Fol­low­ing the red brick road

Award-win­ning pho­tog­ra­pher finds her way home

Ottawa Citizen - - ARTS - PETER SIMP­SON

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.”

Ros­alie Favell’s strik­ing por­traits of abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple also re­flect so­cial com­men­tary. In this self-por­trait col­lage, she posed her­self in the place of Dorothy in a still from The Wizard of Oz movie, and re­placed the Wizard with Métis hero Louis...


Ros­alie Favell, the win­ner of city’s Karsh Award for pho­tog­ra­phy, with some of her por­traits.

This piece, called The Col­lec­tor/The Artist in her Mu­seum, is based on an 1822 self-por­trait by Charles Wil­son Peale with his art col­lec­tion.

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