September 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Including MOCA’s grand reopening, Nuit Blanche in Scarborough and a monumental light installation at the Bentway
SEPTEMBER 17, 2018
One reason art is good for you: generally, you need to walk around to see it. Do it with a friend, adding conversation to the mix, and you have a program for healthy cogitation.
This fall, the ambitious art lover can get a lot of walking done. Toronto’s arts organizations have a slew of events and exhibitions planned. Some of these take place outdoors as temporary installations. Others are launching new art venues, kicking off fresh prospects for the city’s scene. Below is a list of upcoming events to get excited about – and plan a day’s outing or two.
WILL KWAN, A PARK FOR ALL
At Don River Valley Park Art Program, Lower Don Trail
Summer 2018-Summer 2023
Part of an ongoing series of art commissions for the Don Valley Park, Kwan wrote a text piece that has been writ large on a retaining wall of the Don River. A five-year-long installation, the work reflects on the way public space is defined by the imperfect coexistence of its members.
SARAH MUNRO AND JOSI SMIT, A VIEW TO A ROOM
At Zalucky Contemporary (3044 Dundas West)
September 8-October 6
Munro presents collage works that use photos of the dwellings occupied by Belgian surrealist René Magritte (a Canadian, Munro lives in Belgium). Complementing this is an installation by Toronto’s Smit, evoking the armature of home decor.
GORDON PARKS, THE FLÁVIO STORY
At Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould)
September 12-December 9
This show is about a 1961 Life Magazine exposé that changed the life of a 12-year-old boy from a Rio de Janeiro favela. African-American Parks was a pioneer of photojournalism. He went on to direct Hollywood films, including Shaft.
BETSABEÉ ROMERO, BRAIDED ROOTS/TRENZANDO RAÍCES
At Art Gallery of York University (4700 Keele)
September 13-December 3
Mexican artist Romero developed this sculptural installation at the AGYU after a number of visits to Toronto. It’s result of a series of workshops she did with the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, along with research into Canadian mining practices abroad.
JENEEN FREI NJOOTLI, GABRIELLE L’HIRONDELLE HILL, CHANDRA MELTING TALLOW AND TANIA WILLARD, CONEY ISLAND BABY
At Gallery TPW (170 St Helens)
September 13-November 3
Shot on the territory of the Secwépemc Nation in B.C.’s interior, Coney Island Baby is a collectively authored film, made by four women. Focusing on skills that are often the responsibility of women in Indigenous communities, like the snaring of rabbits, the show also features sculptural installations by two of the artists.
At Koffler Gallery (180 Shaw)
September 13-November 25
A show about “redaction” suggests the long history of political censorship; as an artistic method, however, redaction is essentially collage. As the works in this group show demonstrate, the technique provides endless scope for artists to cut and recombine materials – to bracing effect. Includes Lise Beaudry, Nadia Myre, and Michèle Pearson Clarke.
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, INTERNATIONAL GRAND OPENING WEEKEND
At 158 Sterling
The title says it all. With its move to a new location in the Lower Junction, Toronto’s MOCA is announcing the scale of its ambitions. Its inaugural exhibition, Believe, features celebrated artists like Barbara Kruger, Rajni Perera, Ange Loft and Jeremy Shaw, among others. Occupying five stories in a former aluminum factory, the show is free all weekend.
STYLL AT NUIT BLANCHE
At Scarborough Town Centre and Scarborough Civic Centre
This year, Toronto’s all-night art event includes Scarborough as a location. All projects on view in STYLL – including performances, soundscapes and projections – were made by Scarborough-based artists, or are the result of collaborations between artists and community members or groups. Artists include Hiba Abdallah (also included in the MOCA show), Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere (RISE), Ekow Nimako and Director X.
DAAN ROOSEGAARDE, WATERLICHT
At The Bentway (250 Fort York)
The Bentway presents the Canadian debut of this monumental light work by the acclaimed Dutch artist. Made from LEDs and special projection lenses, it’s part of a series of art-based installations called If, But, What If? running through November under the Gardiner. A range of public programs will accompany it.
