[Editorial note: Serai editor Rana Bose was intrigued by the autobiographical story submitted by Miriam Edelson, from Toronto. “Intrigued” would perhaps be the wrong word. It was more of a sense of resonance with a time in the past. Bose’s family and Edelson’s family, living in diametrically opposite corners of the world – Kolkata and New York – picked up prints of the works of German artist Käthe Kollwitz and were evidently moved by them, as were their children.
It was the Cold War era, and Kollwitz represented in many ways the voice of the silenced and the outward expression of many tensions – within herself, and with her surroundings. Her works reflected a myriad of despair and hopes. In the context of this issue’s theme, “Out of the Ashes,” Rana found it important to continue the conversation on Kollwitz’ art as a crucial exercise in remembering. His exchange with Miriam Edelson is found at the end of her story.]
The first piece of artwork I became aware of as a youngster is a charcoal print of a mother holding a small child in her arms, by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Best known for her drawings and prints, Kollwitz chronicled in her work the lives of working people in the face of hunger, poverty and war. The modestly framed picture hung above the piano in our family’s living room. Later, it adorned my own home and in the years before becoming a mother, I would look at it with some yearning and a pinch of understanding. The relationship between mother and child was so clearly central to both, their mutual need and desire for the other so intense.
Kollwitz was one of my mother’s favourite artists. My mother was a social worker, familiar with distressed families dealing with hardship. I think it was the humanitarian political impulse in the artist’s work, the need to expose poverty and protest against the effects of war, that appealed to her. My mother’s training emphasized group work, rather than individual casework, an approach that reflected a systemic critique of society. People in her left-wing circles adored Kollwitz’s work.
At some point before my mother died, I discovered a treasure trove of Kollwitz prints safely ensconced on the shelf above her clothes closet. She had hung one print in our home and kept the others for her children, I imagine. Encased in a textured cardboard cover, separated by tissue paper that crinkled when touched, were eight drawings of children, women, and men. They were definitely not middle or upper class but rather, ordinary folk, several having fallen on hard times. The mother and child print that I looked at so often during my daily music practice found pride of place in my daughter’s room at our summer cabin. She grew up with it hanging across from her bed.
Another artist whose work spoke to me during my pre-motherhood days was the American Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), who exhibited in France with the Impressionists. Her paintings of young children playing quietly with their mothers still in bed, drinking coffee, drew me in. I yearned for such communion with my child-to-be. In fact, however, the idyllic moments of the privileged women Cassatt painted were quite unlike my own experience. It was not very often in my mothering of young children that such stillness prevailed.
“No, I won’t get dressed for daycare,” my child wailed at me. She insisted on wildly running around the house in the nude at age four.
This was an almost daily occurrence. I once resorted to driving her to the daycare naked, wrapped in a towel, her clothes in my lap. We scooted up the steps and I dressed her – finally — in the staff washroom. I can’t imagine Mary Cassatt’s mothers going through such a tumultuous morning routine.
My connection to Käthe Kollwitz is different because she captures in her work something of my mothering travails. Her subjects are working-class or poor women, chosen from among those who came to see her physician husband, in a disadvantaged area of Berlin where he chose to practice. Kollwitz is not afraid of the hard subjects, grief and death. She lost her younger son, Peter, in the early days of World War I. I lost my boy to a neurological disorder just before his 14th birthday. I handled my grief, in part, by writing. Kollwitz created sketches, etchings and sculpture drawn from the same emotional landscape. There is a stunning authenticity to her work.
I wish I had taken the time to sit with my mother in her nursing home and go through Kollwitz’s wonderful charcoal prints with her. I think our sensibilities were similar. It’s too late for that now. We lost her to Alzheimer’s, and such special final moments were out of reach.
Perhaps I could have tried and she might have enjoyed some lucid moments with the pictures again. I’ll never know, but I think I will initiate some quiet time with my (now dressed) adult daughter to look at them together. She’s in that pre-mothering phase where the yearning for a child is beginning. She, too, might appreciate the humanity that emanates from Käthe Kollwitz’ work.
Exchange between Serai editor Rana Bose and Miriam Edelson
RB: My questions have more to do with my sense of nostalgic association with Kollwitz in our family and the presence of some prints of her work in the ’fifties and ’sixties in India. My father had been to both the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) a few times. He popularized Käthe Kollwitz amongst his friends and colleagues. He was a cardiologist and a socialist. These questions may simply add a contemporizing element to your essay, which is very moving. As you know, during these times a lot of history is either being revised or forgotten.
ME: How wonderful that my piece found you, someone who also grew up with the presence of Käthe Kollwitz – and yet, on the other side of the world from New York where my family lived at the time. I’ll do my best to answer your questions based on what I’ve read about the artist and the times she lived in.
RB: Can you describe one or two of the other Kollwitz’ prints that you discovered as a “treasure trove” in your house? What were they all about? Could you explain the possible context that made her create those works? The reason I ask is because she not only depicted working people but also social movements. Could you describe those movements? It would be good for Serai readers to know more about her affiliations and leanings.
ME: I’ll speak about two prints I came across. One is called “Visiting the Children’s Hospital” and it depicts a man and woman (presumably the parents) leaning in toward a small child seated on a chair. The woman is holding a cup for the child to drink. The parents look both loving and concerned.
The second print is called “Woman lost in thought” and shows a woman who may be at the end of her tether, deep in thought with her hand covering much of her face. There’s a poignancy to the picture as she seems rather worn out by life. In both prints, I believe Kollwitz captures something essential about suffering and the human condition.
Kollwitz’ work documented the daily struggles of ordinary people, particularly women and mothers, but not exclusively. I understand that the period after World War I in Germany was particularly challenging in terms of widespread poverty and a great sense of loss after losing so many young men in the war. Kollwitz was active in the anti-war movement during these years, creating political posters for various organizations, including socialists and communists (although everything I’ve read said she was not a member of the CP).
RB: Dark, gray representations of social realism and human suffering were the essence of her art. Have you seen any that were different from such a representation?
ME: Most of the work I’ve seen in books and at the Art Gallery of Ontario follows this same representation. It is interesting that she did so in different mediums – charcoal prints, lithographs, etchings, and sculpture. I find the pictures of the sculptures to be quite compelling and would love to have the opportunity to see some in person. I understand that in Germany there are many streets and schools named after her, a testament to her impact.
RB: What exactly do you mean when you talk about your mother’s group work? Can you explain some more about that?
ME: What I understand about groupwork vs. casework is that my mom was both trained in and committed to the notion that structures and institutions in society determine outcomes for ordinary people. Two things come to mind. Today we hear a lot about the social determinants of health – housing, nutrition, socio-economic status (class), education and so on. I think my mother would support looking at an individual’s or a family’s situation by exploring those social determinants rather than assuming a deviancy or some other ‘blame the victim’ viewpoint. So, in addition to finding some relief for the individual or family, the social worker could be involved in community organizing toward improving the general conditions. Does that make sense? As a young woman, my mom was also involved in organizing some of the early social work unions where she was working in Cleveland.
I hope these answers are helpful. There is so much richness in the artist’s work and I’m not an art expert. But I know that the values my parents raised us with, to live in such a way that you are contributing toward creating a better world, were also somehow infused in Kollwitz’ work. And that’s what stays with me.
More on Miriam Edelson:
Miriam Edelson’s first book, My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability, was published in April 2000. Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs appeared in late 2005. She completed a doctorate in 2016 at University of Toronto, focused upon Mental Health in the Workplace. “The Swirl in my Burl,” her collection of essays, is forthcoming in Spring 2022. To follow Miriam’s work, please visit her website and blog.
De la musique à la sculpture
Mon père était directeur musical et enseignait la musique. J’ai baigné toute mon enfance dans une ambiance dynamique; concerts et cours de musique animaient notre vie familiale. Très jeune, j’ai réalisé que malgré mon intérêt pour la musique, je ne voulais pas être instrumentiste. Je désirais m’exprimer autrement qu’en jouant de la flûte traversière. Même si à l’adolescence les arts visuels m’attiraient beaucoup, je n’ai pas pu continuer dans ce domaine. Je me suis toutefois rapprochée de mon objectif en complétant à temps partiel un baccalauréat en arts visuels orienté vers la sculpture (surtout de métal, avec Michel Goulet), à l’UQAM.
En 2004, dans le cadre de ma formation au baccalauréat, je devais compléter un stage pratique. J’ai choisi de le faire en Italie où j’ai découvert la sculpture sur pierre, à Carrare. Cette expérience fut pour moi une véritable révélation! La dureté et la lourdeur du marbre m’ont d’abord surprise, puis complètement séduite. Sculpter à la main pour le plaisir de découvrir les qualités de la matière, entrer dans son essence et ainsi créer un lien dans lequel il n’y a plus la notion de temps. J’étais le marbre, j’étais la sculpteure, j’étais dans l’instant présent. Dès lors, je n’ai eu qu’un désir : continuer de faire de la sculpture sur pierre.
En repensant à mon enfance, je me vois jouer librement dans les champs, m’asseoir sur les rochers, construire des structures avec le bois et les roches. Mes jeux d’enfant étaient déjà porteurs de sens; j’ai retrouvé cette même sensation de bien-être lors de mon stage à Carrare. Créer au grand air me procure une grande joie et un sentiment de liberté.
Développer de nouveaux projets et être en contact avec ma force créatrice, quel bonheur! Tailler le marbre ou la pierre me donne de l’énergie, il y a un lien physique et intuitif dans l’action de sculpter. Partir de la matière pour créer une forme qui n’existe pas au départ génère une sensation forte qui vient de l’intérieur, comme une connexion avec mon inconscient.
Liées à mon histoire familiale, plusieurs de mes œuvres portent l’empreinte de la musique, comme Jazz créée en 2017 pour une exposition au Carrousel du Louvre à Paris. Dans cette sculpture en pierre blanche de Noto se trouvent la trompette et l’embouchure de trombone de mon père, une guitare, une volute de violoncelle et une cymbale. Cette sculpture est un hommage à mes racines ainsi qu’au jazz, une musique que j’aime particulièrement.
Je m’inspire souvent de la musique, pour trouver les titres de mes œuvres, comme Crescendo, Interlude et Adagio, car dans la sculpture comme dans la musique on retrouve la forme, le mouvement, le tempo, etc. Le titre représente analogiquement la dynamique de l’œuvre ou ce qui s’en dégage. En guise d’exemple, ma sculpture Adagio qui signifie un mouvement lent et andante.
Cet oiseau-pingouin à l’apparence insolite a été élaboré intuitivement sans croquis préalable. Après avoir commencé à sculpter presque toute la partie avant dans le bloc de marbre de Carrare, j’ai décidé de le couper en deux. Je ressentais la nécessité de le faire, sans pouvoir l’expliquer logiquement. J’ai ainsi créé un passage et cette créature au destin fragmenté est apparue. Puis, l’image d’un glacier scindé en deux parties a surgi lorsque j’ai déposé ma petite sculpture de porcelaine à l’intérieur de l’espace central. Cette image évoque pour moi la fonte des glaciers dans l’Arctique qui s’intensifie dans un mouvement inexorable; au début, il est à peine perceptif, mais le tempo s’accélère de sorte que plusieurs êtres vivants, dont les pingouins et les ours polaires, sont désormais des espèces menacées.
