A med­i­ta­tion on miss­ing role mod­els

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - ALI­SON GILL­MOR

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.

SUP­PLIED

If You Don’t Love Me by Jeff Thomas an­chors show at Ur­ban Shaman Gallery.

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