Sunday, 23 October 2016

All things Inuit

If there were a recurring theme for my month of October so far, it would be all things Inuit.  From October 3 to the 7th, there was an Inuit Studies conference in St. John's at Memorial University.  While I was not formally attending it did dominate my social calendar with folks who came down from up north.  There were many gatherings around food and drink that allowed me to pursue my interest in Inuit art and culture with specialists and elders on a face-to-face basis. 

There was also Katinngavik, an Inuit Arts Festival, including iNuit Blanche –the first all Inuit, all-night art crawl in downtown St. John's.  These events were open to the public, as were some presentations. 

One of the most popular was a lecture and demonstration of Inuit tattooing by Marjorie Thabone.  She is from Nome, Alaska and practices both ink and poke technique and skin stitching.  Marjorie spoke about the meaning and traditions around the traditional techniques and generously offered to draw some of the patterns on the public with eyeliner!  It was a grand mix of scholarship and fun held at the upstairs space at The Rocket Bakery.
Marjorie Thabone tattooist from Nome, Alaska.

The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery was also part of the festival with Sakkijajuk, which showcases a wide array of Inuit art and craft:  drawings, sculpture, painting, garments, photography and more.  While the conference is over, Sakkijajuk will be up until January 15, 2017 and is well worth a prolonged visit.

It seemed that just when Katinngavik was over and I had waived goodbye to one crop of new friends that the next cultural festival in St. John's had erupted.  The St. John's International Women's Film Festival began October 19th.  Along with an auditorium full of people, I was deeply moved by Angry Inuk.  This is a documentary film made by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, which as the program notes, "gives a voice to Inuit hunters whose existence has been threatened by southern-led animal rights groups and their relentless campaigns against the seal hunt."  This is not a shrill or strident protest but a heartfelt project that took Alethea eight years to complete.  It traces her journey from home in a remote coastal community to the international arena of the E.U.  It captures both the beauty of contemporary life in the north along with its frustrations and challenges–definitely an eye-opener.  No wonder the word at Hot Docs in Toronto was that this was an "important film".

And while these cultural treats were being served the protest against the Muskrat Falls flooding looms large.  In support of those who are taking drastic measures of hunger strikes and cutting through barriers there was a demonstration today in front of the Colonial Building.  More than 600 signatures, from the arts community alone, were collected for a petition.  The open letter states, "We stand by Inuk artist Billy Gauthier and his fellow protesters in their fight to defend their artistic, cultural and human health."

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Forget Me Not

Thanks are due to my co-curator on this show the resourceful Sharon LeRiche.

This is not a typical show about war.  Its perspective favours the personal above the political, the feminine over the masculine, and the sensual over the sentimental.  It is about memory and loss and what that can teach us.  It is a group show of 14 women artists and one male artist who responded to the theme of Forget Me Not.  Some of the artists have a deep family connection with WW1 and others do not.

Susan Furneaux did not have a direct connection but turned to the Rooms Provincial Archive for inspiration.  As a parent she empathized with the mothers earnestly seeking information about their sons and one handwritten letter hit her especially hard.  You will see it echoed in the background of Furneaux's embroidered and beaded piece.  Most eye-catching in the embellishment is a heart with a blank white sash that suggests the heartbreak and silence of a missing son.

For her subject matter, Frances Ennis chose the unknown soldiers who lost their lives on July 1, 1916, including two great uncles of her husband, whose bodies were never found and buried.  She created 3-dimensional hooked figures of young soldiers; tellingly they are faceless.  This is a story of profound loss of identity and a lack of closure.  When Ennis writes about them she resorts to poetry rather than stark facts.

Janet Davis based her textile art on a treasure trove of mail from the Great War period that she discovered in a cardboard box in 1996.  Davis mined these personal mementos of the Kean family– previous owners of the shop that became her studio. Davis has embellished her version of the wartime cards with details almost as an act of healing.  Like a bandage wound over and over or a multiplicity of stitches, Davis uses repetition in her art.