JANET MORTON AND MORLEY SHAYUK
At Paul Petro Contemporary Art (980 Queen West)
November 16-December 22
These two solo shows help celebrate the gallery’s 25th anniversary. Morton is known for her knitted works, sometimes at building scale; Shayuk makes fine abstract paintings that often incorporate sculptural elements.
September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
From garages and shipping containers to members’ clubs, art galleries are finding creative ways to carve out space in the city
SEPTEMBER 4, 2018
Artists see possibilities that mere mortals tend to overlook. This is especially true when it comes to finding the space needed for making and showing their work. In today’s real estate market, affordable rental properties are increasingly scarce. As densification increases in Toronto’s urban areas, gentrification now obeys its own logic, one in which everything looks like a condo tower just waiting to be retrofitted.
Long known as first adapters of derelict sites, artists seem less central to the gentrification process than before. Instead, they are devising new ways to carve out the space they need. What follows is a list of tactics used by artists working independently in the city – a place that of course belongs as much as much to them as it does to fat cat developers.
The Akin collective now boasts a 10-year track record of creating affordable space for artists. This includes a new partnership with the about-to -launch Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) that will provide studios for over 30 art professionals. The entire Akin enterprise, which includes a range of art-based programs, is funded through studio rentals – currently, about 30,000 square feet in seven locations across the city. The collective innovated a model where they rent buildings or parts of buildings on an interim basis, moving studios to new locations, as the locations they use get developed. They are having a party on September 6 to celebrate their 10-year anniversary and to raise funds to support their move into MOCA.
A shipping container located in a parking lot at Dupont and Symington, Bunker 2 is collectively run and funded on a project basis. Aside from the initial investment in the container itself, costs are kept low. As co-founder and curator Veronika Ivanova notes, this allows for “more experimentation and spontaneity in programming.”
Europe has an extensive network of Kunstvereins – art clubs, essentially – and membership comes with a modest annual fee. Toronto’s version has partners in New York City, Amsterdam and Milan. KVT’s director, the artist Kara Hamilton, reports that while they initially offered memberships, the model didn’t really fly here. Calling itself a nomadic platform, KVT today raises funds as needed, while partnering with various spaces in the city on a project basis. As important are the publications they make to accompany exhibitions.
Launched this summer, Ma Ma is run by two independent curators, Magdalyn Asimakis and Heather Rigg. Their initial slate of programming is happening in a space in the Junction where they plan to be until November. After that they will look for a new location, also temporary. Upcoming on September 21 at their current location on 300 Campbell is a project by the highly regarded First Nations artist Tanya Lukin Linklater. Entirely financed through crowdfunding, Ma Ma is happy to accept donations at gofundme.com/ma-ma.
These two separate galleries share a basement space on Wade Ave. Both commercial ventures, each is sustained by selling artworks. Run by artist Aryen Hoekstra and designer Kevin Boothe respectively, the galleries present separate programs on alternate months. They decided on a time-share model to lower costs and enable more freedom in programming. Additionally, Towards has an online publishing platform and Franz Kaka is participating at a number of art fairs, including Art Toronto in October.
Located in the alley behind 13 Mansfield Ave near College Street, this garage space is financed by its owners and through donations and art sales. The programming team shows work primarily by new and emerging artists, and foster the ad hoc communities created by the art shows. Through demand, the team has also found that private rentals of the space provide a good, if inconsistent, source of revenue.
KEEP 6 CONTEMPORARY ART
An art collector, curator and entrepreneur, Rafi Ghanaghounian has made art projects in Toronto, New York, Havana, and elsewhere. HOME AWAY HOME, focusing on the newcomer stories of Kensington Market and featuring ten artists, is his most recent venture. Launching September 6 (through September 10), the exhibition can be seen in Kensington’s parks, streets, laneways and art galleries. The show will enhance the Market’s already eclectic atmosphere with public programs, including tours, concerts and family activities.
