments when we are intimately faced with another person’s pain to that turn the experience into action.
When asked by an audience member “What do you think can be done?” Cliff addressed us all by saying “In this room you each know people who have influence, perhaps you yourself have influence. Give your time. Write a cheque. I know you can come up with something! I don’t have the answers but I know you have the solution!”
huff runs until Saturday. Performances are as follows: