“Here: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists” at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

As part of the nationwide Canada 150 celebration, an exhibition of 21 artists represents a cross section of the citizens whose diversity makes up the fabric of 21st century Canada.

The multimedia exhibition marks the museum’s first dedicated to contemporary Canadian art. Some of the artists are Canadian born, others possess varying degrees of residency and thus distance to this country they call home. The show explores the ways in which ‘here’ is a concept that is always in flux and intricately intertwined with time, place and lived experience.

Funerary stele, Egypt or North Africa, 987 CE, Marble, carved Copyright © The Aga Khan Museum. AKM662

Funerary stele, Egypt or North Africa, 987 CE, Marble, carved. Copyright © The Aga Khan Museum.

“Here: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists” at the Aga Khan Museum, curated by artist and curator Swapnaa Tamhane, is anchored by an object in the museum’s permanent collection, a funerary stele. It is an intriguing choice of object to use to ground an exhibition that contains works that multilayered in their meaning, multidimensional in their physical form, and demand an intersectional analysis. Western conceptions of death consider it a conclusion, a final resting place as it is often described. The people of ancient Egypt (one of the possible places of origin of this object) believed otherwise. To them, death was a necessary phase of the life cycle, which allowed renewal and connectivity between the living and the ancestors. On steles of this kind would have been a story of the life of the person who died and possibly even a kind of instruction to the Egyptian gods who supervised the transition from the world of the living.

installation view of Here: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists, Image courtesy of Aga Khan Museum.

“Here: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists”, 22 July 2017 – 7 January 2018, installation view at Aga Khan Museum. Image courtesy  Aga Khan Museum.

How is a stele significant for Canada as it reaches its 150th birthday? It is, in fact, a through line. Like the forebears of the 21 artists in this exhibition, it has persisted through a variety of conditions: millennia, multiple ownerships, to come to a place and plant roots. Of the many readings of Here, what stands out the most is the lives long, generations long conversations that individuals have with the places they call home. Here is not a single place that one calls home, but a conglomeration of the places, experiences, and lives that people carry with them to the place that one calls home, as well as the elements of home they take with them that allows home to be everywhere they are. Guest curator, Swapnaa Tamhane states:

As we come upon Canada’s 150th year sine confederation, we are learning that the idea of “here” is not fixed, and we are not static.

The opposite of static is dynamic. Indeed the observation of Canada at 150 years old, through the lens of these artists suggests a history and present that is the antithesis of sameness, stagnancy and uniformity. Rather Canada possesses a storied, at times tragic, history that has put it on a trajectory, as it enters the second decade of the 21th century, which can carefully consider the various narratives and discourses that will define its future.

Nee Sidhu, Detail of Malcolm’s Smile, 7b, 2015, Wool, poly-cotton, and aluminum. Copyright © Nep Sidhu Commissioned by the Frye Art Museum, funded by the Frye Foundation, Douglas Smith Made in collaboration with Ishmael Butler.

Nep Sidhu, ‘Malcolm’s Smile’ (detail), 2015, wool, poly-cotton, and aluminum. Commissioned by the Frye Art Museum, funded by the Frye Foundation, Douglas Smith. Made in collaboration with Ishmael Butler. Copyright © Nep Sidhu.

Nep Sidhu‘s art practice resides along a continuum comprised of conceptual and technical components originating in antiquity but ever adaptable to the present day. His sculptural practice, of which Malcolm’s Smile is an exemplar, combines language, light-baring materials and incantation, which create a third space that unifies endless parallels and possibilities.

The installation of Malcolm’s Smile at the Aga Khan presents interesting vectors to the exhibition’s themes. Created in honour of Malcolm X, also known as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, one of the most prominent and polarising figures of world history, Sidhu’s represents this dynamic man in an elaborately weaved set of three tapestries. Together they offer a portrait of Malcolm X that is simultaneously reflective of his dedication to uplifting the oppressed, his spiritual transformation and transcendence, and the persistence of and relevance of his legacy to the world.

Nadia Myre, Circle, 2009 Seed beads and thread Copyright © Nadia Myre. Courtesy of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Nadia Myre, Photo by Christine Guest.

Nadia Myre, ‘Circle’, 2009, seed beads and thread. Photo: Christine Guest. Copyright © Nadia Myre. Image courtesy Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Nadia Myre.

Nadia Myre’s work employs collaborative processes as strategy for engaging in conversations about identity, resilience and politics of belonging. Her work Circle is one of a larger body of work called Scarscapes (2005-present) where she invited over 500 individuals to turn their scars into visual works. This project is a metaphor for trauma and the ways in which ideas about trauma are translated and encoded in our daily interactions and language.