Je suis sensible à ce qui se passe actuellement dans le monde, notamment à la situation de la femme, aux conflits mondiaux et aux problèmes écologiques. Nous vivons des moments difficiles. Dans ma production artistique, cela m’habite inconsciemment, comme dans la sculpture Adagio, où cela s’est révélé dans les dernières phases de réalisation. La sculpture me permet de symboliser à ma façon certains sujets qui me préoccupent ou qui me tiennent à cœur.
Mes thématiques préférées sont reliées aux traces et empreintes laissées par le temps, dans la nature, l’histoire, l’architecture, etc. Je capte et mémorise les images ou les mots qui m’inspirent, puis je les décompose en lignes et en volumes. La matière prend forme librement; de la simple intuition ou de la déconstruction du réel, elle génère une sculpture contemporaine. Lorsque je porte en moi une idée difficile à exécuter, je ne peux y échapper! J’aime créer des univers intrigants et souvent métaphoriques en jouant avec les matériaux, les formes et l’espace… des œuvres complexes et formelles par leur composition (lignes plus géométriques ou fractales).
J’utilise surtout le marbre de Carrare et la pierre blanche de Noto, mais j’aime également travailler avec d’autres matériaux, comme le bois et le papier. Depuis plus de 17 ans, je sculpte principalement à la main, avec des outils de taille directe. Lorsque je sculpte la pierre ou le bois, des éléments organiques surgissent spontanément. Ce contact avec la matière m’amène à faire des découvertes, à oser des agencements souvent contradictoires ou qui n’ont pas de lien entre eux au départ.
Depuis 2013, je partage ma vie de sculpteure entre deux pays, le Canada et l’Italie, ce qui est stimulant et exigeant. Quand on me demande pourquoi l’Italie, je réponds : pour la pierre et pour le contact avec les maîtres artisans et sculpteurs italiens. J’aime transférer les techniques et les connaissances des anciens dans la réalisation d’une sculpture contemporaine.
Mes pierres et mes sculptures ont donc souvent voyagé; la plupart du temps, je les apporte dans mes bagages ou les expédie par bateau.
Une pierre c’est lourd à porter, mais léger à sculpter!
Mouvement de la création
Je suis le sculpteur de ma vie
un défi terrible
à faire quelque chose de grand
en dehors de ma destinée
Dans mon esprit toute cette musique,
mon matériel premier mes mains
avec ce mouvement interne
et toujours ce désir
de faire surgir hors de mon corps
mes idées et mon énergie
Comme si ma partition
mon héritage génétique
me pousse à tenter
à avoir le courage,
avec ce besoin intense
de créer et de vivre ma passion pour l’art
« Mouvement de la création » © Johanne Ricard
Pour suivre les expositions solo et collectives de Johanne Ricard, veuillez consulter ses pages Facebook (Johanne Ricard artiste / Johanne MC Ricard) et les sites Web du Conseil de la sculpture du Québec, de l’ASPM et de la Galérie le 1040.
Tell Mother, I’m Home is a series of
images and text that I have been
working on since May 2018. The
photographs, previously manual –
both film photographs and instant
film/Polaroid – have been digitized
for the series to culminate in the
form of an artist book and an
This body of work contains an array
of different kinds of images
(varying in surface quality,
appearance, colour, medium, etc.).
It began as an exercise –
of journaling, making collages,
writing poems and collecting quotes
/text by other authors, using a toy
camera in some cases – to record,
observe, express and understand
where I had arrived, in terms of
time, and what it was that I was
experiencing after being away from
home for two years, mourning
the death of a loved one.
This body of work was initiated as
a photographic exploration of the
passage of time, which I began
shooting on a toy camera, within
the housing society where I had
spent my childhood.
It was originally shot/captured
out of an impulse to retrieve some
lost artefact from the past… to
explore and retrace memories,
secrets… and to locate something of
people forever lost to time, leaving
behind spaces and structures that
still remain – residues, which
bring up questions within the self,
that one ruminates over – asking
what it means to be at home,
in the world and within oneself.
To question exile and death, along
with home and belonging… in an
attempt to understand things in a
manner that is not absolute.
To begin with a metaphysical,
expansive and/or atmospheric
sense perception of the experience
of time and the liminal space of
“I would put out the light and leave
the study: invisible in the darkness,
the book kept sparkling, for itself
alone. I would give my works the
violence of those corrosive flashes,
and later, in ruined libraries, they
would outlive man.”
Les Mots, Jean-Paul Sartre
I wanted this body of work to be
expansive, and inclusive of spaces
which may or may not have been a
part of the past, but rather of
experiences in time, of life as it was
moving, through travelling and
through my observations – creating
and/or paving the way for the
existence of certain memories of
I imagined an eye, perusing both
the darkness and the lightness of
individual puncture wounds that
mark time, only to reveal the
ambivalence and abstraction of a
“Subtlety, lucidity: the infinite is
presented as a gradual,
imperceptible expansion of the
dominion of light.”
Roberto Calasso, Ardor
“… and leave you (inexpressibly
to unravel) your life, with its
immensity and fear, so that,
now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternatively stone in you and
Excerpt from “Evening” by Rainer Maria Rilke
The private intensity of vision unraveling
before me, or my experience as an
observer, leads me to believe that
it is perhaps possible to leave one’s
body and to merge with/become
the very thing that one looks at or
is looking at – to be travelling with light
and without a body.
To be anywhere in the world, whoever
I am, or shall be in this life, having
arrived at a moment in both space and
time, to recognize what is
transcendental within our experience,
my words, as if the last of them are
to Tell Mother, I’m Home.
I’ve been making a series of hand-embroidered interventions on printed fabric. The images of various places and people come back to the common theme of subjects unable (or unwilling) to be claimed. This unfinished business is embodied by the obstacle of the embroidered PROOF watermarks. Inspired by traditional printmaking processes, the series attempts to hold the desire for archival presence alongside the problems of such a structure.
Even as queer and racialized people are gravitating towards archival practices—from which we were once excluded—the form of the archive itself still retains the structure of the problem: their inherently limiting boundaries of authority, (in)accessibility, ethnographic classification, and their penchant for legible representation.
How do we hold space for the unrecorded, the unrecordable, and the yet-to-be-recorded? What if our desire for documentation might be damaging? The challenges of commemoration beckon me to consider what queer theorist Jack Halberstam refers to as “new forms of memory that relate more to spectrality than to hard evidence, to lost genealogies than to inheritance, to erasure than to inscription.”
To follow Florence Yee’s work, go to their website.
Displaced Garden is the latest work of Montréal-based Iranian artist Anahita Norouzi, exploring the legacies of botanical exploration, plant-collecting and documentation inherited from colonial scientific expeditions. Taking the form of a photographic book containing 18 cyanotype impressions of plant specimens, the project results from a collaboration between the artist and eight refugees from the Middle East and Africa. The participants were invited to ask their families in their home country to mail the artist dried plants native to their land, but categorized as “foreign” and “invasive” in Canada. These “invasive” species are indeed amongst the most common in Canada, bursting through asphalt and thriving in alleys and roadsides.
The series portrays each specimen individually and in the state in which it arrived by mail, showing signs of damage and deterioration caused by transportation. Featured alongside the blueprints are postage stamps and postcards attesting to the species’ cross-continental journey, and short texts referring to the histories of war and colonialism that have shaped the countries from which the samples were collected.
Through this work, Norouzi comments on the processes of botanical extraction from colonies around the globe that drove the expansion of Western scientific knowledge and territorial conquest, while at the same time reversing the roles and subverting the colonial gaze. Here, immigrants from once-colonized countries are the ones collecting and transferring plants from their native land to the West. Norouzi chooses to reappropriate methods of botanical photography in order to engage in a decolonial reading of its history.
(Introduction by Julia Eilers Smith)
The Morice Line was a defensive line that went into effect in September 1957 during the Algerian War of Independence, fought between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). The line was 460 km long and sealed off Algeria’s eastern and western borders to prevent FLN guerrillas from entering the colony from Tunisia and Morocco. The centre of the line was an electric fence 2.5 m high that carried a 5,000-volt charge for its entire length. On each side of the fence there was a minefield, heavily mined by the French—with a density of one landmine per metre—for a total number of 11,064,180 mines. The use of alarms, radars, checkpoints and anti-personnel landmines made the Morice Line impenetrable.
Following the end of the war in1962, extensive efforts were made by the new Algerian authorities to clear and dismantle the Morice Line. Decades after the conflict came to an end, the Morice Line continued to cause casualties among local Algerian populations. It is unclear how many civilians have been killed or wounded by landmines. According to the Algerian newspaper El Acil, there have been more than 40,000 victims of mines since the country’s independence. In October 2007, French Army General Jean-Louis Georgelin finally handed over maps that detailed the extent of the contamination and the exact locations of the mines. The French government had been in possession of the maps since the ceasefire in 1962.
Algeria eventually joined the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use of landmines, and agreed to the obligations of the Convention. In 2017, Algeria finally announced that after decades of work, it had fulfilled its mine clearance obligation under the treaty.
In January 1899, the UK and Egypt (a British protectorate at the time) signed an agreement and established the shared dominion of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, defining “Sudan” as the “territories south of the 22nd parallel of latitude.”
In November 1902, the UK drew a separate “administrative boundary,” intended to reflect the actual use of the land by the tribes in the region. Bir Tawil, a grazing land used by the Ababda tribe located above the 22nd parallel, was placed under Egyptian administration. Similarly, the Hala’ib Triangle to the northeast was placed under the British governor of Sudan, because its inhabitants were culturally closer to Khartoum. The discrepancy between the straight political boundary established in 1899 and the irregular administrative boundary established in 1902 has resulted in Bir Tawil currently being claimed by neither country, and the Hala’ib Triangle being claimed by both.
The Hala’ib Triangle is an area measuring 20,580 km2 located on the coast of the Red Sea. With the independence of Sudan declared in1956, both Egypt and Sudan claimed sovereignty over the area. The area has been considered a part of Sudan’s Red Sea state, and was included in local elections until the late 1980s.
Although both countries continued to lay claim to the land, joint control of the area remained in effect until1992, after the unsuccessful assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during his visit to Addis Ababa. Egypt accused Sudan of complicity and strengthened its control over the Hala’ib Triangle, expelling the Sudanese police and other officials. The Egyptian government converted the village of Halayeb into a city and launched various civilian projects, which have been under construction ever since. In 2010, Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir claimed that despite Egypt’s de facto control of the Triangle, the area still rightfully belonged to Sudan.
In 2014, a 38-year-old farmer from Virginia named Jeremiah Heaton laid claim to the Bir Tawil land, to make his daughter a princess. The United Nations did not recognize Heaton as the legitimate ruler of Bir Tawil, as only individuals who have lived on a territory for years can assert sovereignty over that land.
The Congo Pedicle—meaning little foot—is the southeast salient of the Congolese territory that cuts deep into neighbouring Zambia and divides it into two lobes. It is an example of the arbitrary boundaries imposed by European powers on Africa, without considering pre-existing political and tribal territories.
