Art becoming artifact

The New Canadiana exhibit at Agnes Etherington exposes enduring issues and evolving realities in Canada as perceived by 11 historic and contemporary artists

“O Canada”
“O Canada”
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Supplied
“Douglas Fir Trees, Vancouver”
“Douglas Fir Trees, Vancouver”
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“The Helpless Robot”
“The Helpless Robot”
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Supplied
“Sainte Cécile”
“Sainte Cécile”
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Supplied
"VII"
"VII"
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Supplied

The New Canadiana exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre is a diverse mix of historic and contemporary art from pre-confederation to the 21st century. New Canadiana explores issues in Canada through the perspectives of artists Rebecca Belmore, Emily Carr, Joyce Wieland and Jin-me Yoon.

Providing an interesting background to the exhibit was the Rita Friendly Kaufman lecture hosted on Oct. 14 by Ruth B. Philips of Carleton University. After earning her doctorate in African art history from the University of London, she began to actively teach Canadians about North American art history. She was also the director of anthropology at the University of British Columbia for a short period.

As she set up a nifty, little microphone on her lapel, Philips said jokingly, “I feel like James Bond.” The lecture conveyed an argument of these cultures’ histories of neglect and misrecognition based on objects of indigenous art. She discussed how settlers’ ideas of authenticity have impeded these people in modernity.

She began by exploring the Swiss Cottage Museum on the Isle of Wight, which was built by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for education of the royal children. North American indigenous people made the boxes, moccasins, canoes and puppets encased in the museum.

Philips discussed how the confusing array of souvenirs actually deviated from what was traditionally Iroquois. The modernity of certain important objects such as Ornohvatekha’s tunic and leggings went unrecognized due to stigmas that are placed on indigenous people.

“We only know how they should look,” Philips said, and not what a modern deviation from tradition looks like.

Philips also briefly examined pressing issues within Mississauga Indians on Grape Island who combated alcoholism in the 19th century.

Another interesting aspect of the lecture was the bark mokuks that have designs made by scraping away the dark layers of bark. Porcupine quills and reeds were used to form patterns on these unique works of art. The zigzag motifs as well as hourglass shapes on these pieces are derived from representations of the thunderbird and under water spirits.

Philips said that the spiritual connotations and ancient cosmology expressed “defines cultural perseveration along with the spirit of modern innovation.”

The exhibition at Agnes Etherington itself is divided into three thematic categories: Settlement, Nation and Migration, Nature and the Environment and Social Life and Ritual.

One work is the “Columbus Suite” by Carl Beam, which is comprised of 12 etchings (six of which are shown at Agnes), marking the 500th anniversary of European “discovery” of the New World. Within the pieces are juxtaposed ideas of conflict and suffering. One print displays a large image of Columbus and below him, still images of bees, displayed as though spread on a dissection table.

Other notable works include the “Possible Portrait of Isabella Clark Macdonald,” which was purchased at a Kingston silent auction in 2006. The mystery behind the piece is whether or not the woman portrayed is Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s first Scottish-born wife. Artisans are almost certain that it is, as it’s of a similar size and style as another piece within the Library and Archives Canada of his wife.

From cotton polyester quilts to mixed media installations, the exhibition displays many artists’ perspectives and opinions about issues in Canada.

More modern works, like Eleanor Bond’s “Winnipeg,” which depicts an abandoned log valley in British Columbia, communicate a futuristic isolation and ongoing immigration.

And of course there are diverse types of art within the exhibition as well; a particularly interesting piece by Norman T. White poses a surprise as his award-winning electronic piece “The Helpless Robot” croaks over 512 phrases, aiming to depict human emotions and experiences. And in doing so it gave me a shock as the robot screeched, “I really wish you’d help me.”

The exhibition is a sundry collection of insights of many Canadian artists’ knowledge, perspectives and opinions.

New Canadiana runs until Dec. 5 at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

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