Originally published in NOW Magazine
September 3, 2018 § Leave a comment
I Love Dick writer talks the importance of labour-of-love publishing ahead of appearance at launch for IMPULSE magazine’s interview compilation
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
Lucky Toronto. The city is getting a reprieve from its tendency toward cultural amnesia with a gorgeous book of interviews, collected from a seminal 80s art magazine. Published from 1971 to 1980, IMPULSE was led by Toronto artist/editor Eldon Garnet and art director Carolyn White.
The book replicates the mag’s distinctive style and features a mind-blowing collection of archival interviews that includes rocker Debbie Harry, cultural theorist Paul Virilio and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All of these figures continue to be influential in today’s culture. Equally influential is the author Chris Kraus, travelling to Toronto for the launch. A lot of her work, some of it made 20-30 years ago, is finding an audience today. Her roman à clef I Love Dick was recently made into an Amazon series by Transparent’s Jill Soloway.
Kraus also has a long relationship with this city, including a column in the art publication C Magazine, from 2001 to 2006. We chatted via email about the importance of local art scenes and labour-of-love publishing.
Is it fair to say you’re something like a literary Neil Young? You’ve managed to stay at the centre of each cultural moment you lived through by transcending it?
That’s high praise! But maybe not really accurate. I was present around the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the early 80s, but mostly as an observer. And then again, around the earlier days of Semiotext(e). I didn’t start being active until the early 90s, and it took a couple of decades for people to take what I was doing then seriously. I think maybe some of the interest in my earlier work, like the films [1982-1996] has to do with the way they carry forward communities that no longer exist into the present.
When you say it took a couple of decades for your work to be taken seriously, you mean recognized beyond the scenes you were working in?
Or recognized at all! Hardly anyone saw the films during the years I was making them.
You say the interest in your early films stems from a curiosity about the communities that produced them. The IMPULSE book definitely carries that charge. I like that Eldon Garnet left the ads in. That context is so important. When you note these communities no longer exist, is that just due to normal churn, or is there something about our current time that is less hospitable to this type of local artistic scene?
Well, maybe both – although you should ask Eldon. I don’t think IMPULSE could exist now in the same way as it did when Eldon and his friends produced it. It came out of a moment and community of people in Toronto when Toronto was cheap. People were also very connected to the cultural worlds in New York and Europe. IMPULSE, like Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) magazine, was a high-stakes/low-stakes game. It was a labour of love, very time-intensive and didn’t rely on grants or institutional funding. The people involved took the magazine very seriously, and it had a tremendous reach and influence.
A high-stakes/low-stakes game is the perfect way describe most art endeavours. From what you know of Toronto’s scene, do you feel it is similar to other local art communities you’ve been a part of?
Yes – it’s famously provincial, but then, so is any art community! Even in a major city like L.A., people create little pockets of community, like Janet Kim and her friends did with their artist-run gallery Tiny Creatures. Everyone’s always saying it’s over, but these scenes are perennial.
Its hilarious and rather charming that, among other luminaries, IMPULSE did an interview with John Kenneth Galbraith, renowned advocate for the Liberal economic order we still enjoy the remnants of today. Shows the magazine was fearlessly ambitious. Should today’s art mags try similar stunts?
Yes, why not? Obviously, IMPULSE had much less to lose than magazines like Artforum or Canadian Art. The work of Eldon Garnet and his collaborators was a great example of moving with the freedom that comes from operating at the margins, rather than complaining about it. I mean, I think that’s how culture happens.
Originally published in NOW Magazine, August 31, 2018
July 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
Including Rebecca Belmore at the AGO, an exhibition all about islands and rotating installations by furniture designer Patty Johnson
Feeling the heat? For temporary relief look to a number of summer-long exhibitions currently on view in the climate-controlled quiet of Toronto art galleries. At their most serious and pointed, art shows create an opportunity to think though the pressing issues of our time. Toronto art institutions frequently provide an influential take on this potential, some of them framing a conversation — about Indigenous issues, for instance — they are helping to lead internationally.