After a decade of dispute between the British South Africa Company of Katanga, from the north, and the Congo Free State ruled by King Leopold II of Belgium, from the southwest, Zambia’s formal northern frontier boundary was legally signed in the Anglo-Belgian Treaty of 1894. However, the Lake Tanganyika Cape, mentioned in the treaty and described as a reference point for the division of the land, planted the seeds of subsequent border disputes. British maps showed the boundary meeting at Cape Chitankwa, while Belgian maps showed the meeting point far south of Cape Chitankwa, thereby cutting deep into assumed Northern Zambia territory.
The Congo Pedicle has been a major hindrance to Zambian development since its independence in 1962. It cleaves the country into two lobes of roughly equal size and cuts off the eastern and western parts of the Northern Province from the country’s industrial and commercial hub, the Copperbelt. Transportation is another major problem. Traveling from northeastern to central Zambia is not too difficult if one crosses the Pedicle, but getting around it is arduous, with the Bangweulu wetlands standing in the way. The pedicle itself has also remained isolated from the rest of modern-day Congo and is consequently underdeveloped, except where mining occurs, for which the pedicle receives no share.
The Moroccan Western Sahara Wall is a 2,700-km-long structure, running through Western Sahara and the southwestern portion of Morocco. It separates the Moroccan-occupied areas (the Southern provinces) on the west from the Polisario-controlled areas (Free Zone, nominally called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) on the east.
The fortifications consist of sand and stone walls or berms about 3 metres tall, with bunkers, barbed wire, electric fences and an estimated seven million land mines. The barrier mine belt that runs along the structure is thought to be the longest continuous minefield in the world. Military bases, artillery posts and airfields closely monitor the Moroccan-controlled side of the wall at regular intervals, and radar masts and other electronic surveillance equipment scan the areas in front of it.
Morocco gained independence from France in 1956. Inspired by the idea of creating a Greater Morocco, the government claimed all of Spanish Sahara as a Moroccan land. Saharawi nationalists had meanwhile formed the Polisario Front, seeking independence for the Spanish Sahara, and began a guerrilla campaign. An International Court of Justice ruling on the matter in October 1975 rejected the Moroccan claim to the Spanish Sahara, and stated that the Saharawi people should be allowed to determine their own future. Morocco thereafter sought to settle the matter with military force—in November 1975, it conducted the “Green March,” as thousands of soldiers forcibly crossed the Morocco-Spanish Sahara border. The Polisario troops that had declared a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic based on the boundaries of Spanish Sahara thus started waging a long war against Morocco.
Morocco and the Polisario Front signed a ceasefire agreement in 1991, ending the war, with Morocco retaining control of areas west of the wall, and the Polisario controlling those located east. However, to this day, the dispute over the borders has remained unresolved.
Between 1920 and1923, France and Britain signed a series of agreements known as the Paulet-Newcombe Agreement, which created the modern Jordan-Syria and Iraq-Syria borders. It was an amendment to what had been designated as the zone of French influence in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret 1916 treaty between Britain and France that defined the border of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, and their mutually agreed-upon spheres of control in an eventual partition of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement allocated to Britain control over what is known today as southern Israel and Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, and an additional small area that included the port of Haifa to allow access to the Mediterranean. France was granted control over southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The logic behind this division was to award the roads to Syria and the water resources to Palestine.
Although the European powers withdrew after WWII, the “artificial” borders that they created remained. These borders negated the UK’s conflicting promise of creating a national Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria in exchange for the Arabs’ support for the British against the Ottoman Empire. Each country expected the land to remain in their hands, which seems to be what the British had promised them.
The latter also broke their promise to the Kurds to make provision for an independent Kurdish state. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which officially settled the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied forces, made no such provision and left the Kurds with minority status, scattered throughout southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and northern Syria. This has led directly to numerous genocides and rebellions, along with armed conflicts in Turkish, Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi Kurdistan until today.
On August 6, 1914, the French and British invaded the German protectorate of Togoland in West Africa and began the West African campaign for WWI. German colonial forces withdrew from the capital, Lomé, and the coastal province, to fight and delay actions on their way to Kamina, where the Kamina wireless transmitter linked the government in Berlin to Togoland, the Atlantic, and South America. The German defenders delayed the invaders for several days, and finally surrendered the colony on August 26. They demolished all the radio towers and destroyed the electrical equipment before abandoning Kamina.
Two years later, in 1916, the victors partitioned Togoland into British Togoland and French Togoland, which cut through administrative divisions and civilian boundaries. The French acquisition consisted of roughly 60% of the colony, including the entire coastline. The British received the smaller, less populated and less developed portion of Togoland to the west.
In May 1956, as part of the decolonization of Africa, a referendum was organized in British Togoland to determine the future of the territory. The referendum was held under UN supervision and gave two alternatives to the people: to unite with the neighbouring country of Ghana or to continue to be known as a Trust Territory until neighbouring French Togoland had decided on its future. Independence was not listed as an option. The Togolese Ewe, a dominant ethnic group native to Togoland, preferred amalgamation with French Togoland. However, the result was reported to be 58% in favour of integration with Ghana, and 55% for unification with French Togoland. Despite concerns over the lawfulness of the referendum, the area was united with Ghana as an administrative region.
Nowadays, the result of the transfer of Togoland to Ghana is that many Togolese people keep one foot on either side of the border, living in Ghana by night and working in Lomé by day.
After Tunisia gained independence in1956, France remained in control of the city of Bizerte and its naval base, a strategic port on the Mediterranean, which played an important part in French operations during the Algerian War.
In 1961, Tunisian forces blockaded the naval base in hopes of forcing France to evacuate its last holdings in the country. France had promised to negotiate the future of the base, but had until then refused to remove it. Tunisia was further infuriated upon learning that France planned to expand the airbase. After Tunisia warned France against any violations of Tunisian air space, the French defiantly sent a helicopter. Tunisian troops responded by firing warning shots. In response, 800 French paratroopers were sent in as a show of force. When the transport planes with the paratroopers landed on the airfield, Tunisian troops engaged them with targeted machine gunfire. In response, French jets supported by troops thoroughly attacked the Tunisian roadblocks, destroying them completely.
The following day, the French launched a full-scale invasion of Bizerte. Tanks and paratroopers penetrated into the city from the south, while marines stormed the harbour from landing craft. Tunisian soldiers hastily organized civilian volunteers and engaged in heavy street fighting with the French, but were forced back by vastly superior French forces. The French overran the city on July 23, 1961, and left some 630 Tunisians dead.
Tunisia appealed to the United Nations, but the UN was unable to carry out any sort of substantial action against the French. The French troops occupied the city until the fall, but did not abandon its naval base until late 1963.
All artwork and images © Anahita Norouzi
For more on Anahita Norouzi’s work, please visit her website.
Works of art reveal themselves to me, rather than my creating or composing preconceived notions. (I’d call them vague notions that I feel for some time without defining them, sometimes for a long time.) I believe each work belongs to itself and to each viewer. The viewers (and I too) interpret each work of art uniquely. Viewers reveal many details to me that I didn’t realize were hidden there, if they so desire, and I’m always fascinated. They’re like messages.
I wondered about sharing this in my piece, as it is not really a technique… it’s more a communion with the atmosphere, which I think everyone has — children have it without hesitating a bit as to how to depict what they see or feel. Leave it to teachers (often wonderful teachers!), to rely on art techniques taught to them by inventors (often artists themselves), or whole cultures (Degas when not painting ballerinas, or Picasso the sculptor, or Japanese artists in origami).
In my early school days, I was frequently sent out of class and instructed by the teacher to draw pictures on the walls of the hallway in chalk. Since I didn’t consider myself one of the school’s artistes, I thought I was being punished (don’t ask me why). In hindsight, I think I was bored in class and had been given something, anything, to do.
I did not think of doing visual art on a regular basis until my middle age while visiting my maternal relatives on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. Palm trees and an ocean vista were close at hand, as were coloured pencils and paper at my great-uncle’s little shop. In my self-taught way I tried to capture the scene.
Sometime later, I finally attended Pratt Institute in Manhattan and took classes in drawing, painting (watercolour and acrylics), and the basics of computer use and coding. Later, concentrating on computer arts, I taught myself the digital ways to apply colours, varied sizes and styles of brushes, and how to overlap layers of transparent and opaque sizes, shapes, and strokes to create abstract digital compositions.
In the 1980s, a long period of study became available for me at the Ruth Leaf printmaking studio in Long Island. I concentrated on hard-ground etching which involves using an extremely sharp-pointed steel engraving needle to draw on zinc or copper plates coated with a hard ground. The plates are then run, one by one, through a printing press. (To see an example of my prints, see Duo, an etching featured in this issue’s editorial.)
I continued printmaking at the legendary Bob Blackburn studio in Manhattan, and with Stephanie Navon Jacobson at the Great Neck Long Island Program (which offers many arts programs for adults) and the Art League of Long Island.*
My other self-teaching endeavors at various stages in my life were in collage, monotype printmaking, wood burning, and Suminagashi, a decorative technique catching floating inks on waters’ surfaces with “rice” paper.
Much of my art, as in Collard Green Rhythms, Antibes, Master Juba’s Dancing and Warm Day, Sweet Fruit, is celebratory and inspired by nature and everyday life. However, certain themes of social awareness can be found throughout my work (poetry and visual art) and my activities.
Red Nets, while expressing the movements of the sea, also was a product of a meditation on the damage done by overfishing and the blood engendered by it that runs through the sea.
Dance Around the Earth is a tribute to Carmen De Lavallade, a black modern dancer and educator who, while still insufficiently appreciated, was a soloist with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and who subsequently founded her own dance companies and continued to perform onstage well into her eighties. The sweep of red in the painting is her skirt as she dances on international stages.
The Amadou Diallo Diptych (presented in an earlier issue of Montréal Serai) is a memorial divided between a section of darkness and violence, chaos, and a section devoted to Diallo’s suffering. A bleeding hole drips with his blood from the unwarranted barrage of police bullets that killed him in front of his Bronx, NY home on 4 Feb., 1999.
Long Island, where I live, is known to be one of the most segregated areas in the U.S.A., and the formation of the Long Island Black Artists Association in 1968 was made in answer to gallerists who stated that they did not know any black artists existed on Long Island. LIBAA creates its own exhibition opportunities to this day, and galleries remain largely as they were, except that they do know now that we exist. As a group, we paint a variety of subjects, as any other artists would do. To do otherwise would ghettoize our art.
In my poetry, the social themes that I address are black rage, feminine domestic abuse, class differences, and, alas, an ever-growing body of antiwar poems (including the one that follows). My poems have appeared in three specifically feminist anthologies: Songs of Seasoned Women; Tamba Tupu: Africana Women’s Poetic Self-Portrait; and Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of New York Women Poets.
When I have not been painting, writing, and educating myself, I have participated in many marches and rallies in Washington, D.C. and in front of court houses and prisons in New York City. I ran the Housing Accommodation Desk at a major Black Power Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, worked at two nonprofit organizations (United Negro College Fund, and LISC – a grantsmaking organization for community-run developments nationwide), worked in a clerical capacity at the United Nations Secretariat, and devoted three years of my working life to the cause of Black Studies, at the Institute of the Black World, in Atlanta, Georgia.
So, there you have perhaps an insight into the person behind the art works. If you read the antiwar poem, maybe you will know more than all of the above. An embrace of solidarity to you all.
IN LIEU OF A SALUTE
Standing in a parched meadow
she waves her lily instead of a flag.
