Following the red brick road
Award-winning photographer finds her way home
Talking with Rosalie Favell, I soon realize what makes her different from most portrait photographers I’ve known: she’s soft-spoken. This is not to say that photographers are blowhards or even loud. What they are, generally, is outspoken and insistent, traits that are necessary in a job where there is often a short time to bring a subject around — where to be, how to look, and how to stand outside of that limiting self-consciousness that comes with being photographed at all. Photographers have to win the trust of their subjects, often quickly. The photographer who is softspoken must have subtle tricks in her gear bag.
That Favell has something effective is indisputably demonstrated by the larger part of her exhibition at Karsh-Masson Gallery, a retrospective to mark her as 2012 winner of the City of Ottawa’s biennial, $7,500 Karsh Award for photography.
The first of two floors at the ByWard Market gallery is filled with dozens of portraits of people who have all been put at ease by Favell, and expeditiously. She pulled the people from aboriginal conferences into her temporary photo booth and made them be, or at least appear to be, comfortable on camera. That is an essential skill of any portrait photographer.
The portraits are all of aboriginals who work in the arts, and some may be familiar to Ottawa audiences — National Gallery curator Greg Hill, or Ottawa artist Bear Witness, a big man with whom Favell has, suitably, filled the frame.
Many others have links to Ottawa, such as Mary Anne Barkhouse, the western Canadian artist who has work in the permanent collection of the National Gallery. In Favell’s portrait Barkhouse wears a striped hoodie, which she holds open to expose what appears to be a young wolf (a favoured motif in her art) on her shirt. There is nothing about the image that obviously says “aboriginal,” which is Favell’s point and, suddenly, my own dismay.
I don’t expect aboriginals to be in, as Favell puts it, “feathers” or “headdresses,” but I’m undeniably, and regrettably, surprised by how many of the aboriginals don’t look, well, like aboriginals. I instinctively expected a collection of portraits of aboriginals to look distinct, or different, from others who are not aboriginal, like me. I know this expectation is absurd and embarrassing, but confessing to it proves that Favell’s portrait project is still necessary in modern Canada, and that it’s effective.
“They look like you and me,” she says, with a gentle manner that permeates her work, sidestepping outrage to instead reach out. “There are no feathers on them or a stereotypical outfit or anything. They’re just people that are the energy of the community right now.”
That energy is seen again in a piece on the second floor, where Favell’s earlier and also her most recent works are shown. It’s titled I awoke to find my spirit had returned, a selfportrait from her Plain(s) Warrior Artist series from 1999, and it is perhaps the best distillation of Favell’s approach to social commentary, both welcoming and pointed.
The self-portrait is a collage, with Favell suddenly waking up in bed covered by an iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket, like those that helped to spread disease among natives when Europeans arrived. She posed herself in place of Dorothy in a still from the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, and Dorothy’s anxious, expectant family lean over her. Looking in the window, in place of the wizard, is Louis Riel, the Métis hero and one of the most polarizing, mythologized figures in Canadian history.
“There’s a quote that’s attributed to Louis Riel, though no one can find it in books anywhere,” she says. “He says, ‘My people will sleep for 100 years, and when they awake it’ll be the artists who give them their spirit back.” There’s another link for Favell, who is also Métis and grew up on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. “I thought of the Yellow Brick Road and trying to find your way home, and for me I’m trying to find the red brick road, find my way home to my nativeness.”
She does all this with unpretentious humour. Over her sickbed in the portrait hangs a small photograph of Xena, “Warrior Princess,” from the cheesy and successful TV series. That image is repeated in larger scale in Favell’s next self-portrait, where she poses as Xena, daring to dream. “I love Xena, Warrior Princess. There’s something magical about it, a fun way of seeing a woman succeed over bad.”
The Plain(s) Warrior Artist series wittily merges pop culture and aboriginal history in such ways, and is Favell’s homage to captured American Indians who would be given ledgers in which to draw stories of their lives.
Favell’s more recent work merges in a more personal fashion. Her grandmother left behind many photo albums, and Favell, captivated by this record of self-portraiture from a woman who was not an artist or photographer, has combined those images with her own backgrounds.
She also combines old and new in her most recent work, which takes her for the first time into video. Favell found pieces of vintage beadwork and layered them over iPods or tablets, with the video screens showing through. In Silent Prayer for Kateri, from 2011, the iPod screen behind the beadwork shows Favell, with hands folded, as Kateri, the American Indian woman who is set to be North America’s first indigenous saint. Favell barely moves, which creates a stillness that can be very effective in video, a medium that exists to show motion. She’s characteristically modest about her video depiction. “It doesn’t move much. I’m still a still photographer learning how to move on video.”
Other artists are learning from her, and you can, coincidentally, see an example on Bank Street in Centretown. Gallery 101 has an exhibition of work by Joi Arcand, a British Columbia artist, and some of the works are on sidewalk displays along Bank, from Somerset north towards Parliament. Arcand’s images also incorporate stereotypical imagery of aboriginal woman and ironic slogans. I email Arcand and ask her, was Rosalie Favell an influence?
“I absolutely love Rosalie Favell’s work and she has been a huge inspiration to me as an artist,” Arcand replies. “What draws me to Favell’s work is the way she situates herself alongside historical and pop cultural imagery. Her work is very personal and autobiographical, which is also an important and huge component of my work.”
Favell writes her autobiography in appropriation, and most clearly in The Collector/ The Artist in Her Museum, from 2005. It’s based on an 1822 self-portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, in which the scion of the American art family holds back a heavy, red curtain and, with hand outstretched, welcomes people into his vast collection of art. In Favell’s photo, she takes the place of Peale and opens the curtain to reveal walls covered not with classic western paintings but with photographs from her family albums. It’s a gentle image, and yet outspoken, like her.
“It’s just the way I am,” she says. “People seem to respond to my quiet identity.”