Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Black Panther –Hype or Racial Equity?

A scene from “Black Panther.”Matt Kennedy/Marvel — Disney 

I have a weakness for superhero films and I am a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel fan.  So, of course I had to go and see Black Panther.  Typically, I go as close to the film’s release date as possible so I can sit in the cinema with an audience of like-minded fans and share in their enthusiasm.  We are like an unofficial club and it’s very easy to separate the hardcore from the casual among us.  Who watches for the Stan Lee cameo?  Who waits until after the credits roll to catch the teaser for the next film in the sequence? –not to be confused with the previews before the film.  And then we all stand around and trade notes.

Much has been made of the Black Panther film as being “the first Black Superhero film”.  The problem with that pitch is that it’s just not true.  What about Blade in Tomb of Dracula in January 1973?  I thought it was interesting that Wesley Snipes, who played Blade, came out and said that he wanted to make Black Panther 20 years ago but was unable to for a varied of reasons.  Oh!  I forgot about Luke Cage in Hero for Hire in 1972.  And then there was Storm in 1975; many will remember Haile Berry playing her in the X-Men trilogy.

The iconic image of Black Panther crouched on the hood of a pursuing vehicle  (in the film) struck  me as downright funny.  I thought it looked like a pun on the Jaguar hood ornament…indirect product endorsement?

One of my favourite scenes in the film took place in a museum.  In it, the film’s villain comes to reclaim an artifact that originally belonged to his tribe.  I got a kick at the banter between the museum curator and villain and all the post-colonial digs.  I am not going be a spoiler and tell you how the scene ends because I want you to see it for yourself.

Oh and as for me and comic books, we go back far enough that I remember when I could spend 12 cents of weekly allowance and buy one.  I never bought Archie like the other girls.  I went for Marvel or Golden Key.  I first discovered Plato’s philosophy in Golden Key. Here’s to encouraging kids to read!

Monday, 5 February 2018

Canada 150 From an Atlantic Perspective

Late last week my copies of the winter 2017 issue of Billie magazine arrived in the snail mail.  This issue focuses on the Atlantic perspective on the art-related 150 celebrations of Canada’s Confederation. It is much more than a reporting of events or a string of reviews. Editor Terry Graff really pulled this one off and the result is an unusually cohesive and nuanced interpretation–well worth a read.

The cover aptly presents a close up of Alan Sylboy’s Mi’Kmaq Signposts (Our Common Woods project) and Syliboy is interviewed by Managing Editor Cheryl Bell about his entire career.  The Indigenous perspective is felt through out the issue.

I have an article in this issue about the Bonavista Biennale, which was a month-long event that stretched over 55 kilometres and 22 exhibits and countless events.  One of the difficulties of writing an overview is that you cannot possibly cover everything within your word budget.  Not to mention, that a writer worth her salt knows that you have to ferret out what is meaningful and enduring beyond the who, what, where, when and why reportage.

What I decided to pull out of the dazzling array of exhibits was the curatorial match-making of artist to site and the relationship of the local people in the rural communities to the art.  I was especially interested in the art as a form of intervention.

It was genuinely rewarding to see so much good art in nontraditional venues and to see nonart professionals taking pride and ownership as animators, interpreters and hosts.

Here is a taste of some of what I wrote:
Pam Hall, Re-Seeding the Dream East, 2017 site-specific commission

Many of the artists were represented by two bodies of work displayed on separate sites.  Pam Hall’s…At Doran’s Meadow, a large school of cod, fashioned out of flour sacks, flew like kits against an ocean blue sky.  The textile art installation with its fish motif was effective because it was socially relevant to its site but universally accessible at the same time.  The elusive cod resource had meaning to local fishers and art lovers alike.
Will Gill, The Green Chair, 2017 site-specific commission, fabricated steel

A few of the outdoor installations were intended to be permanent and were commissioned,…Will Gill’s metal chair, which was perched on a wave-washed rock ledge of Maberly Lookout.…domestic in reference, it is also a collaboration with the elemental forces of the ocean that provides and takes away life.  These sculptures bring up the bittersweet lifestyle of “around the bay” that is characterized by beauty and vulnerability.