Her brownspotted white flower,
where did it come from?
How did the flag come down?
Medals are strewn about,
looking like bottle caps after a game,
squashed faces awaiting the broom,
and here comes the sweeper,
tired, pushing though his back aches.
Here too the newest chevrons
worn by sergeants in a comedic army,
children shuffling in mock parade
without drums or tanks or guns,
but with pots, pans, grave memories.
Stars from all the aeons
wink at us from a deepening blue.
It is evening, earth empty of song.
Leave a plaque to remember all,
him, her, them, me, you.
Leave a plaque, a flower,
or the name of someone you love
scratched into dry, windswept ground,
Leave your mark below the monument
* Stephanie Navon Jacobson now also teaches at St. John’s University in Long Island. You can find her gorgeous prints and paintings on many online sites.
All through my training in sketching and painting, I was inspired by Bargue and Gérôme’s Cours de dessin to reproduce what I saw in real life and the natural world. Included below is one of my sketches (2016) of Bargue’s Plate I, 63:
The following three paintings are from photographs I took on my trip to Rajasthan (India) in 2012. They are all done in oil on canvas.
Lake Gadisar was built in 1156 in the sandy district of Jaisalmer that lies in the heart of the Thar Desert. This spread of water in a region surrounded by treeless sands exists as an essential anomaly that once provided water to the entire city.
The painting Rajasthan Camel Herders, Jaisalmer is reminiscent of an ancient form of transportation that has survived for centuries. It is as old as India and neighbouring countries. The desert sands that blow in the wind know no barriers and tell few stories. They are eternal.
Jodhpur Fort Wall depicts the flat and narrow walls of the famous Mehrangarh Fort built in 1459 by Rao Jodha. What you often see in pictures is the large and imposing structure of this fort, but the painting below depicts the extent of what I saw between two walls. The narrow stretch of blue, the distant gold, and the flight of birds is what has existed for centuries.
After we learned to live with the plague, we learned to survive without the city’s darkness, thanks to the curfew. It is clear what we have lost in this pandemic: lives, loved ones, health, jobs, businesses, fearlessness, spontaneity, the gift of company, culture, simplicity, reasonably priced food, and affordable resources. What we lost in the curfew was just as prized and worth invoking.
When Langston Hughes writes that he is “Black like the night is Black,” he tacitly compares White skin to day and suggests that both day and night are complementary and essential, not superior and inferior or in a relationship of enmity. There is no day without night, no night without day, yet for months we lived in the eternal light of the sun and LED bulbs as if the coronavirus lurked in the starker nocturnal shadows of a cruder mind when it was just as prevalent during the day in schools, factories, posh and humbler shops, planes, metros and buses.
What I lost in the curfew was poetry without charge, the velvet hush of a foggy evening, the dreams and fertile night/mares dusk summons forth, the fading warmth of defeated humanity in bars, the silent magic of that first snow falling against the glare of a streetlight, the defiant life of mannequins in shop windows, inspiring us into desire and resistance.
Darkness matters; it is in cooling, sensual obscurity that we grow resilient against the glare and assault of aggressive light. It is in the freedom of nightfall that we imagine better days.
Photos © Marie Thérèse Blanc (all photos taken pre-curfew)
Why I paint
For me, painting is like breathing. It is a process, a journey, an essential form of expression and mindfulness where my heart leads and my mind follows, and there are no critics. It is my playground, my happy time where curiosity and creativity run wild and I feel free and childlike again. The process is a prism through which my experience is synthesized, dancing my brush across the canvas, honouring my inner rumblings and fire (Satonhet).
With some informal training in the last three years, I am primarily self-taught, drawing from fellow artists, books and internet resources. Each sitting is a new experiential learning opportunity and technical challenge.
The effects of intergenerational trauma on both my family and community are felt every day. As an Indigenous woman, the painting process has been cathartic. It has had a grounding effect on my life, bringing clarity, joy and self-expression. It has allowed me to sit with difficult emotions without letting them devour me, as they so easily could. I’ve grown as a person of this earth and as a mother. Artistry in its many forms is an effective means of self-exploration, healing and activation of our inner wisdom. To sing the song we are meant to sing on this earth, we all need to embrace our inner fire—and the introspective nature of artistry facilitates that process.
Today I share with you three of my more recent acrylic-on-canvas paintings. Sharing these paintings with you is like sharing a piece of my heart. In doing so, I am connecting with the Montréal Serai community in an effort to bring about awareness of Indigeneity and artistry as a means of personal insight and growth.
In Kanien’kéha:ka, this is what is meant by the following words:
Kahwà:tsire: family / All Our Relations / inner fire
Onkwehonwe:neha: an Indigenous person who is authentic / true to themselves
Satonhet: your fire, the heart of your existence, your essence or spirit. When you access your Satonhet, you are one step closer to identifying, manifesting and sharing your unique gifts and purpose on this earth.
Akwé:kon: all / everyone together
Kaska:neks: longing / deep desire
The artist can be followed or contacted on Facebook (Leah Kanerahtaroroks Diome) or Instagram @leahkdiome. Or visit The Purple Dragonfly Trading Post, P.O. Box 1486, Route 132, Kahnawake, Québec, J0L 1B0
My Ghosts Roam This Land
Film credits: Written and directed by Craig Commanda and Marjan Verstaapen (Bawaadan Collective) / Narration: Craig Commanda performing his poem “The Ceremony”
River of Time
With movement of water
comes the movement
comes the movement of blood
what does it
mean to hold
against the sands
are the grains
each a universal
to the calm
mouth of the
on the trail
Film credits: Written and directed by Craig Commanda / Translation into Anishinaabemowin by Joan Commanda Tenasco / Music and narration by Craig Commanda / Collaboration with Wapikoni Mobile team
Note: Macrocosmic is being programmed for the Experiments in Cinema film festival in April 2021 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It will also feature a publication of Craig’s art and poetry.
Call and Response
Film credits: Written and directed by Craig Commanda / Musicians: René Racine, Craig Commanda / Original Music: René Racine, Craig Commanda / Collaboration with Wapikoni Mobile team
This project is a bead woven flat peyote stitch tapestry. It measures 11 cm x 10.5 cm, using black and white matte Miyuki cylinder beads in size 11, along with Berkeley’s Fireline 6lb thread. The tapestry is a QR code that links to a poem I wrote called “Circles,” which can be accessed by scanning the QR code. This poem is about how the threads of knowledge and culture that are normally passed down from generation to generation are summarily cut and shredded by the evils of colonialism, and how we continue to survive, in spite of their attempts to erase us with their holocausts, cultural and otherwise.
The idea for this project came about when I started to think about how I could use my newfound abilities as a bead weaver to inform my academic learning. I have long been interested in Indigenous languages, particularly my own, from my cultural background as an Anishinaabe person. I settled on the idea of using a QR code after I thought about using something digitally transmittable as a tool to preserve, revitalize, and transmit language, especially when trying to protect vulnerable Indigenous languages. How can digital tools be utilized with mino pimaadiziwin, or in a good way to help us? What are the ethical concerns with bringing Indigenous languages into cyberspace? What do we lose and what do we gain during this process of transference?
I couldn’t help but think of the process I was in as reminiscent of the wampum belts of old, held by Anishinaabe and Haudenesaunee peoples, belts that my ancestors held. These belts, or living documents, are older than the country of Canada, and document the original agreements between them and the early colonialists on how to respect one another and to work together. There are codes embedded into beadwork and weaving among many Indigenous nations. How does this traditional practice now intersect with new technological innovations of the modern day? In order to answer this question, I wrote my poem and made it the piece that the QR code links to. I liken it to the original QR code that is the wampum belts, and how they can be interpreted to figure out their true meaning and messages.
This also coincides with different Anishinaabeg communities and nations all having different styles of motifs that distinguish them from one another, and expands outward into how other Indigenous nations communicate and assert themselves in the world. There is a parallel here as well, with the patterns that would be woven into the hair of black slaves. These patterns would tell those people who knew what they really meant where to go. It was a fascinating use of hair as a medium of communications. Whether it’s hair or beads, interpreting patterns is and continues to be tied intimately to survival. This work continues this same vein of thought in the technological age we currently live in.
I made this piece to provoke questions about Indigenous language survivability, in an age where the bricks and mortar of technological infrastructure are missing the Indigenous voice. How Indigenous people see the world is coded in our Indigenous languages, including our values and knowledge. How can Indigenous people grasp the tools of the future to secure our present, while also relying on ancestral knowledge to guide us?
CMS: Can you tell us a little about your home community?
AC: Nunavik is very different from the South. It is very isolated. There are no trains, no roads to get there. You can only go by plane. Approximately 2,700 people live in Kuujjuaq, my home community. Everyone knows everyone – and nothing is far away. We don’t have as many restaurants or stores as the South, but there are some. There are a couple of hotels and bars, three general stores, a craft shop, an arena/gym, three churches and a bank. There are no sidewalks. There are a lot of stray dogs, and kids play outside without any adults around. We have [coniferous] trees where I live and there are two beaches. Around us, there are many lakes and all different types of animals – black bears, squirrels, rabbits, wolves, fox, and apparently, lynx. Kuujjuaq is pretty “civilized” and the caribou [tuttuit] know to stay away from town because we are always hunting for them.
CMS: What is your connection to the land?
AC: I grew up going camping and hunting with my parents either by boat or Ski-doo. I mostly hunted for ptarmigan [aqiggik] and geese [nirliit].
CMS: The first kill is an important milestone in the life of an Inuk. Do you remember your first kill?
AC: Actually, no, I was really young, around six years old.
CMS: Has anyone told you what happened that day?
AC: My father told me it was wintertime. We were on the Ski-doo hunting. We saw ptarmigan so we went close and he gave me his .22 rifle. He told me to shoot straight at them and when I started, they flew away. They were right in front of us and I was shaking so much I almost shot my dad’s Ski-doo windshield. But I don’t recall anything.
CMS: Did you actually kill one?
AC: I’m not sure. I think I got one before accidentally almost shooting the windshield.
CMS: Do you think that the Inuit view nature differently from people down here?
AC: I feel like people in the South experience camping in different ways than we do. We are more experienced in that we have always lived that type of lifestyle – going out on the land, going hunting. Our Elders taught us to respect our land.
Whenever we go hunting, we take every part of the animal except the guts and bones. We never let anything go to waste. That’s what we respect, that’s how we were taught to hunt. I don’t know, I feel like other people don’t respect the whole animal. They only take the part they want and leave the rest of the carcass, when they could’ve used it all for something.
CMS: For one of your classes, you were asked to sculpt a bird out of playing cards and glue only. You chose the Whiskey Jack. What is it called in Inuktitut and why did you choose it?
AC: The Whiskey Jack is called qupanuarjuaq. When my parents and I used to go camping at our cabin, we would wake up and cook breakfast on the woodstove, and each time we had leftovers we would feed the Whiskey Jacks. They would come to our window where the leftovers were, and we would watch them eat. Sometimes I would put my hand out the window and they would land on it and grab the food and fly away. I was young and I found it very interesting to watch them.
CMS: Is the Whiskey Jack native to the area around Kuujuaq?
AC: I’ve heard that they’re all over Nunavik – I’m not sure if they’re all over Canada too – but I used to see them regularly in my home community, even in town.