DIAGRAMS OF POWER, OCAD ONSITE GALLERY
July 11-September 30
An exhibition in OCAD’s flagship professional gallery that posits maps, diagrams and other forms of data visualization as the best way to understand the complexity of 21st-century geopolitics. Featuring works by the Anishinaabe art collective Ogimaa Mikana; monumental history painter, Julie Mehretu; and the controversial 2018 Turner Prize nominees, Forensic Architecture, this show is essential viewing for thinking about what representation looks like in a networked world.
A VIEWING ROOM V. 3, SUSAN HOBBS GALLERY
June 21-August 10
This is the third edition of the gallery’s yearly summer look at the intersections between art and design. A rotating series of installations puts the work of furniture designer Patty Johnson in dialogue with art from the gallery’s collection. Toronto-educated Johnson works all over the world and is known for her projects with developing countries to create sustainable design projects for local industries.
ISLAND[S], ART MUSEUM U OF T
July 25-August 18
Visit this gallery and enjoy the oasis of green that is King’s College Circle at the heart of U of T’s downtown campus. This show’s curator, Julie René de Cotret, suggests the island as an apt metaphor for the way artworks solicit our focused attention. Combines work by a selection of younger and emerging artists with that of Michael Snow, the celebrated Canadian artist who has made significant works that frame, parse and contemplate the Canadian landscape throughout his career.
COMMUNITY ART SPACE: RECENT HISTORIES, GARDINER MUSEUM
July 5-September 17
Thanks to its Community Art Space free summer program, now in its third year, this museum dedicated to the ceramic arts is enjoying an enhanced profile amongst Toronto art audiences. Driven by the mission of creating space within the venue for temporary exhibitions and performance-based work, the Gardiner partners with a range of artists, collectives and community groups to present events that tell the stories of the hugely diverse populations that make up this city.
REBECCA BELMORE: FACING THE MONUMENTAL, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO
July 12-October 21
More and more, Canada is acknowledged as leading the global conversation about Indigenous issues in art. This major presentation of the West Coast Anishinaabe artist’s work adds to the dialogue. Presenting art from across Belmore’s career, the show features the artist’s powerful figurative sculptural works, photography and documentation from her trademark performance practice.
ELLEN GALLAGHER – NU-NILE; GRADA KILOMBA – SECRETS TO TELL; ABBAS AKHAVAN – VARIATIONS ON A LANDSCAPE, THE POWER PLANT
June 23-September 3 (Gallagher and Kilomba); June 23-December 30 (Akhavan)
Here is a venue with the added advantage of being next to the lake. Under the direction of Gaëtane Verna, the Power Plant is building a strong track record presenting exhibitions by people of colour. The show presents the internationally renowned Gallagher’s first solo exhibition of paintings in Canada. Also features the 2015 Sobey Art Award winner, Akhavan, who is enjoying increasing recognition abroad, and Portuguese artist, Kilomba, presenting work about the African diaspora.
Published in NOW Magazine, JULY 18, 2018
January 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
From Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama to Indigenous architecture and Nuit Blanche in Scarborough, here are the artists and exhibitions to watch out for this year
Toronto is gaining in confidence, in part because it is learning to appreciate the ways it isn’t like anywhere else. Visit a city that lacks this town’s remarkable and yet unselfconscious multicultural mix and it is bound to seem hopelessly retrograde.
The starting pointing for some highly influential art careers (Michael Snow, General Idea, Peaches), Toronto looks to be on the cusp of something more broad-based: becoming an influential art scene in its own right that leads by example. Here are the names and exhibitions set to make waves – in the city and beyond – in the year ahead.
CARL MARIN AND VERONIKA PAUSOVA
Franz Kaka, January 11 to February 3
Interesting things happen in this small basement space that’s home to not one but two art galleries that alternate shows. (Towards is the name of the other venture.) Sculptures by Marin and beguiling paintings by Pausova bring together geometric abstraction and surrealist figuration.
