be contemporary gallery's latest exhibition, Past, Present, Pause is an exploration of “notions of difference” by five BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) artists.
It could as easily have been titled History, Essence, Vision, or Heritage, Reclamation, Celebration: the exhibition, curated by Black Artist Collective member Sean George, is a thought-provoking look at objects, landscape and imagery through a BIPOC lens.
It’s about pushing boundaries, George says, and re-evaluating context within the framework of this digital age.
“I think what’s great about the internet is it can put things out of context, but can also bring things into context,” he says – providing a shared vocabulary of images that become defined by their context.
In his work, the Barrie artist challenges the viewer to reconsider meaning and context through the juxtaposition of images. His installation at be contemporary gallery is titled Strange Fruit – “kind of an homage” to the Billie Holiday song Strange Fruit, “the first protest song,” but also a new and personal interpretation.
George was inspired by the “chain of art” that generated Strange Fruit - the 1930 photograph of the lynching of two African-Americans, that led to the poem written by Jewish teacher and activist Abel Meeropol, that was turned into a song in 1937 and first performed by Holiday in 1939, and that contributed to her downfall.
“That song is about power and control and limitation, and the movements that rise up.” It inspired his "idea of a tree" created from power cords, both connected and disconnected, combined with an image taken from the Black Panther movement, and a colourful painting of children playing, mirrored by an equally colourful depiction of slaves picking cotton - a juxtaposition of innocence and subjugation.
Uncovering layers of meaning, the response is visceral; “That’s where the idea of Past, Present, Pause came from.”
In curating the exhibition, George has brought together works by artists who similarly revisit and interpret the past through the eyes of the present.
For Mauritian photographer Ryan Osman, it was important to revisit the iconic imagery of the far north, and challenge colonial traditions of art that portray the north as empty landscape, an “absence of presence.”
Osman sees the human element in the landscape as key - “the distinct yet diverse perspective of the life of northern Indigenous communities” within a landscape that is “majestic, and sometimes unforgiving” but always dynamic and beautiful.
Working on environmental and community projects in Northern Ontario, Quebec and Labrador, he says, “I usually try to document my travels (and) the unique relationship between indigenous populations and the land” - eliminating bias to present images of “what it looks like, how grand it is, how indigenous people have a symbiotic relationship with the land.”
For Dawn Cain, photography is a relatively new field of expression. The multi-media artist, writer, activist and film-maker saw the invitation to participate in the exhibition as an opportunity to “explore my heritage, culture and the contemporary issues that are front and centre for me individually, and my community collectively.”
With herself as model, she celebrates “the beauty of marginalized hair” in a series of three photographs that present images of tribalism, freedom, and escape from oppression.
As an Afro-Indigenous Canadian, “Tribal is very important to me… Even though we are so far ahead in history, we still need that guidance,” she says, offering a “modern take on what tribalism would look like now.”
Even more powerful is her stunning profile, Map to Freedom, evoking a sense of history with a visual reference to iconic beauty of Nefertiti, but with the tightly-braided hair that was a hidden language of slaves, mapping out routes to freedom.
“I was a line cook a year ago. I’ve always been a photographer at heart. I’ve always experimented with digital photography,” Cain says. It was the pandemic that provided freedom to explore, to “be so creative in our darkest hour.
“We have all the answers. We just have to work together.”
Indigenous artist Tim Laurin, who is Metis, and Nathalie Bertin, who describes herself as Metis, French and Algonquin, also build new vocabularies out of the imagery and traditions of the past.
Bertin’s works – a painting; Western-style handmade clothing featuring a traditional beaded medallion; a fur and beadwork “Moccushion” – are all expressions of her own Indigenous spirit, and part of a mission to “present a different view of Indigenous people – one that is positive, powerful, knowledgeable, gentle and kind,” but free of romanticism.
“The physical is not what matters. It’s the spirit essence that matters.”
Laurin describes art-making as “a search for belonging, and an assertion of my identity.”
His works are his version of visual archeology transforming glass, metal and found materials, including Dogwood sticks and a 1950s ceramic Indian head, into totemic and ceremonial objects.
“The objects we choose to keep have always fascinated me. What do these items suggest about our identity?” he asks, while creating a new, authentic and compelling narrative through the juxtaposition of materials.
Past, Present, Pause is not so much an ‘exploration’ as a celebration of difference.
Time, history and imagery are also central to The Age of Spin – Welcome to the Machine, Sean-William Dawson’s show in the smaller BHCV Project gallery.
“Our window to the world has now become a digital collage, where we question everything, even our own experiences,” Dawson says. His work combines the iconography of television, movies and pop culture with his own family history, and today’s social issues.
“I love pop culture. Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by the influences of TV shows on society. Now, with social media, tragedies are becoming parallel – we’re blurring the line between reality and entertainment.”
Downward, a series of four silk screens on vintage wallpaper in hand-made reclaimed wood frames, illustrates that theme: the decorative color scheme and color progression obscure the reality, that the images are comprised of superimposed photos of a screaming Janet Leigh from the iconic shower sequence in Psycho.
Dawson confesses to a fascination with pop culture villains and tragedies, into which he weaves his own personal story of family loss. A number of works combine drawings based on family photos with pop images, using colours selected from a popular internet colour wheel to evoke emotion.
“Using pop culture in a different way. That’s how pop culture is, in our society – more and more layers.”
His work is all about layers, of meaning and recognition. “We’ve grown up cutting and pasting, and in a way, that’s what I do, too,” to the point of using song titles as the titles of his works. “I’m presenting the movie of my life through my art.”
Both Past, Present, Pause. and The Age of Spin are at be contemporary art gallery in Stroud, 7869 Yonge Street, until October 2.
The gallery is open to the public, following COVID protocols that include wearing face masks and maintaining physical distancing. No more than five visitors are allowed into the gallery at one time.
There was no “Grand Opening” of the current exhibitions, but there will be a “Grand Closing” on Oct. 2, noon to 5 p.m., when the artists will be available to talk with the public about their work. Weather permitting, refreshments will be served outdoors on the patio. Watch for details.
Past, Present, Pause. and The Age of Spin were sponsored by Davidson’s Country Dining in Innisfil.