By Jill Glessing
Promotion for “Canada 150” – marking the inception of the colonial enterprise of the “Dominion of Canada” and its unequal union with Quebec – was tepid, perhaps foretelling the inevitable response: a hundred and fifty years old – really? The land, of course, had been inhabited a little longer than that – about twelve thousand years – by Indigenous peoples.
This foundational model – of palimpsest or wax tablet – the processes of overlay, reinscription, and erasure, and the resultant friction could be seen in relation to many of CONTACT 2017’s primary and featured exhibitions.1 Responding to that nationalist celebration, some exhibitions in the festival, which bore the title “Focus on Canada,” prompted gentle fondness for the country’s lands and communities – both settler and mixed. Other significant exhibitions attended to the darker underside – pointing to patriarchal and white power and the chafing friction related to racial and gender violence. Particularly prominent were Indigenous artists, whose activist works revisited their history as Kanata’s first peoples and the natural world they inhabited.
A gentler perspective on Canadian cultural identity was offered by Katherine Knight’s archaeological dig into the literal and rhetorical fabric of domestic Nova Scotia culture via a rural folk art: needlework mottos. These ornately colourful aphorisms in Gothic script were produced from the mass-produced punched-paper patterns popular around the turn of the twentieth century. Collaborating with Knight in Portraits and Collections, the Textile Museum of Canada displayed a large selection of framed fabrics with their embroidered wisdom, such as “What is a Home without a Father?” (or, variously, “a Cat”), drawn from a much larger collection of 173 pieces that once covered the pastel walls of a home overlooking Caribou Harbour. Knight added layers to these historical artefacts through her excavation project Caribou Mottoes (2006, ongoing), presented here in mixed-media format. Three small square photographs showed light-filled interiors, their walls covered with the framed needlework pieces; large photographic closeups of individual framed pieces were paired with images of their messy reverses, released from their frames, revealing stray threads and old newspaper backing. Two audio-video works further fleshed out the story: an evocative triptych meditation on the sea and the passing of old ways of life focused on bobbing buoys, their original warning bells destined for replacement by digital sound (Buoy, 2003); in another, the needlework pieces were coupled with voices of women and girls in the community reading their inscriptions.
Three video works by Johann Hallberg-Campbell capturing imagery from the other two Canadian seacoasts – Arctic and Pacific – were installed in a small alcove in his Harbourfront Gallery exhibition, Coastal (2010, ongoing). The relatively abstract imagery of Arctic, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories (2016) – aerial views of snow-covered expanses and closer captures of roiling seawater with accompanying sea and bird sounds – was more poetic than were the conventional colour photographs of coastal peoples and places that crowded the remaining walls in collage format…
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