HERE WE ARE HERE: BLACK CANADIAN CONTEMPORARY ART
Royal Ontario Museum, January 27 to April 11
The ongoing dialogue between Toronto’s cultural institutions and artists about what Canadian identity looks like today includes earlier efforts at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Museum at U of T and the Aga Khan. This presentation at the ROM of works by nine African-Canadian artists features Sandra Brewster, Michèle Pearson Clarke and Chantal Gibson.
YOKO ONO’S THE RIVERBED
Gardiner Museum, February 22 to June 3
At 84, the artist, musician and social activist is a marvel for her ability to keep the language of conceptual art, which she helped to pioneer, relevant. Small gestures like the chance to mend broken crockery create moments for quiet and contemplation. Accompanying the show is a thoughtful slate of Ono-inspired programming featuring music, lectures and performance art.
YAYOI KUSAMA’S INFINITY MIRRORS
Art Gallery of Ontario, March 3 to May 27
Art exhibitions that are genuine events happen too rarely in the city. This show, already an international Instagram sensation, gives Toronto a chance to abandon its cool – and the frenzy has already started. Step inside the kaleidoscopic refractions of a Kusama Infinity Room and get an experience of the sublime not based in nature.
NANCY PATERSON’S THE FUTURE, BEFORE
InterAccess, March 7 to May 5
For its 35th anniversary, this organization for art and technology moves from Ossington to a new, bigger location at 950 Dupont. First up are works by veteran media artist Nancy Paterson, a timely exhibition showcasing this early contributor to discourse about the internet and cyber feminism.
Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens, April 8 to June 3
After getting some significant exposure abroad in two major group exhibitions, this will be the first solo show in a museum for the Toronto-based artist. Belerique forges her own unique aesthetic language by using sculptural installation to reflect on the 2D vocabulary of photography.
UNCEDED: VOICES OF THE LAND
2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, May 26 to November 25
Renowned Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal and Indigenous co-curators Gerald McMaster (of OCAD University) and David Fortin are taking a team of 18 First Nations designers from Turtle Island (Canada and the U.S.) to Venice. Storytelling is a key component of Indigenous culture and will be used as a framework for looking at architecture and its related issues – like habitat and stewardship.
HELEN CHO’S YOU REMAINED DISMEMBERED
Trinity Square Video, summer 2018
Cho presents a new video work from a series made with Tai Lam – a fast food worker who came here as a refugee from Vietnam – combined together with words from the video “re-imagined as poetry,” and sculptural works made with vinyl, salt dough and ceramics.
NUIT BLANCHE IN SCARBOROUGH
This year begins the era of the multipolar Nuit Blanche. A portion of the annual all-night event will move outside the core to the east end. The shift recognizes that the vibrancy of the city is not exclusive to its downtown. Participants include Ghana’s Ibrahim Mahama, known for his use of draped jute sacks as a sculptural material.
UNTITLED ART TV SHOW
To be announced
This has yet to be confirmed, but there have been rumblings that a major broadcast network is working on a documentary series focused on artists who call this city home and those who hail from here and are forging significant careers elsewhere. Purportedly hosted by a local talent and ex-child actor who boasts a Degrassi: The Next Generation credit on his resumé.