CMS: I’ve never seen a Whiskey Jack, but your sculpture is incredibly lifelike. Would you say that part of the reason you were able to accurately reproduce this bird is because of your close observations of them as a child?
AC: I would say, yes. I feel like because of my experiences, it was the perfect choice for this assignment.
CMS: Did you use a book to help you or did you do it completely from memory?
AC: I looked at a few photos online to help me recall some specific details like their wings and colour and size, stuff like that.
CMS: You seem to have chosen a very time-consuming method to accurately recreate each element of the Whiskey Jack, almost to the point of making each individual feather. You even emailed your teacher to say that your assignment would be a little late, not because you began the project late but because you wanted it to be perfect. Can you describe the process you went through to realistically represent this bird?
AC: Starting it was really hard. I was not given any instruction, so I had to figure it out myself. I started off by creating a base just with cards and then I began on the head. I kept adding more cards until it physically looked like a body. Then I cut up small card pieces to make feathers. I used different colours for the different parts of the body. The main colour of the Whiskey Jack is grey, so I put grey cards for the grey parts of the bird. I had long fake nails the whole time I was working on this project, so it was really difficult to do (laughs).
CMS: I’m guessing you chose playing cards with a particular print on the back?
AC: Mostly I was going for the colours I needed.
CMS: The bird is a little bigger than a human hand. How many decks did you use?
AC: The whole bird took me maybe three decks, with three different colours.
CMS: Where do you think your talent for art comes from?
AC: From my mother, especially, because she is also an artist. She sculpts, she makes jewelry out of ivory. She’s a really good painter, too, and she draws well. I think I grew into being an artist like she did. I also had a non-Indigenous teacher up north who was really good, and I think she inspired me as well.
CMS: Will Inuit cultural values and attitudes toward nature be themes in your future artwork?
AC: Yes, that’s currently what I’m doing now in some of my art classes. In printmaking I’ve been creating images of traditional things such as aqpiit [cloudberries]. I’ve been drawing igloos, uluit [the woman’s traditional knife], and tupiit [tents]. Also seals and whales.
CMS: So you’re really accessing your culture for your new material?
AC: Yes, I am. It seems that my fellow Inuit classmates are doing the same thing and that is motivating me, too.
CMS: You have told me that you were good at art when you were a child. What were you drawing in those days?
AC: I was mostly drawing animals, especially wolves because I like wolves. Dogs and wolves. I drew what was around me.
CMS: What are some of the challenges of studying visual arts in the South, where college is impersonal and more aligned with a western model of learning?
AC: Being homesick. For the land, for the people, for my food. I’m always craving country food [traditional foods such as caribou, seal, Arctic char, whale blubber, geese, bannock]. It is such a blessing whenever someone sends me some. It reminds me of being on the land and being in my hometown with family and friends— I’m almost crying now.
CMS: So, is it really worth it to be here when you’re missing out on all that?
AC: I think it’s worth it because I’m getting an education. It is difficult, but I need this because it will lead me to where I want to be in the future.
CMS: And what does that look like?
AC: Lately I’ve been thinking about becoming a tattoo artist.
CMS: Are you referring to the traditional Inuit tattoos?
AC: Yes, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. There are different meanings behind the tattoos. It depends on where they go on the body. They can go on your face, on your fingers, on your arms, on your wrists, on your upper chest, on your thighs. Each has a different significance.
CMS: My friend, Nancy Etok, in Kangiqsualujjuaq, explained to me that the ones on the fingers represent Sedna [The Sea Goddess in Inuit mythology] as a way to honour her fingers that were cut off. And the V-tattoo on the face is so that Sedna will recognize you in the afterlife. Is it true the traditional tattoos are mainly for women?
AC: No, men get them too.
CMS: Do you think it would be possible for you to earn a living this way?
AC: For me, it would be more like a side job. I would find something else for my main source of income.
CMS: Well, it seems your Whiskey Jack sculpture has generated some interest and might lead to an important sale. That must give you some kind of confidence.
AC: Yeah, it does. I’m excited that people are adoring it.
CMS: Making a sale is something that most artists dream of. It’s a great career boost. How do you think you will feel after you sell your Whiskey Jack?
AC: Sad, but also happy that others will get a chance to be amazed by it (laughs).
Gavin Morais’ quixotic figures at first seem to harken homologues of his lithe physical outer shell in this world—strange, stretched-out, thin figures twisting, pleasuring, labouring, and always either reaching out or encroaching inwards—all, it would seem, with the intention of searching for some sidereal star.
At the heart of his figures is, yes, the literal “corpus”—the body stretched into and out of itself, reminiscent of early modern representations of the human body and its inner circuit of skeletal, muscular, vascular, circulatory and abdominal organs. They call to mind artists like Andreas Vesalius in his book Humani Corporis Fabrica Libiri Septem, published in 1543.
Yet Morais, unlike those earlier illustrators of our inner circuitry, seems to be exposing not just an inside of a corpus (with its spleen and entrails) but a more literal assemblage concomitant with the body’s nervous system. In this sense, looking at Morais’ world of twisted figures strewn almost into and out of their own viscera—anonymous lone figures withering, crouching in, or extending outwards—we see the literal affective sensibility of a body that represents some opaque ontological realm. Here, in sculpting his homologue, Morais doesn’t simply sculpt his body or a body—in many senses, the body as displayed seems itself to be the seat of the soul and not vice versa.
The son of a performance poet and nephew of a reputed photographer who worked with Ansel Adams, Morais (a self-trained artist) seems to have turned this sculpting of the world of a particular denizen into something larger than the outside shell we are looking at. Necessarily existential and with glaring allusions to the world of his own ontology, Morais’ figures evidently are simply trying to show us what they are showing us.
Reaching, bending, figuring the manifold ways to occupy space, each of Morais’ beings would seem to be just a figure experimenting with his/her own volume, experimenting with physical space. Yet with his figures’ search for just the right way of occupying space comes the realization that we are necessarily reaching below the particular realm we occupy, to see and grasp some other ineffable realm right here in this one.
Starting with clay to construct these rudimentary figures, Morais is drawn to imbue them with the raw life they must necessarily embody, as though at once reflecting quick shimmering moments of the desperado and at once patiently and devoutly posed as intemporal ascetics. Adding watercolour and rubbing in the colours until the spectrum becomes twisted, then sheathing them with the amniotic viscosity of shellac, Morais eventually gives birth to latent characters that must have always occupied his world.
Like Alberto Giacometti’s leaning and standing primordial figures, Morais’ primordial figures seem to reach back even further in their quest to find an original form of their own bodies and of the world they appear to be searching in.
In this sense Morais’ figures occupy several worlds, being both his homologues and primordial figures to which no identity can be ascribed. At the same time, these figures are so struck in their experimenting with the volumetric aspect of space that they appear to be piercing into something else while seemingly dormant and introverted. Instead, what we might suggest is that his figures are contemplators assuming new ways to arrange the body as they think and ruminate.
A closer look at the figures draws us into an almost uncanny valley, glimpsing something from our world, something from a nether world, and something we might see in the future as a future past body. If Morais is seeking anything, it is to find new ways for us to inhabit the space and time we live in, and—beyond the corporeal body—new ways to delve into researching other forms of “existences” we might have passed through or might come into in the future. Strange alien mobile figures—we feel like we have seen them before but they are so deeply immersed in the world they occupy that the only thing we can do is sit back and ruminate on them and with them, as they ruminate on something we just have not yet seen.
All sculpture and photographs © Gavin Morais
When interviewing artists after they have completed a certain project, there’s always the feeling that everything they wanted to say has already been conveyed with brushes, paint, chisels—or the keys of a piano. The famous cliché that “writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture” haunts the conversation.
Indeed, Naghmeh Sharifi, who happens to be an extraordinary writer as well as a painter, began the interview with the disclaimer that once she articulates something visually, it is harder to express herself in other ways.
Yet the curiosity to learn about what it’s like to participate in a site-specific residency in the time of the pandemic (when the site is one’s home or studio) yielded precious and intelligent insights about her own experience of this shared, global context.
The work displayed in this issue was created in the context of The Phi Centre’s Virtual Artist Residency entitled Parallel Lines: https://phi-centre.com/en/post/en-parallel-lines/
At the beginning of the pandemic, when exhibitions, art classes and cultural events were cancelled, there was the question of what was essential, a feeling of irrelevance. “Does what I do matter? How much does it matter? Does it even mean anything?” Naghmeh would ask herself. Like everyone else, she struggled with productivity and even a sense of purpose, but the residency helped by providing some context and structure to her work.
As an artist, though, it was crucial not to fall into the trap of a themed or dated assignment. Her work has always focused on the place of the body in the world, and as the world became smaller, the body as inhabited space became bigger.
“In light of the current pandemic,” she writes, “my initial investigation into transforming notions of nostalgia has become a self-identification with the spaces I am restricted to. These images record the instances of confinement such as isolation, anxiety and self-care.”
This series, then, is a lot about discovering different ways of inhabiting and reimagining domestic spaces and daily objects. The lamp that looks down at her, the overflowing ashtray or the change of the seasons outside are thus reframed as conceptual self-portraits.
The colour of faraway places
These paintings are part of an existing body of work in which Naghmeh uses the colour blue as “a measure of distance” and focuses on themes of memory and disappearance.
Naghmeh’s initial choice of blue for these monochromatic paintings is due to the vibrancy that this specific colour exudes. However, her parallel readings of Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost provide more context for the scientific notions and psychological affects of blue as the perceived “colour of faraway” and of nostalgia.
Snapshots of nowhere
Rather than painting through layering, Naghmeh’s technique consists of wiping the paint off: “Through removal and erasure of the paint from the surface of the canvas initially covered in blue, the final imagery appears as the result of an uncovering.”
Naghmeh likens this process to photography. There are echoes of developing photo negatives, the tension between positive and negative space, and all that lies in between, for sure.
But beyond the technique itself, these paintings “provide a collective album of souvenirs to nowhere.” People take pictures of mundane things to make albums, she says. So in this case, her canvases can be considered allusions to having to stay put.
This is how a moment in the bathroom turned into a reflection on hair, on how such a beautiful thing can be grotesque at the same time.
A painting is not a display of pixels
“I don’t count video as interaction. I don’t feed on people’s energies in video calls,” states Naghmeh, unsurprisingly.
Regarding the experience of showing her work online, she says that in a way, she feels it is more accessible to the world at large. And indeed, as an immigrant, this way of recording her work and her creative process has given her twin sister in Germany the same experience as somebody who lives next door.
Her paintings, however, don’t photograph well enough to do justice to the effect of her work when seen in a physical space. But even if they did, once a painting becomes a cluster of pixels, identical in various ways to so many other images that flood our screens, does it make sense to expect the same kind of commitment from viewers as from those who actually attend an exhibit? Or does it all become almost generic, swipeable content that people “flip through” rather than experience?
In her current body of work, time is marked and given material expression by the light and the way it moves inside the apartment. The paintings are not displayed chronologically, but a keen observer can tell which was created in winter and which in summer, offering a visual calendar of sorts that shows the passage of time. It reminds us, perhaps, that this moment too shall pass, and we will be able to coexist differently.
Montréal Serai editor Claudia Itzkowich visited Amanda Woolrich in her studio to prepare this piece.