Catherine Blackburn’s indigenous stitched art was used as a quiet “art bomb” amid the educational display detailing John Cabot’s “discovery” of Newfoundland and as an exhibition with its own dedicated room.  Our Mother(s) Tongue traced the painful loss of the Dene language and culture through images of a human tongue pricked with sewing pins and alternatively adorned with golden syllabics.  Both kinds of images were seductively beautiful and masterfully crafted, lending a subtlety that kept the exhibition from being strident protest art–an accomplishment, particularly during the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation.
Catherine Blackburn's Our Mother(s) Tongue amid didatic display at Ye Olde Matthew.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

How Art Sugar Coats the Pill

A mixed media extravaganza by Tracey Robinson, which I purchased in 2016.

I am currently reading Jodi Picoult's The Tenth Circle, which has at its centre a teenage rape.  I have been looking and thinking about visual art that deals with the uncomfortable truths of colonialism and racism.  And even the last piece of art that I purchased was about something distressing– the death of the artist's sister.  All of this, plus the daily news headlines, have provoked my wondering about the best way for art to deal with difficult topics.

Clearly, artists feel a need to respond to the ugly facts of life and not just the decorative ones.  Art is basically about communication but it is not enough to simply share pain.  I believe that art of that order may need to be made but it does not need to be put on display.  I'd like to think that is the difference between art and art therapy, which is a kind of exorcism.  If you want me to get in the trenches with you please keep in mind that we also need a way to get out of that dark place.

Humans, unlike animals, are attracted to what we are afraid of–the things that threaten our sense of control.  Art is one way we have of taming the wild forces that we are subject to.  I think that is part of the appeal of pattern, which is based on rhythm and repetition.  I suspect that much of so-called primitive art is about taming natural events like lightening, drought or fire.  The flash of lightening becomes the diagonal slash of a v-pattern on a ceramic vessel.  It is akin to sympathetic magic.  We turn the unruly path of nature into the rows of a garden.

Stranger danger and Hansel & Gretel.

Storytelling has magical abilities too.  It is an empowering ritual, a way of making the unsafe safe.  Perhaps that is what is behind the power of Grimm's fairy tales.  It was a way of taking the frightening and the cruel and putting it in a way that was safe for childhood consumption.  This was history's alternative to bubble-wrapping your kid.  Cautionary tales whether they are about climate change or hungry crones are essentially lessons that we don't want to learn.  Suspense and the possibility of heroism, however, lure us on.  Narrative is as seductive as the come-hither charms of formalism.

Humour is a potent method for deflating demons or diverting us long enough to hold on until better times.  Gallows humour allows us to laugh at trying or dire events.  It shows us that even in our darkest moments there is a possibility of light. 

Pattern, narrative and humour are tools at the artist's hand that attract us and hold our attention long enough to consider the unsavoury and hopefully allow us to tap into some much needed resourcefulness. 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Top 5 of 2017 in the world of Craft & Design

The conclusion of one year and the start of another is the time of year for "best of" lists and awards.  The world of craft is no different and 2017 was something of a bumper crop for publications across Canada.  Galleries West, an Alberta-based digital art publication, which started as a print magazine in 2002 and went digital in 2016, put out their list of publications to check out.

If you are not familiar with Galleries West, here is their link:

I was very happy to see the Canadian Craft Biennial publication make it onto the list but I was gob-smacked to see my essay, which was one of nine by some of my most esteemed colleagues, recognized:

In a broader context, the best observation comes from independent curator and writer Gloria Hickey, who considers craft’s deep engagement with object making. She argues that conceptualism in the visual arts in the 1960s and 1970s “created a vacuum where material-based practices (i.e., studio craft) could flourish.” And thrive, I might add, because nothing beats relating to something tactile.