January 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
Many of this year’s top exhibitions explored Canada’s colonial legacy, the concept of nationhood and the meaning of monuments
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER, FRAN SCHECHTER DECEMBER 5, 2017
1. Kent Monkman, Shame And Prejudice: A Story Of Resilience, Art Museum at the University of Toronto (January 26-March 5)
In his most integrated and powerful show yet, Monkman deployed history paintings, installations and artifacts to tell the story of Indigenous people in Canada through the eyes of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, his two-spirited alter ego. Though there’s humour in her appearances as a “country wife” and nude model posing with the fathers of Confederation, there’s also a hefty dose of pain and anger in works that dramatize starvation, forced treaties, residential schools, incarceration and murdered women. (The show is touring Canada, opening in Kingston in January, and being adapted into a book.) Fran Schechter
2. Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood, Art Gallery of Ontario (June 29-December 10)
Former AGO Canadian art curator Andrew Hunter and curator Anique Jordan put together this politically charged sesquicentennial show before Hunter resigned to join the Art Gallery of Guelph. Works by mostly Black, Indigenous and Asian-Canadian artists, both emerging and established, dealt with Indigenous perspectives, immigrant dislocation, Black culture and activism, and migrant agricultural workers. We might not see such radicalism at the institution again. FS
3. HERE – Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists, Aga Khan Museum (July 22-January 7)
Go see this show of contemporary work by Canadian artists curated by Swapnaa Tamhane. Then take a look at the museum’s permanent collection. The net effect is to better understand all artworks as cultural artifacts. It’s one of the great accomplishments of this sesquicentennial project, which presents a stunning range of art practices and experiences. It’s hard to think of a better representation of what Canada is today. Featuring work by Derya Akay, George Elliott Clarke, Sameer Farooq, Osheen Harruthoonyan, Nahed Mansour, Nadia Myre, Nep Sidhu and others. Rosemary Heather
4. Raise A Flag: Works From The Indigenous Art Collection (2000-2015), Onsite Gallery at OCADU (September 16-December 10)
In the refurbished gallery, OCADU Indigenous visual culture chair Ryan Rice brought together selections from the federal government’s Indigenous art collection, a 50-year-old program at Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development that hires First Nations curators to acquire artworks that are rarely exhibited. The show highlighted the ongoing cultural strategies Indigenous artists have used in a variety of media to insert their stories into the colonial narrative and keep their creative spirits alive. FS
5. Aude Moreau, Less Is More Or, TD Centre (September 2-4)
Montreal’s Aude Moreau used Labour Day weekend to add giant glowing letters to the Mies van der Rohe masterpiece that is the TD Centre, an icon of modernist architecture. A fitting tribute to the architect’s maxim “Less is more,” Moreau’s repetition of the phrase on multiple facades of the buildings created a monumental artwork that succeeded as both image and physical experience. More artworks of this scale, please. RH
6. Life of a Craphead, King Edward VII Equestrian Statue Floating Down The Don, part of the The Don River Valley Park Art Program (October 29, November 5, 12 and 19)
Perhaps no image better sums up the meaning of Canada’s 150 celebrations than that of artist Jon McCurley in a kayak, towing a half-submerged equestrian sculpture down the Don River. Picked up by wire agencies, this image of a work by artist-duo Life of a Craphead (McCurley and Amy Lam), was seen internationally. A smart contribution to a cultural moment that is seeing old narratives dismantled. RH
7. Deanna Bowen,
On Trial The Long Doorway, Mercer Union (September 15-November 4)
Bowen, a descendant of early 20th-century Black immigrants to Canada from Alabama, brought her unique perspective on Canadian racism to this installation re-enacting a 1956 CBC drama about a Black lawyer defending a white U of T student who’s attacked a Black athlete. Black actors who played against race and gender deconstructed the teleplay in video and occasional live performances that took place in period sets in the gallery. FS
8. Adrian Stimson, Mourning And Mayhem, A Space Gallery (September 26-October 28)
Wanda Nanibush took time out from the AGO to curate this multimedia show by the Saskatchewan-based Siksika artist, his long-overdue first Toronto solo. Stimson here skewered colonial concepts of Indian-ness with a wall of documents about Grey Owl and tourist kitsch. Videos, photos and a sculptural replica of the looming, horned Shaman Exterminator, Stimson’s second alter ego, provided an otherworldly counterpoint to Buffalo Boy, his gender-bending trickster in skins and fishnets. FS
9. Ydessa Hendeles, The Milliner’s Daughter, The Power Plant (June 24-September 4)
What Hendeles does is unique, and her exhibition at the Power Plant rightly celebrated that. Moving from gallerist and collector to curator, she now combines these activities into work as an artist. Highly syncretic, Hendeles’s investigations are informed by a personal set of concerns without ever being limited by them. What results are exhibitions like this first major survey of her output, asking us to consider what the lessons of familial history tell us about the present. RH
10. An Unassailable And Monumental Dignity, CONTACT Gallery (September 21-November 18)
Curating is harder than it looks. This exhibition is a great example of how to do it well. Borrowing a title from a text by James Baldwin, curator Heather Rigg creates a quietly provocative context for the consideration of how images of Black men function in the visual economies of today. A pointed combination of works, the show avoids sensationalism and delivers on the promise of its title. Featuring work by Alexandra Bell, Mohamed Bourouissa, Leslie Hewitt, Aaron Jones and Keisha Scarville. RH
November 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
The Mi’kmaw artist talks about her big prize win, moose fencing and how she became a butterfly
Mi’kmaw artist Ursula Johnson has won this year’s $50,000 Sobey Art Award. It’s a well-deserved win in a strong year for the national art prize, which focuses on artists under 40.