Now, think about the contrast of The Caribou, those proud bronze sculptures that celebrate the bravery of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and the little delicate flower that with surprising resiliency just keeps coming back.  Donna Clouston in her watercolour painting integrates the two symbols but the flower is the dominant.  If you look very carefully you will notice at the heart of one of the blossoms is a tiny caribou head and the word Newfoundland as it appeared on the Regiment's brass pins. Alexe Hanlon also integrates both caribou and forget me not flowers but her chosen sculptural medium of soft felt is a far cry from hard bronze.  It is an inversion.

Donna Cluston's watercolour.  Zoom in to find the brass pin.

It is difficult to make good art that is based on an experience of war.  Perhaps that is because war can be so painful and we wish to protect those we love from pain.  Many soldiers who returned to Newfoundland never spoke of their horrific experience overseas.  Silence was one way they had of coping.  Kevin Coates' wood carving depicts the lone widow at a gravesite and is titled Forget You Not.  Coates never heard of his grandfather's experience in the war.

It requires a rare balance of skill and insight to avoid clichés in discussing war. Without literalism, Lisa Downey uses her skills as a pattern maker to evoke the presence of nurses during the war, while Katelyn Dobbin used recycled military sheeting for her deceptively simple dress embroidered with forget me nots.  Celeste Colbourne used the palette suggested by the flower for her painstakingly woven shawls.  There is a recurring theme in these works, the gesture of giving comfort.  But not all of women's roles around the war were so benign. 

Although it was not a common practice in Newfoundland, ceramic artist Wendy Shirran introduces us to "white feathering", which was encouraged by the British military.  Her art alludes to the custom of a woman giving a man a feather as a form of public shaming for his lack of active, military service and apparent cowardice. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mitzi Pappas Smyth chose to tell her grandfather's story.  He was turned down for active military service overseas due to the fact that he was deaf.  Undaunted by the rejection to fight at the front he was accepted into the Newfoundland Forestry Corps which served their time during the war cutting down trees in Scotland to support the men at war in the trenches.  Notice the trees that represent him among the blue flowers in her work.

Family is a recurring feature in this exhibit.  Margaret Walsh Best memorializes her grandmother who was originally a lace maker and came to Newfoundland as a war bride.  She suggests her grandmother's importance by the roots of a flower and the impression of lace.  Best has fond memories of sharing time and knowledge in the garden with her grandmother and it is not by accident that Best would grow up to become a painter of flowers.

Families challenged by the divide of space and time is another connecting thread.  Miro Davis carved a piece of rock native to the Eastern shoreline.  It has a natural cleft down its centre or "symbolic scar" as she puts it.  Davis invites us to imagine a community divided between home and battleground. The rock is solid although it looks like it might split in half.  She was inspired to carve one side with puffins, those sea birds noted for their rookeries along cliffs.  The other side is carved with a likeness of the forget me not flower.

Margaret Angel lost family members from both her maternal and paternal sides.  She also had a nurse in the family, and five others, who served overseas and returned.  Moved by letters she tracked down in The Rooms, Provincial Archives, Angel represents those she lost with two pockets. Inside them she has tucked hooked artifacts that might have been personal effects–a watch, a photo or pay book; she observes that these might have been the last tangible connections between a parent and lost son.

Janet Peter takes the most abstract approach in this show.  Her work in paper maché is loose, highly textured and interpretative.  It combines references to both the forget me not flower and barbed wire fencing.  At its top section is a sky the colour of fresh blood, lit up by a setting sun or perhaps bombs.  It is both ambiguous and haunting like the perennial threat of war.

The work in this exhibit taps a visceral and emotional response to war–just as textiles, be they clothing, a bandage or a comfort blanket– are often described as our second skin.  Narration in fine craft and art can take many forms.  A significant portion of the work in Forget Me Not is textile based but all of the works be it stone, wood or paper maché tells a story.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Immaterial World by Juleyn Hamilton

This past week I have been happily overwhelmed by the New Dance Festival that has invited me to be one of their guest writers.  There have been dancers from everywhere from Berlin to Barcelona here in St. John's.  This was the first post I wrote for them about Julyen Hamilton who has been dancing since the '70s and was originally based in London.