An etching press presides over Amanda Woolrich’s apartment/art studio in Mexico City. Next to it hangs Amanda’s camera, looking down from a rustic iron structure as she plays around with her paper and mica marionettes: one leg 3 mm up, one tail 2 mm to the left, click. Again. And again.
In order for her “articulated”1 linocut figures to move on the screen, she needs to shoot between 12 and 14 positions per second, a technique that has been in use since at least 1932, with Berthold Bartosch’s animated film, L’idée. And that is the backdrop to the animations she has become known for (or some of them, at least), as the range of techniques she relies on includes watercolour, 2D digital drawing, and many others.c
Her “school” of animation art verges on the anarchic. Her mentor, Tania de León, along with some of the animation artists she admires—Raimund Krumme, Regina Pessoa, Montréal-based Theodore Ushev—and other professors like Alejandro Pérez Cruz, Daniel Manzano and Roberto Carrillo all have one belief in common: animation techniques need to keep evolving, creativity is the norm, and anything goes. This creed explains the diversity of Woolrich’s work: for the music score of one of her films, she provided the composer with a long strip of paper dotted with numbers and colours (ink and watercolour over Japanese paper—an art piece by itself), indicating the intensity she needed for the different moments. For Aquí y allá / Here and there (forthcoming), another black-and-white film starring a stately skeleton, she choreographed and filmed a relative of hers who is a professional actress (Paloma Woolrich), gracing her animated character with an exceptional fluidity of movement.
Stanley Février’s art gets under your skin. It calls you and keeps calling. It engages more of you than you know. Heart and mind and spirit remember. Flesh remembers. You feel the expanse, the height, the depth. The shock of hitting walls. You reverberate.
“Stanley Février’s work is a reflection on the human condition in the 21st century and the value of life in the context of globalization. Through installations, performances, collaborative art projects, assemblages and digitization, the artist questions and analyzes human tragedies, particularly mass shootings, terrorist attacks, migratory flows and the impact of consumer society on the environment. He explores the multiplication of current tragedies, highlighting their inconsistencies. In the self-portrait cette chair [this flesh], presented in the centre of the gallery, Février represents himself on his knees with his arms in the air. Nearly naked, he is aghast and vulnerable, presenting his body as a secular martyr.”
Montréal Serai editor Jody Freeman met with Stanley Février at his Studio Éphémères on Montréal’s South Shore, to discuss his work and its relationship with our theme for this issue, “Performance as Change.” His studio is in the building that houses the Longueuil metro and bus terminal and leads to the Longueuil campus of the Université de Québec à Sherbrooke. Like hundreds of other people, Jody walks by his studio every day on her way to work, and drops in from time to time. Strangers become kindred spirits in Février’s studio, and it is not unusual to see a homeless person resting on the bench in front. Everyone is welcome, and the passers-by who see themselves in his art, who feel safe to come in and talk to him, are part of a stream of humanity that inspires his work.
Questionner la valeur de la vie
Stanley Février : Ma pratique artistique questionne les injustices sociales et la valeur de la vie dans le contexte de globalisation, essayant de comprendre à quel point notre société est consciente de ce que vaut la vie. Je ne parle pas seulement de la vie humaine. C’est à tous les niveaux. Il n’y a pas de distinction entre l’humain et l’environnement parce qu’on forme un tout – c’est une nature. Mais l’aspect social est important parce que c’est ensemble en tant que société que nous devons être conscients du pouvoir du je; et ainsi agir pour changer les choses. Donc, moi, toi, chacun de nous, chaque humain, comment je possède un pouvoir décisionnel, comment je peux agir et m’assumer et accepter l’autre pour changer certaines choses ?
De plus, je m’intéresse aux drames et à l’aspect incohérent et contradictoire de nos sociétés. Entre la volonté de l’être humain de faire ce qui est juste, d’établir la justice, de voter des lois comme la Charte des droits et libertés, et la réalité [où] on sait qu’il n’y a pas de justice sociale, on sait qu’il y a encore 1 % de la planète qui possède tout. Mais comment on est arrivé là et pourquoi ça perdure ?
Face à ces différentes incohérences – de violence – d’injustice – de criminalité et d’inégalité, je creuse ces enjeux à travers ma pratique artistique pour mieux comprendre le « monde » et exposer ses réalités qu’il ne veut pas voir. En même temps il y a la question [de savoir] comment ça se fait qu’en tant que société on soit aussi passif ? Toutes ces choses [mènent à] un désengagement social, à un désengagement des individus. Comment activer ces consciences sociales, individuelles et collectives ?
L’invisible se multiplie
Mes récentes préoccupations artistiques et conceptuelles se basent sur la critique institutionnelle, sur les enjeux identitaires et la violence et les inégalités engendrées par cette dernière. Exemple, le projet « L’invisible se multiplie » traite de l’inefficacité, de la sous-représentation des artistes dite « Diversité » et du racisme systémique au sein des institutions culturelles. Comment, combien les communautés ethnoculturelles ou bien les « minorités visibles » sont-elles présentées et représentées dans les institutions : en art, en politique etc.? Quel pouvoir décisionnel et d’influence possèdent-elles? Je me suis attardé à ces questions dans le cadre d’une maîtrise en arts visuels et médiatiques à l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), faisant l’analyse de la collection du Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal à partir du critère de la diversité ethnoculturelle transposée dans une installation, dans laquelle je questionne et démontre l’existence d’inégalités en faveur des identités nationales et internationales au sein des institutions. Le résultat de la recherche a été présenté lors d’une exposition intitulée « An Invisible Minority » en 2018 à Artexte.
L’analyse de la collection du Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal révèle que le Musée compte une seule œuvre d’un artiste québécois noir acquis par achat, Russell T. Gordon, dans la collection permanente composée de 1 676 artistes et près de 8 000 œuvres acquises au cours des 50 dernières années. D’un point de vue institutionnel, force est de constater la sous-représentation des dites « minorités visibles » et des Autochtones.
Face à cette inégalité, et pour ouvrir une porte vers une discussion, j’ai réalisé une performance avec des artistes noir.e.s au Musée (« Black Faces In The White Cube », 2017) où on a travaillé au Musée comme gardiens de sécurité, parce que les seuls noirs du Musée étaient des gardiens de sécurité. De plus, la création de l’œuvre participative (« l’Invisible se Multiplie », 2016-2019) dévoile mon positionnement sociopolitique, à la fois critique et porteur de changement. Cette œuvre a été réalisée grâce à l’obtention de la bourse de création du Conseil des Arts de Longueuil et au soutien de Nuria de Grammont et des artistes participant.e.s. Le projet vise à recréer le site web du MAC en déployant une mise en scène mettant en exergue ce biais institutionnel favorisant en son sein « l’élite » blanche masculine occidentale. Il s’agit ici d’établir une certaine démocratie représentative des artistes composants la scène artistique d’Amérique du Nord en transformant cette collection d’œuvres en ligne à caractère exclusif (et donc excluant), par celle des artistes invisibilisé.e.s puisque racisé.e.s par une narrative artistique univoque dominante.
L’art triomphe : it’s happening NOW
L’action performative/infiltrante organisée le 18 septembre, « It’s happening NOW », rappelle que le changement doit se faire maintenant. On a beaucoup parlé de diversité depuis plusieurs années mais personnellement je pense que c’est le temps de la guérilla, car ce discours, nous le connaissons déjà. Je parle d’une guérilla pacifique, où nous réclamons un partage de pouvoir dans les sphères institutionnelles: le pouvoir qu’on n’accorde pas aux minorités parce qu’elles sont minoritaires. On va les garder dans une position subalterne, afin de toujours les tendre la main pour montrer la bonne volonté de vouloir les intégrer.
L’idée est de rassembler des gens autour de ces thèmes-là pour célébrer l’art, célébrer la justice, et faire en sorte qu’ensemble, l’art puisse triompher… que la société surmonte ces inégalités et qu’on devienne conscient, pour que les institutions puissent vraiment bouger. C’était un rassemblement avec des gens de toutes sortes, de tous milieux, au Quartier des spectacles. Cette performance infiltrante servait à faire entendre le positionnement des artistes à Montréal, au Québec, au Canada, qui renoncent globalement à cette domination toujours par l’homme blanc, toujours eurocentrique, avec ses notion de l’art, de qui peut être dans un musée, de qui peut être dans une galerie… Il s’agit de rebalancer tout ça, ou de déconstruire même, si on veut, tranquillement, à travers un dialogue entre les parties. Car le plus important de mon travail, ce n’est pas de réaliser un objet ou une toile ou une peinture ou une sculpture, c’est comment utiliser l’art comme un outil de changement social.
Un travail de mémoire collective, individuelle
C’est une espèce de mémoire que je crée qui est collective, individuelle, en réinterprétant des faits sociaux… puis à partir de là, j’expose aux gens leur réalité, notre réalité. Voilà pourquoi on pense que mon travail est trop politique, trop engagé, trop social. Mais exposer le réel, où nous sommes rendus en tant que société, c’est dur d’accepter ça. C’est dur de reconnaître qu’à Montréal Nord, par exemple, 40 % de la population vit sous le seuil de pauvreté et 11,9% des gens sont en chômage… et quand tu regardes qui sont ces gens, ce sont des immigrants. Mais si tu vas vers Westmount, vers le centre-ville, vers le Plateau [Mont-Royal], ce n’est pas la même population, il n’y a pas de policiers qui passent à toutes les 30 secondes…
Serai : les seuls endroits où on a une surreprésentation de minorités visibles, c’est dans les prisons…
Stanley Février : Exactement. C’est dans des conditions de pauvreté, de chômage, de manque d’éducation, d’incarcération et d’assistance sociale qu’on retrouve une surreprésentation des minorités. C’est un beau projet d’étude et œuvre d’art à réaliser – de voir où les minorités sont surreprésentées.
Serai : Je réfléchissais à ton exposition à la Maison de la Culture de Longueuil sur la brutalité policière, qui touche non seulement les minorités racialisées mais aussi des personnes ayant des problèmes de santé mentale. Il y avait une installation dans de cette exposition qui m’a rappelé des prisonniers à Abu Ghraïb en Iraq. Mais les « prisonniers » dans ton installation portent des cagoules avec l’insigne de forces policières au Canada ou au Québec qui les ont tués. Ici dans ton studio tu as une image semblable de toi comme prisonnier… Quand je t’ai questionné sur cette image, tu m’as répondu que les policiers sont des terroristes. J’aimerais que tu élabores sur ce sujet.
Stanley Février : Basée sur l’article Deadly Force de CBC News, mon exposition America… en toute impunité (vidéos, son, sculptures, archives et photographies) met en scène la problématique de la brutalité policière. De 2000-2017, plus de 461 personnes ont été tuées par la police au Canada, et 70% de ces personnes souffraient de maladie mentale. Cette œuvre sensible et participative a pour objet d’amener les spectateurs à s’interroger sur les problèmes mises en exergues au sein de mes installations motivées par le souhait d’amorcer un dialogue portant sur la violence, quelles que soient ses expressions.
