A meditation on missing role models
WHAT It Is: A photograph by Ottawa-based artist and curator Jeff Thomas, snapped in an alley off Winnipeg’s Albert Street in 1990. This tough but strangely tender blackand-white image anchors Father’s Day, a show of Thomas’s photo-based works now on view at Urban Shaman.
What It Means: What this phrase meant for whoever first wrote it is impossible to know. (A sweet affirmation of unconditional love? A stalker-y threat?) But for Thomas, stumbling onto this random bit of street poetry, alongside an empty vodka bottle and a pair of forsaken work boots, brought back a sudden rush of feeling.
“A crush of childhood experiences flooded over me. I was no longer a detached observer. I thought about my father and my son, about abandonment, alcoholism and the battle of being an Indian and living in the city,” Thomas said in an artist’s talk.
Like Van Gogh’s many studies of battered shoes, the discarded boots in the photo expressively stand in for the weary wearer, while also suggesting an aching sense of absence.
The 56-year-old Thomas, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., to parents from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont., calls himself “an urban-iroquois.” Father’s Day is part of his meditation on missing male role models, not only in his own life but also in aboriginal culture in the wake of colonialism.
Why It Matters: On a personal level, the show was inspired by a Father’s Day card Thomas received from his son, Bear, which expressed feelings he could have never expressed to his own father, a maintenance painter in an auto assembly factory. In a larger sense, the works respond to Thomas’s 2002 curatorial project, Where Are the Children: Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools, which examined the forced separation of indigenous parents and children and the ways these broken family bonds have echoed through generations.
In many of his projects, including Father’s Day, Thomas starts with historical paintings, archival photographs and pop culture representations of “Indian-ness” and juxtaposes them with contemporary real-life images. By making connections between past and present, Thomas re- claims indigenous father figures, who too often have been lost to stereotype, misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
The “IF YOU DON’T LOVE ME” photo, which is placed at the beginning of Thomas’s exhibition, may suggest a sense of waste and loss and loneliness, with that enigmatic phrase and those sad, empty boots. But the rest of the show is a positive and powerful response to that image. In a sense, Thomas uses his art to help fill those boots.
If You Don’t Love Me by Jeff Thomas anchors show at Urban Shaman Gallery.