It marked the first time a nominee from the Atlantic region has prevailed. At the ceremony last week, Johnson first addressed the crowd in Mi’kmaq before switching to English because “nobody can understand me but my Mom,” she said.
The speech reflected her artistic approach: opening up traditional practices so they have contemporary relevance.
A member of Cape Breton’s Eskasoni First Nation, the 37-year-old’s art encompasses installation and performance, often incorporating skills learned from her elders, like basket weaving.
Johnson’s installation at the Sobey Art Award exhibition at U of T’s Art Museum is Moose Fence, based on fencing used to prevent animals from straying into traffic. NOW spoke with Johnson about the piece and her wider practice.
Congratulations on the win! How does it feel?
Thank you! I am kind of vibrating with excitement. I can’t believe it.
For any artist who wins this type of prize it must be a shock. It’s so separate
from what you do to win this kind of prize.
Yes. It seems more like what an athlete does – training for competition. Artists are creating things with materials or mediums to try to communicate what’s in our minds. There is no [finish] line.
I really love Moose Fence. Could you talk about it?
I’ve wanted to make Moose Fence for years now, but I needed the right space, one with an intersecting gallery to disrupt movement of people so the work could convey the idea I was interested in. This type of fence is very familiar for people in Eastern Canada. It has an ominous feel because it represents a dangerous situation for animals – specifically ungulates or animals with hoofed feet. I wanted to create that feeling for humans. I want visitors to think about these barriers we create between us and nature.
Visitors can choose to go inside the cage or not – nobody wants to be inside a cage, and neither do moose. So it points out that we have this power over animals.
Absolutely. I wanted to create a situation where people couldn’t tell at first – if they entered the cage – that there was a way out. If they are not familiar with this type of undulate gate, they don’t know it’s a one-way gate. There’s a moment of panic maybe before they realize there are also doors on the side. This introduces something that features a lot in my practice. You might ask someone to help – you collaborate.
This project also connects to your basket weaving performances. There’s one where you weave a basket so by the end you are enclosed by it. This implies you are only a part of the tradition you are working within.
My family are basket weavers. Once I started to explore this, it led me down a whole different path, being able to spend time with the elders in my community and my great grandmother and following them around with video cameras. I learned some important life lessons by asking them things like, “How does this relate to conservation practices and sustainability?”
The first time I did [the basket weaving performance] I was in art school, and I had the punk rock hair and piercings in my face. I thought, “I’m going to do something really on the edge,” and I went to ask my great grandmother if it would be okay. She laughed hysterically and said, “That’s going to be a really big basket!”
It was at an Indigenous art festival in Halifax at Dalhousie [University]. I worked for three days and struggled with it horribly. At one point, I looked up at people on a balcony who were looking down on me – these Maliseet First Nations women who were basically laughing at me. I felt so humbled and went up to them and said, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I really need some help.” They helped me and that was an important lesson. So many people engaged in this beautiful process and that propelled the entire way that I work now.
How did you get out of the basket in the end?
I fell onto the floor and lay there for a bit. Then I crawled out the bottom. I thought, “Oh, I’ve emerged from my cultural cocoon. I’m no longer a larva – I’m a butterfly now.”
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
NOW MAGAZINE OCTOBER 31, 2017
More about the 2017 Sobey Prize here.
More information about Ursula Johnson here.