Un policier, dans la normalité, devrait protéger des citoyens. Mais lorsqu’on appelle la police dans un cas 911 ou peu importe, son objectif quand un policier arrive sur les lieux est de maîtriser et de contrôler la situation. Il ne met pas le focus sur des problèmes de santé mentale ou de toxicomanie. Ce contrôle de la situation ou bien d’une personne en exerçant son pouvoir peut se faire en employant tous les moyens, même son arme à feu… Il te terrorise, parce que son premier réflexe est d’avoir la main sur son gun.
On a métamorphosé la forme d’esclavage (Orange is the new black)
Stanley Février : On a aboli l’esclavage mais le regard sur les noirs n’a jamais changé. On a métamorphosé la forme d’esclavage, la forme de domination, la façon de les brutaliser et de les maltraiter et on a maintenu l’esclavage différemment. Aux États-Unis ils appellent ça des prisons “fermes” dont le plus populaire s’appelle “Angola” (Angola Prison Farm, Louisiana).
Exposé à l’Arsenal dans le cadre de Art Souterrain, Strange Fruit explore les liens étroits qui existent entre le travail et l’esclavage, faisant écho de l’importance du rôle du travail des esclaves dans l’élaboration de l’économie américaine et des richesses contemporaines. Le public était invité à cueillir du coton et le transformer en or, le pliant dans des feuilles d’or, debout dans une cabane d’esclave, devenant ainsi acteur de la construction de sa propre histoire. Cette reconstitution tente de rappeler au public le rôle souvent négligé et oublié qu’a joué l’esclavagisme et le dur labeur des hommes et des femmes noir.e.s dans la construction du système capitaliste actuel : le travail des noirs américains dans les champs de coton était un pilier fondamental de la production des richesses dont jouit l’Amérique.
Le regard de l’autre sur moi
Serai : Tes œuvres qui sont sur les murs ici dans ton studio vont aller où ?
Stanley Février : Ces œuvres ne vont nulle part pour l’instant, parce c’est une série que j’ai commencée sur le regard de l’autre sur moi comme qu’artiste « noir », combien que c’est un regard déformé, rempli de jugement… je mets ça entre guillemets parce que je n’aime pas ces termes. Comme je te disais, je ne me suis jamais vu « noir ». Pour moi « être noir », c’est qu’on m’a nommé ainsi. Quand on me traite de « noir », c’est parce qu’on oublie mon humanité, c’est parce qu’on oublie que je suis un être humain et qu’on me remplace par autre chose. Parce que la notion de « noir » créée par l’homme blanc n’est pas ce que nous sommes en tant qu’individus. Tu vois, quand on parle du « noir », on parle du « sauvage », on parle de celui qui n’est pas éduqué, on parle de celui qui n’a pas d’âme, on parle d’une personne qui est juste un objet à faire ce qu’on veut avec.
Je ne suis pas ça… donc finalement je ne peux pas [me voir ainsi]. Mais le regard que l’autre exerce sur moi à cause de la couleur de ma peau, pour moi c’est ça qui est différent comme propos dans mon discours. Je ne suis pas « black », je ne suis pas « noir »… Mais par contre je suis quelqu’un avec une couleur de peau différente comme plein d’autres personnes. Donc, ce projet a commencé comme ça… je me suis déformé, je me déforme, je déforme cette apparence que l’autre a de moi, mais pas moi-même… c’est son regard à lui. Donc, j’utilise mon corps parce que c’est mon corps qu’il utilise…
Je déforme cette apparence que l’autre a de moi
Serai : C’est comme si tu rencontres un mur et ça écrase… c’est très viscéral.
Stanley Février : C’est exactement ça le projet et j’ai commencé à travailler sur les terminologies utilisées par le gouvernement pour définir les gens dits « de la diversité ». L’idée est de créer toute une série avec d’autres gens, comme ça.
Quand un gouvernement définit un groupe d’individus comme ça, [comme] minorités visibles, qui n’est pas de race blanche, qui n’a pas la peau blanche, c’est complètement aberrant – un gouvernement qui prône l’inclusion, qui dit « vivre ensemble », qui parle de réconciliation, mais qui continue à utiliser des termes coloniaux. C’est hallucinant. Et toi, quand tu dis ça, on te parle de « discrimination positive »… La discrimination ne peut pas être positive.
Serai : En anglais on dit « affirmative action » plutôt que « positive discrimination ». Mais l’opposition à de telles mesures est fondée sur la même notion.
Stanley Février : Les termes sont utilisés pour créer une distance entre « nous » et « eux ». Le gouvernement lui-même divise, nomme et pointe du doigt les « autres ». Je ne me prends pas pour un autre mais je sais que l’art a le pouvoir de changer et de transformer les choses. En tant qu’artiste, c’est mon métier. Certains vont utiliser la politique, ils vont utiliser d’autres choses, mais moi je n’ai que l’art…
Donc c’est pour ça que ce projet-là va prendre un peu plus de temps, parce qu’en travaillant je vois sa pertinence, je vois aussi toutes les possibilités d’aller rejoindre d’autres personnes – pas seulement moi – qui se sentent déformées aussi. Une femme est venue regarder mes œuvres en studio et m’a dit comment elle se sent à l’intérieur. Elle se voyait aussi dans ces œuvres, le regard qu’on a sur elle en tant que femme, en plus, alcoolique et monoparentale… et elle s’est mise à pleurer.
Une autre femme est aussi rentrée dans le studio, blanche d’apparence; elle me dit: Monsieur, je comprends tout-à-fait vos dessins car j’ai vécu 3 ans sous un masque. Quand les gens me regardent, ils me perçoivent comme une québécoise de souche, sans se douter que je suis brésilienne. Mais une fois que j’ouvre la bouche: oups, je ne suis pas « québécoise ». Et certains se mettent à se moquer de mon accent.
Cette femme me raconte qu’elle a développé un problème de double identité parce que dans son pays elle était blanche et ici elle est rendue « pas comme nous » : je suis une immigrante. Elle se croyait toujours blanche parce que sa peau est blanche, qu’elle est blonde… Mais les gens ici, ça l’a rendue malade – trois ans de thérapie. Parce qu’elle ne savait plus qui elle était et surtout à son travail, elle ne parlait plus avec personne parce qu’on riait tellement de son accent. Et là elle me dit, Monsieur, vous ne savez même pas ce qu’on fait aux femmes voilées – c’est pire.
Démarche: Artiste plasticien, Stanley Février envisage l’art comme un vecteur de changement social et pose un regard aiguisé sur les dynamiques sociales prenant forme dans les sociétés occidentales. Il en questionne la valeur de la vie dans un contexte de globalisation, au travers des tragédies contemporaines. De fait, motivé par le désir d’activer la conscience collective, il s’approprie et modifie des images, vidéos et photographies de ces drames, saisies sur Internet. Par ses installations, performances et projets d’art participatif, Février crée un espace de rencontre où les participant.e.s sont au centre de l’œuvre. Il les amène à se repolitiser et à affirmer leur vécu pour finaliser l’œuvre. Diplômé en arts visuels et médiatiques, ses récentes préoccupations artistiques et conceptuelles se basent sur la critique institutionnelle, sur les enjeux identitaires et la violence et les inégalités engendrées par cette dernière.
Stanley Février’s sculpture piece « cette chair » is currently part of a group exhibit in Québec City entitled D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous … (2019) at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. He has also exhibited in Montréal, Ottawa, New York and Hong Kong, as well as in Cuba, France, Germany, Spain, China, Bulgaria, Serbia and Mexico. Visit his web site. See also: https://www.colorofstate.com/
 Over My Black Body – https://galerie.uqam.ca/en/expositions/over-my-black-body/
 Presentation accompanying Stanley Février’s works “unexpected answer” and “cette chair” at the abovementioned exhibit.
Le travail intérieur qu’exige la création ne cesse de me fasciner. Il me garde vivante. Mon travail se module autour de deux pôles : la céramique-sculpture et le monotype. J’ai commencé à faire du monotype en 2009, après avoir utilisé l’argile comme matériau d’expression pendant plus de 20 ans. Je voulais explorer la couleur, la lumière, la transparence. J’ai donc mené les deux démarches en parallèle, me sentant de plus en plus partagée entre ces deux univers.
Dans mon travail sur papier, j’ai remarqué une alternance entre le travail en noir et blanc et la couleur. Mon premier réflexe a longtemps été le noir et blanc. Il agit comme un aimant, répond à un besoin de revenir à l’essentiel, aux premiers mots, sans détournement de sens, sans fioritures. C’est un dépouillement éloquent. La ‘trace’ m’éblouit. Peu à peu, la couleur s’est trouvé un chemin, et j’ai pris plaisir à la faire cohabiter avec le noir et blanc, puis à essayer de développer et complexifier, en ajoutant des éléments extérieurs (ex.: papier chine, pastel, coton fromage…). Récemment, j’ai utilisé des morceaux de monotypes pour habiller mes dernières sculptures en céramique. En ce moment, je cherche la fluidité, j’explore des façons d’enrichir le travail sur papier, tout en l’épurant… une démarche paradoxale, oui, j’en conviens.
Témoigner, dire, avec l’espoir que mon œuvre parle, fasse écho et, par ricochet, devienne bonté.
À propos de l’artiste
Née en 1943, Élizabeth Gélinas a grandi dans une famille qui encourageait la pratique des arts. Pour se démarquer de ses trois frères et de sa sœur, elle a d’abord opté pour la photographie et plus tard pour la céramique-sculpture par besoin d’un contact plus intime avec la matière. Elle a étudié en sculpture à l’Université Bishop, et suivi des cours de céramique au Centre des Arts Visuels et à l’atelier Gaïa à Montréal. Elle a passé ses trois premières années de retraite dans les ateliers de céramique de l’Université Concordia. Il y a quelques années, attirée par le travail sur papier, elle a suivi plusieurs ateliers-formations en monotype avec Jacinthe Tétrault et joint le collectif Encreguénille en fréquentant l’atelier de Bernice Sorge à Dunham. Elle découvre cet univers tout en continuant la sculpture.
Appréciant l’excitation et la fébrilité d’une exposition, Élizabeth a participé à quatre expositions de groupe de monotypes à Montréal et dans les Cantons-de-l’Est. En ce qui a trait à la céramique, elle a participé à huit expositions de groupe et a osé trois solos. L’automne dernier, dans une exposition en duo, elle a présenté des œuvres dans les deux supports, monotypes et sculptures.
My silver faced lover!
My quiet and empty mirror!
In the space between our lips,
Resides the secret of your might;
Suspended in your light,
Caught in your gentle sight,
I know a love without eclipse.
The Inner Ring
Have we not, in the name of love,
Been raised and cheered to rise above?
Hasn’t this compulsive fight,
Blinded you from true insight?
Although your thoughts are wind and sand,
You wear them like a wedding band.
I know you wish your heart would sing;
So, break through your inner ring.
In this exquisite quietude
You bless me with Your Presence,
In the deep and soft cupped hands of
Melting within Thy embrace,
Pulsating beauty, my body,
Drunk on the juices of this flesh,
I could almost forget;
That beneath the wave,
The eternal and infinite ocean
Patiently awaits my return.
The I that speaks is not the I which is spoken of.
In the beginning, drawing, painting and sculpture were manifestations of my psychological disease; a way of individual catharsis.
Then, juggling with words and ideas, I conceptualized many statements, as so many manifestations of a collective existential disease; elusive masks of ego.
Now, I have neither unease to express, nor artistic views to state, nor a CV to display.