This work is made even more potent in light of Myre’s identity as an Algonquin member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg people indigenous to Canada. The scarring replicated trough loom-woven beadwork, is symbolic not only of individual scars, be they emotional or physical, but also the scars of Myre’s indigenous ancestors, and all First Nations, peoples who experienced genocide and forced removal from their lands by European colonisers.

Jamelie Hassan, Detail of Could we ever know each other...?, 2013, Recycled neon, electrical, and colour photography mounted on Masonite Copyright © Jamelie Hassan. Courtesy of Ivey Business School, Western University, London, Ontario.

Jamelie Hassan, ‘Could We Ever Know Each Other…?’ (detail), 2013, recycled neon, electrical, colour photography mounted on Masonite. Copyright © Jamelie Hassan.
Image courtesy Ivey Business School, Western University, London, Ontario.

In Jamelie Hassan’s work Could We Ever Know Each Other…? (2013), the artist uses a now out of circulation Canadian 20 dollar bill to explore the value of knowledge and, moreover, the histories contained within single objects that have circulated through time and place. The title of the piece is taken from a quote by Canadian writer Gabrielle Roy, which asks, “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” This question seems more than apropos given the artist’s role as an interlocutor of our present day using art as his or her preferred discursive method.

Babak Golkar, The Fox, The Nut and The Banker’s Hand, 2016–2116, Taxidermy fox, silver tray, concealed object. Copyright © Babak Golkar. Courtesy of Studio Babak Golkar and Galería Sabrina Amrani.

Babak Golkar, ‘The Fox, The Nut and The Banker’s Hand’, 2016–2116, taxidermy fox, silver tray, concealed object. Copyright © Babak Golkar. Image courtesy Studio Babak Golkar and Galería Sabrina Amrani.

Babak Golkar’s depiction of a taxidermy fox possessing a vapid expression, while presenting a silver tray, offers little in the way of immediate connection to traditional notions of the fox as trickster or a healing figure. It is, however, the secret the fox contains within that is the key to this objet d’art. Concealed inside is another artwork, a time capsule, which the artists instructs must not be opened for another 99 years lest the artwork be rendered null and void.

Here Golkar gets to the heart of one of the central elements of experiencing art – seeing. How can one know and understand what one cannot see? Probing further, how many of the things we value are items we do not own, have never seen, and may never experience in any up close and intimate manner? Further, can we accurately determine an artwork’s value if we can not see it and thus assess it? In considering value, we begin to see where this fox, is indeed a trickster. We view the fox and we are told it contains another artwork but how do we know? The lack of certainty makes the work within all the more curious and coveted simply by our inability to truly know if it exists.

Jaret Vadera, Diseases of the Eye, 2017. Image courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum. Photographer: Aly Manji

Jaret Vadera, ‘Diseases of the Eye’, 2017. Photo: Aly Manji. Image courtesy Aga Khan Museum.

In a time rife with discussion on who’s native and who is a foreigner, Jaret Vadera brings the topic of belonging to bear through a multimedia depiction called Diseases of the Eye (2017). Quite literally, Vadera has comprised a four-part work that shows the eye in varying states of disease caused by foreign bodies that either cover it, puncture it, inhabit it or disturb its normal function. This is a powerful metaphor for the experience of immigrants throughout the world who are unfortunately too often framed as criminals seeking to encroach upon the lives and liberty of natives. This is an incredibly powerful metaphor for the policies of Canada’s southern neighbour but also the rhetoric of its former colonisers – the United Kingdom and France – who have historically had very fraught relationships with their immigrants.

Zadie Xa, Zilla the Witch of Flyness in Green Jade City, 2015. Image courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum.

Zadie Xa, ‘Zilla the Witch of Flyness in Green Jade City’, 2015. Image courtesy Aga Khan Museum.

installation view of Here: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists, Image courtesy of Aga Khan Museum.

“Here: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists”, 22 July 2017 – 7 January 2018, installation view at Aga Khan Museum. Image courtesy  Aga Khan Museum.

Zadie’s Xa’s Zilla the Witch of Flyness in Green Jade City (2015) is a lush composition of taffeta, fur and black ceramic hands, one of which has an eyeball attached to it that speaks to the disjointed process of creating an identity located in a place that does not feel completely yours. Xa challenges head on perceptions of Asian identity by using exaggerated concepts that speak to the existence of otherness of her experience growing up Chinese in Vancouver. This piece is actually a cloak that can be worn, which is suggestive of its transformative properties as a garment capable of supporting its wearer through this process navigating and negotiating her identity.

Negarra A. Kudumu

1984

“Here: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists” is on view from 22 July 2017 to 7 January 2018 at Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Dr, North York, ON M3C 1K1, Canada.

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