Art dis­put­ing the arc of Cana­dian his­tory

AGO’s Canada 150 of­fer­ing is a spir­ited de­bunk­ing of a tight na­tion­al­ist tale

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - MUR­RAY WHYTE

“A cen­tury is only a spoke in the wheel of ev­er­last­ing time” reads a quote on the wall of the Art Gallery of On­tario, at­trib­uted to Louis Riel.

It’s a po­etic state­ment, but the fiery 19th-cen­tury Indige­nous civil rights leader might like to re­fine the metaphor, had he the chance. If “Canada 150” is a spoke and a half, just how many do the wheels of his­tory have here, any­way? Dozens? Hun­dreds?

With an Indige­nous pres­ence here dat­ing back at least 15,000 years, we could out­fit an en­tire Tour de France.

The state­ment is em­bed­ded as a touch­stone in “Ev­ery.Now.Then: Re­fram­ing Na­tion­hood,” the mu­seum’s re­sponse to this blithely na­tion­al­is­tic mo­ment, and it makes clear the show’s driv­ing force: to re­si­t­u­ate the blip that is Canada in a gap­ingly broad con­tin­uum of both time and dif­fer­ence, with flag-wav­ing pushed aside.

“We knew right away we weren’t do­ing a cel­e­bra­tory project,” says An­drew Hunter, the gallery’s cu­ra­tor of Cana­dian art. “We have a his­tory in Canada of telling the same sto­ries over and over, and ig­nor­ing other sto­ries. We wanted to make space in this in­sti­tu­tion for sto­ries that haven’t been told.”

For the project, Hunter en­listed in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor and artist Anique Jor­dan, and their joint man­date is clear from the ex­hi­bi­tion’s open­ing salvo. Michael Bel­more, an Anishi­naabe artist, of­fers “Rum­ble,” a black­ened cop­per sand­wich of Trans-Am hoods, with ef­fi­gies of spir­i­tu­ally sig­nif­i­cant crea­tures — a Thun­der­bird on one side, wa­ter pan­thers on the other — glow­ing from within.

Nearby looms “Bell” (Wanted Se­ries), a totem of se­duc­tive de­fi­ance in her spiked heels, clingy taffeta gown and veil of black net­ting. The se­ries, a slickly styl­ized photo-por­trait project by Ca­mal Pirb­hai and Camille Turner, was drawn from a shock­ing source: 19th-cen­tury Cana­dian clas­si­fied ads placed by own­ers in search of their run­away slaves. Their pic­tures give hu­man form to people de­scribed as prop­erty and re­turns the power to them.

“Here, Ev­ery.Now.Then” breaks open the dom­i­nant polemic of re­sis­tance in this fraught Canada 150 mo­ment, and the com­plex­i­ties of his­tory, priv­i­lege and dif­fer­ence yaw open in scope.

Canada is many things, it seems to say, from its bru­tal colo­nial ori­gins right on up to the present day, much of it not mer­it­ing the ris­ing jin­go­ism of the sesqui­cen­ten­nial mo­ment. It ex­tends to an in­dict­ment for the in­sti­tu­tion it­self.

“That’s what’s re­ally dif­fer­ent about this show,” Jor­dan says. “It’s al­low­ing the per­spec­tives of people who are never seen as valu­able in spa­ces like this to lead.” Es­tab­lished First Na­tions artists such as Lawrence Paul Yuxwelup­tun and Robert Houle share space with young Black artists such as Es­maa Mo­hamoud.

In one pocket gallery, Jor­dan and Hunter go so far as to be hands off, let­ting a group of young artists al­lied through the Younger Than Bey­oncé Gallery have their own space. The mini-ex­hi­bi­tion is among the most cap­ti­vat­ing things here (see and hear Britta B’s “Fluke,” a sound in­stal­la­tion that will move you).

Artists kept out­side mu­seum walls by the con­ve­nient cat­e­gories of ac­tivism and com­mu­nity arts are here let in: Char­maine Lurch, with “A Mo­bile and Vis­i­ble Car­riage,” an evoca­tive sheet of rust-patina’d steel from which is carved the car­riage’s neat out­line, re­an­i­mates the for­got­ten his­tory of the Black­burns, an en­tre­pre­neur­ial Black cou­ple who es­caped slav­ery to found Toronto’s first taxi com­pany in the 19th cen­tury. Pow­er­ful, pre­cisely ren­dered graphite por­traits of key ac­tivists in Black Lives Mat­ter Toronto are draped on a nearby wall. Those are by one of its core mem­bers, Syrus Mar­cus Ware.

“The im­pulse was to show a lot of work, to bring a lot of voices to­gether and cre­ate an ex­hi­bi­tion that was com­pli­cated and messy, and had a sense of what it was like to be here now,” Hunter ex­plains.

Time is unstuck at ev­ery turn, de­cou­pling “150” from re­al­ity in subtly provoca­tive ges­tures: a 30-mil­lion-year-old me­te­orite bor­rowed from the Royal On­tario Mu­seum that touched down in Sud­bury, in the 1930s, or the fos­silized form of a gi­ant sea scor­pion, dat­ing back many mil­lions of years.

So how many spokes, Mr. Riel? “Ev­ery.Now.Then” de­clares, clearly, that there’s no telling. The wheels of Cana­dian his­tory have turned mostly on a nar­row track, a master nar­ra­tive fol­lowed along a straight line, blin­dered to the in­con­ve­nience of com­pli­ca­tion. “Ev­ery.Now.Then” veers wil­fully off course, with­out apol­ogy or ex­pla­na­tion. Works are de­scribed not in di­dac­tic text, but in the words of the artists them­selves, some­times curtly, oc­ca­sion­ally with po­etry.

In­equity of all kinds rubs up against each other, find­ing com­mu­nion: Xiong Gu’s mon­u­men­tal wall of por­traits of Ja­maican and Mex­i­can mi­grant farm work­ers in the Ni­a­gara Penin­sula around the cor­ner from Tyson Wright’s hand­made in­stru­ments based on his­toric ob­jects from the Ja­maican Ma­roon di­as­pora. Nearby, Bon­nie Devine’s Anishi­naabi­tude, rough tow­ers of wo­ven sea­grass, com­pletes the the­sis.

The show doesn’t pro­voke dis­sent so much as pro­vide an out­let for it, some­thing the long run-up to “Canada 150” has brought to the boil. If it makes for some dis­com­fort, es­pe­cially in a place like this, then maybe it’s about time.

“Ev­ery.Now.Then” con­tin­ues at the Art Gallery of On­tario to Dec. 10. See ago.ca.

VINCE TALOTTA, TORONTO STAR

Co-cu­ra­tors An­drew Hunter and Anique Jor­dan with Michael Bel­more’s “Rum­ble,” and Ca­mal Pirb­hai and Camille Turner’s “Wanted” se­ries.

COURTESY ART GALLERY OF ON­TARIO

The theme of be­ing born on the un­com­fort­able side of his­tory cour­ses through the AGO’s “Ev­ery.Now.Then” ex­hibit.

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