With a title like "The Immaterial World" it begs the question, "what is an immaterial world?"  When the audience streamed in Hamilton was already seated on stage on a stool in the shadows, back to the audience.  Soon we heard a series of familiar but indistinguishable vocalization from him.  Like voices overheard in a multitude of languages, the babble of the subconscious or the regurgitation of a dream.  Eventually, Hamilton fluidly turned round and greeted us in a friendly tone, "Welcome".  This word would be used almost as poetic punctuation through the performance along with phrases like "and I will hold you in my arms" or "help me".

We were no longer in the shadows and had arrived in the well-lit immaterial world where there were a surprising number of material props.  In addition to the stool were standing, shining pipes, vessels with water in them, cloths and perhaps most engaging–a red handled kitchen knife.  All of these objects were well chosen for their versatility and visibility from anywhere in the theatre. 

Hamilton would use these articles with dramatic skill and when creatively combined with his characteristic gestures and vocalization take us through a quick paced series of vignettes that were at turns humorous and tragic and even magical.  They alternated between the everyday and the ritual and pointed to a fascinating universal quality.  These were scenes drawn from human life as it has been played out around the globe for centuries.  When he skimmed the knife blade along the pipe it evoked the purposeful gesture of sharpening a knife.  But was it for sacrificing an animal or himself? Preparing for a meal with a lover or a fight to the death with an opponent?  It was a caress and it was music.  Water was for quenching a thirst, ritual washing or cleansing, rain and of course tears.

Julyen Hamilton is known for his prowess as an improvisational dancer and his ability to command a stage with as little as a stare.  With the freedom of improvisation Hamilton can create suspense and hold the audience in his hand.  With decades of experience, he can play out the variations of his body, his voice and his props.  He knows well what is possible, probable and can respond to what actually happens.  Whether a pipe fell over, lights buzzed or an audience member coughed, it was all skillfully employed.  Improvisation resided not in the random but in the insightful interplay of a series of well-known elements.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Joe Ink. + Sara Porter=The Motif of the Ageing Dancer

Joe Ink.'s performance of 4OUR admirably accomplished its goal of expressing the "intriguing paradox that as we mature into the height of our artistic abilities, our bodies begin a slow deterioration, leaving our emotional lives and memories more vivid and potent than ever."

In addition was the consistent, palpable and poetic sense of relationship on stage.  From the opening notes of Bach, with the curling, Baroque-like hand gestures and undulating, interlaced limbs to the conclusion of snowflake- decorated deterioration there was always the impressive partnering and ensemble movement.  4OUR progresses through a story arch of youth, adulthood and demise.  It captures, and is connected, by the relationships of protection, influence and especially at the end–support that is so ably expressed by Giaconda Barbuto, Heather Dotto, Jarrett Siddall and Joe Laughlin.  More than one audience member shed tears during this evocative performance.

Many in the audience murmured about the stagecraft and the versatile use of sheer white garments and the cornucopia like vessel.  A single garment traversed from baptism or birth, wedding to funeral shroud while the vessel expressed fertility, protection as armour and blinding mask.  You can always count on Joe Ink. To exploit costume as prop– textiles are indeed our second skin and augment movement.

4OUR is more than a simple narrative in dance.  Each of the four dancers has significant solos, almost like movements in a musical composition, each with their own distinctive visual signature.  The music itself ranged from the classical to modern and was downright intoxicating.  There was also comic relief as in the episode of the chambermaid and the bellhop with its staccato antics reminiscent of black and white silent film.

The following evening, Sara Porter performed Sara Does A Solo, which also addressed the theme of "becoming a mature artist–with all the richness and the loss."  It was in the vein of docu-dance, where spoken word, stagecraft and dance movement marry.

Porter started with the present and stepped back into her childhood.  She took us from her being a "tense verb" (of course she'd be an action word) to her first encounter of music, through motherhood and a rich fantasy life of glamorous gowns red high heels and a matching ukulele.  She glided, slunk like a cat, lumbered like a beast of burden but expressed the most painful truths with awkward self-depreciating movements. Presented before an audience amicably dominated by professional dancers, many of themselves approaching middle age, her memoir on stage was received sympathetically.