This title also made the list. MacPherson's creatures
 have long fascinated me.

It is gratifying to see that Galleries West understood that exhibition catalogues, which often weigh in at over a 100 pages, can compete with books and take a comparable amount of money and human resources to produce.  My hat goes off to Denis Longchamps and Emma Quin for finding the resources and passion to make the publication that accompanied the Canadian Craft Biennial exhibit and symposium happen–and in French and English!

All of the titles on the Galleries West list are definitely worth considering and are on now on my "to read" list for 2018.  Check it out for yourself:

Monday, 8 January 2018

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of Indigeneity

One of my projects this past week has been writing a review of Logan MacDonald's Lay of the Land for C magazine.  It would be unprofessional for me to share what is in that article of a 1,000 words before publication but I would like to share some thoughts about the reviewing process in general and Indigenous Art in specific.

In terms of a review, timing is crucial.  Publications have schedules that must be maintained whether they are a daily newspaper, a monthly magazine or a quarterly journal.  So, the first hurdle to clear is whether a show dovetails with the publishing cycle.  After that, it helps if someone–other than the artist and their mother– is interested.  Personally, I gravitate towards shows that have themes that I want to think about, something for me to sink my teeth into, as a writer.  I check out any number of shows but recommend a small handful to publications for review.  As a rule of thumb, if there is the potential for a negative review I usually decline but offer to talk with the artist face to face.  This way we hopefully both learn something.

And then there is the issue of whether I am qualified to offer a useful commentary on the show.  I have written about Indigenous Art since the early nineties but have stepped away from the topic for several years.  The reason was that I wanted to encourage indigenous writers and curators to fill that role.  There has been a huge ground swell in scholarship on the topic and the issue of indigenous identity is highly contested.  I have stayed abreast of the production of Indigenous Art but I cannot claim to be fluent in the lingo and its subtle nuances.  I am dating myself (deliberately) when I say that I can remember when the term First Peoples was introduced to art history.  All I can do is to promise to keep learning.

One of the terms that intrigued me in Logan MacDonald's lexicon was that he identifies as a queer visual artist with settler/Mi'kmaq ancestry.  What I've seen in the community is the evolution from European ancestry to settler ancestry.  Given the politics of colonialism, more neutral terms are falling away.

Novelist Joseph Boyden

Terms are also getting more precise.  The novelist Joseph Boyden made Maclean's, the Globe & Mail and CBC not for his excellent writing but for the charge that he was misrepresenting his indigenous ancestry. "While the majority of my blood comes from Europe and the Celtic region," Boyden said in a statement to APTN, "there is Nipmuc ancestry on my father's side, and Ojibwe ancestry on my mother's [sic]."  But that wasn't enough to satisfy his critics. Boyden apologized to the Métis of Red River because he had supposedly referred to himself as Métis.  Even in recent memory, Métis was an acceptable term to convey someone of settler and indigenous ancestry.  But it seems that is like confusing sparkling wine for Champagne.
APTN has gone so far as to call Joseph Boyden a shapeshifter.  All I'm qualified to say is that Boyden writes good fiction and I am grateful to MacDonald's art for introducing me to it.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Naughty and Nice of Christmas

The very first Christmas present that I ever bought was a tree-topper angel ornament for my mother, a ceramic cherub of sorts holding a banner that said "Gloria".  Christmas for children is often about trying to be good, to produce a present-winning performance.  I was never very good at "normal".  I did not play house or want to get married and my Barbie doll was a spy named Honey West whose cover story was that she was a bartender.  A fur toy, an octopus that I dubbed "Alaska", was her assistant who ran the bar when she went off on adventure-filled missions.  Those pose-able eight arms came in handy. 

Growing up with an Austrian mother I was told tales of the Grampus, who left coal in your shoes and a switch with which your parents were to beat you.  Now, doesn't that smack of Grimm's fairy tales?  Curiously, this year I noticed Krampus sweaters and other devilish gear turning up at one of my favourite gift retailers, Posie Row.  The Internet, of course, was brimming with extreme versions of Krampus fashion.

Having your own children is supposedly the time to return to sugar plum wishes.  What happened in my case is that I ended up with the toddler that asked, "Why doesn't Santa give poor children presents?"  This question stung me as the social cliché between poverty and bad behaviour loomed large.  Remember that lump of coal that was said to appear in the stockings of "naughty" children? 
At the Bernard Stanley Gastropub for Project Kindness.

Perhaps because of my child's early social conscience I have been possessed with alternative ways of Christmas cheer.  We worked on a series of toy drives over the years for a variety of causes.  The one that was the most bittersweet was the drive for gifts to children who had a parent incarcerated.

This Friday past, I stopped into the Bernard Stanley Gastro pub for a quick bite before attending Mary Barry's early set at The Black Sheep.  Friday night during the holiday season can be a difficult time to score a table without a reservation, so I offered to sit at the bar.  And boy was I glad I did. 

No sooner had I finished my scallops with watermelon salsa than Hasan Hai appeared at the invisible line at the entrance where you stand and wait to be greeted.  I flashed him a smile and a two thumbs up.  He responded with a point and grin.  In short time we were seated beside each other except that Hasan sat on the bar.  I stashed his jacket on my lap.  The cameras came out and I was told to keep a straight face.

Now, I should probably point out that Hasan has more than one persona with a social conscience.  He started the Newfoundland Beard and Moustache club and donned a merb'ys tail to help raise funds for Spirit Horse.  Friday night he was "the dark elf on the shelf" with Project Kindness and was raising money for the Food Sharing Network.  The money goes directly to the charity as Hasan pointed out to me, "my elf leggings don't have any pockets."  The dark elf has appeared at a variety of St. John's locations and this season netted $3,831.35, which will leverage much more–the gift that keeps giving.

Monday, 18 December 2017

How Do You Like Your Mermen?

St. John's is something of a Mecca for facial hair.  Far beyond the annual sprouting of moustaches for Movember, which raises funds for men's health issues, we now have a Newfoundland and Labrador Beard & Moustache Club.  This is a social club that is interested in promoting a positive image for facial hair but you don't need a beard to be a member. 

Hasan Hai had been a member of the Saskatchewan branch of the club and when he moved back home to Newfoundland our local club sprang up in January 2017–this is neither your usual stuffy men's club nor a rowdy fraternity.  Its members have an endearing way of laughing at themselves and a willingness to help out with charitable projects. What intrigued me about the organization was its goal of challenging stereotypes and particularly what "men are supposed to look like".  They recognize diversity and the NL Beard & Moustache Club's first project is evidence of that belief.

Just in time for Christmas (and I know I am putting at least one in the mail) is the 2018 Merb'ys Calendar.  In their own words, this is what they set out to achieve with the calendar:
•First, raise money and bring awareness to a local non-profit organization Spirit Horse.
•Second, challenging out-dated views of what masculinity and beauty look like by featuring a diverse group of bearded humans.
•Third, an opportunity to toss our shirts, put on a tail, and laugh harder than we've ever laughed before.

Each month of the calendar is illustrated by full-colour photographs of the Merb'ys–in all their body type splendour– posing at recognizable Newfoundland locations.  At the ocean side on cliffs and beaches, tossing snow balls at the Spirit Horse property, at the Quidi Vidi Plantation, and even being dangled upside from a dock like some prize catch.  The calendar dates recognize Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian celebrations as well as those dates more associated with social justice than religion, like International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. 

Spirit Horse NL is a therapeutic service that aims to enhance the mental health and life skills of youth, adults, families and groups through interaction with horses.  This non-profit group pairs peers with clients, who have shared many of the same life challenges. Spirit Horse NL programs are facilitated by Erin Gallant – a graduate of Therapeutic Recreation, an Equestrian Canada Coach Specialist, a Trained Mental Health Peer Supporter and a Level 3 Healing Touch Energy Work student.