I paint and I write, yet I isn’t the author.
Ma pratique photographique est inspirée de l’environnement qui m’entoure. Un premier projet abordait le thème de l’eau. Celle-ci selon ses différentes phases, son parcours, ses empreintes et la manière dont l’homme vit avec elle.
Le projet présenté ici représente mon environnement urbain. Décrire Montréal, avec trois couleurs : le bleu, le blanc et le rouge.
Le bleu évoque le ciel, l’eau. Montréal est une île, c’est son identité première. Mais pour ses habitants, qu’est-ce qui fait l’identité de cette ville à leurs yeux? Quel est le lieu le plus significatif pour eux, pour elles? J’écris à mon entourage. Il ne restait qu’à trouver un élément bleu dans leur univers montréalais.
Le blanc, voir Montréal avec le regard d’une promeneuse. Je me suis mise dans la peau du flâneur de Susan Sontag :
« Un flâneur n’est pas attiré par les réalités officielles d’une ville. »
Le rouge, couleur des révolutionnaires depuis toujours. Un photoreportage d’une journée, pour raconter une histoire sur ces carrés rouges.
Preface by Montréal Serai
A high-profile yet anonymous artist in his hometown Québec City and beyond, Wartin Pantois is a breath of fresh air, a quiet voice of dissidence, a street artist, an agent of change, and a catalysing presence. He appeared on the road as an enigma, with his corpse outlines and paste-ups in black and grey of homeless people shivering under a blanket on a cardboard that from a distance looked like someone real needing help. Since then, he has covered the horrific aspects of drug addiction amongst the young and the old, the Québec City mosque attack, and the need for unity against phobias. Now he has spoken up about the G7 circus. Wartin is not a loudmouth or a megaphone-wielding super activist. He is an instrument of change who speaks with extraordinarily subtle references to collapse and hypocrisy in society.
Wartin Pantois is a visual artist and a citizen involved in his community. His art highlights various hidden human realities. His site-specific works reflect a deep social commitment and sensitivity that stem from his social concerns, conversations with citizens and on-site observations. He places his art in the public space to give voice to those who have been silenced, to foster reflection and debate.
“We all build some kind of a shell to protect ourselves from feeling or seeing what would otherwise disturb us. Sometimes a little incentive is needed for people to open their eyes. Art in the public space can be that incentive. Through my work, I try to touch that little core of humanity that everyone has inside. The impetus of an unexpected work of art can be useful. I think that the surprise of seeing art on a street corner might help break through that shell.”
(Free translation of excerpts of a Québec Hebdo interview with Wartin Pantois in October 2016)
Using black and white in contrast with colour-saturated advertisements, Wartin Pantois includes gold leaf in some of his works to question the value given to people and things. The locations of his works are carefully chosen. The places give meaning to his images and, reciprocally, his images give meaning to the places.
Ephemeral works invoking the forgotten
Wartin Pantois fights the erasure of history in his own way, through thought-provoking images in the public space – especially the history of ordinary citizens, who are all too often forgotten.
Québec 1918: 100-year anniversary of the anti-conscription riots
This work calls to mind the citizens’ demonstrations against conscription that occurred during WWI. From March 28 to April 1, 1918, thousands of people took to the streets in riots protesting obligatory military service. There were violent clashes with the Canadian army in which four protesters lost their lives. To oppose the war, they braved death.
“I painted the figures very quickly in broad strokes, feeling somewhat agitated, in tune with the spirit of the rioters who were in a reactive and combative state. I used white paint on black paper to give a ghostly air to the figures, as if history were coming back to haunt those who wanted to forget!”
This project was carried out in collaboration with a collective of historians, La Lanterne. A website was created to highlight the events of 1918: www.Quebec1918.com.
The paste-up was destroyed within hours of going up. No one knows by who or why. A campaign was organized to commemorate the 100-year anniversary in a different way, using posters illustrated by the art piece. One hundred posters (to mark the 100 years since the anti-conscription riots) were placed in neighbourhood book exchange boxes (boîtes à bouquins). All the posters found a taker within a few hours.
The figures in Québec 1918 have given way to their ghosts.
This work was produced as part of the international IBUg Festival of Urban Art, in an abandoned factory. The SPEMAFA food-processing machinery plant was located in Chemnitz, in the industrial heart of the ex-German Democratic Republic, East Germany. It closed in 1933, a few years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, leaving the workers jobless.
The installation Labourers features three scenes with life-sized workers painted on paper. Their bodies are identical. They have been assembly-line painted, using an alienating work process that breaks down each task into separate steps, evoking factory-type labour. The body is an instrument of production, which has no interest in the uniqueness of individuals. The workers’ faces are all different. They evoke each person’s life and history, their roots and family.
There is strength in unity among workers. The face of the central character in the scene is drawn from the painting “Die Internationale” by the German painter Otto Griebel (1895-1972).
From the student protests for free education to the “pots and pans” solidarity movement, the 2012 “Maple Spring” has left its mark on the Québécois collectivity.
“Five years later, I wondered what remained alive in the citizens’ memory. I created a nomadic art installation featuring protesters and policemen, and moved it around town in Montréal and Québec City to elicit the impressions of passersby and gather their comments.”
Twenty-five people shared their impressions and reflections during this project. Interviews were conducted as the installation was sporadically unveiled in the public space between May 19 and June 9, 2017.
The audio recording of Printemps mémoire is available for free streaming and download at www.wartinpantois.bandcamp.com.
Des œuvres éphémères pour contrer l’oubli
Wartin Pantois est un artiste visuel et un citoyen engagé. Son travail artistique met en lumière diverses réalités contemporaines occultées. Ses interventions artistiques in situ, empreintes de sensibilité et d’engagement, s’élaborent à partir de préoccupations sociales, de discussions avec des citoyens et d’observations sur le terrain. Il utilise le collage à l’échelle humaine pour questionner les rapports sociaux. Il inscrit ses œuvres dans l’espace public comme pour donner la parole aux sans-voix, pour susciter réflexion et débat.
« On se construit tous une certaine protection pour ne pas sentir ce qui pourrait nous toucher, pour ne pas voir ce qui nous dérange, c’est un peu comme une carapace. Parfois il faut un petit incitatif pour ouvrir les yeux. L’art dans l’espace public peut être cet incitatif. Par mes interventions, j’essaie de toucher le petit bout d’humanité que chacun porte. L’intermédiaire d’une œuvre à laquelle on ne s’attend pas peut être utile. Je me dis que l’effet de surprise d’une œuvre inattendue, au détour d’une rue, peut déjouer un peu la carapace! » (Wartin Pantois en entrevue à Québec Hebdo en octobre 2016).
Usant du noir et blanc en contrepoint aux publicités saturées de couleurs, Wartin Pantois intègre la feuille d’or à certaines de ses œuvres afin d’interroger la valeur accordée aux personnes et aux choses. L’emplacement de ses œuvres est soigneusement choisi. Les lieux font parler ses images et, réciproquement, ses images font parler les lieux. Certains de ses projets intègrent des entretiens audio enregistrés avec le public.
Wartin Pantois est street artist, peintre et photographe qui vit et crée dans le quartier Saint-Roch à Québec. Il a effectué des interventions artistiques hors murs et des installations intérieures en Allemagne, au Portugal et au Canada. Il a également produit plusieurs projets musicaux. Il détient un baccalauréat et une maîtrise en sociologie. Ses interventions artistiques sont couvertes par les médias locaux et nationaux.
Il travaille dans l’anonymat. Ses collaborateurs et diffuseurs acceptent de protéger sa véritable identité. Pour en savoir plus sur Wartin Pantois, vous pouvez consulter sa page web (www.wartinpantois.com), sa page Facebook (www.facebook.com/wartinpantois) ou sa page Instagram (www.instagram.com/wartinpantois). Vous pouvez aussi le chercher dans les rues du quartier Saint-Roch à Québec !
À travers mon travail avec l’argile, j’explore les notions d’identité et de territoire. La mémoire, le legs, la tradition, tout comme l’espace que j’habite, m’amènent à me confronter au temps qui se dérobe. J’aborde le thème du “passage” dans une série de longues barques posées sur des socles, qui suggèrent des traversées et des voyages intérieurs. Ces sculptures évoquent des transformations cycliques entre les différents états qui marquent nos vies.
Depuis quelques années, je poursuis également une recherche sur l’urne en tant qu’objet d’art et de rituel. Par ses fonctions profane et sacrée, l’urne me transporte dans une dimension qui transcende ma propre existence et celle de ceux qui me sont chers.
Diane Denault est céramiste. Elle travaille l’argile, la tourne, l’assemble et la soumet au feu par cuissons successives. Après des études de deuxième cycle en urbanisme et en aménagement du territoire, elle a découvert la céramique à l’occasion d’un voyage en Afrique de l’Ouest. Elle a appris le tournage au Québec auprès du potier d’origine japonaise Kinya Ishikawa, poursuivant ensuite seule son exploration de l’argile et de ses modes de cuisson à basse température. Elle a participé à des classes de maîtres avec des céramistes du Nouveau Mexique et de la France. En 2010, elle a ouvert un atelier de sculpture et de tournage à Val-David dans les Laurentides. Ses recherches sur les textures l’ont amenée à privilégier les techniques de raku et d’enfumage pour leurs effets aléatoires et leurs qualités tactiles et esthétiques.
Déclaration de l’artiste
L’éducation, l’école de pensée, l’expérience, la conscience, la réalité. Notre regard sur l’art est influencé par notre vécu. Seul l’univers à un regard juste sur l’art.
Je trouve audacieux de définir l’approche artistique d’un artiste seulement par quelques mots et par quelques oeuvres. Car chaque artiste possède une richesse créative qui est au-delà de l’oeuvre elle-même. Transfigurer la pensée créative dans la matière a, à mon avis, ses limites. Donc, manque de précision.
Le coté rationnel de la matière aide à une certaine lecture. Mon approche sportive à la prise longue-pose, contribue à ouvrir un schème de pensée plus complet.
Est-il un des buts de mes oeuvres photographiques ?
À propos de l’artiste
C’est après avoir débuté une carrière dans l’aéronautique et en tant que gymnaste de haut niveau que Yves Decoste, sur un coup de coeur, se dirige vers le domaine artistique. Aujourd’hui artiste de scène connu et créateur, il se réalise à travers le monde depuis plus de 35 ans que ça soit dans le domaine du Cirque, de l’évènementiel ou de la télévision. Il est récipiendaire de deux prix du Festival International du Cirque de Monté-Carlo (Clown d’Argent et Prix spécial d’SBM). Également photographe depuis 2004, il se spécialise dans la photographie longue pose, désireux de montrer l’aspect éphémère et mutable des choses mais aussi des gens qui permet d’en saisir leur vérité profonde. Exposant entre autre à la galerie Prince Takamodo de Tokyo.
Ayant exploré considérablement avec le Cirque du Soleil, il estime que d’être un artiste international est un grand privilège. Observer différentes cultures l’a emmené à avoir une approche photographique fortement singulière.
Oleg’s cartoons are exhibited in major public art collections and museums around the world, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library in London, the cartoon collection of Ohio University, Alexandre Gertsman Contemporary Art in New York, the University of Western Ontario, the Russian State Library and the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Mediotheek of the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Moenchhaus Museum of Modern Art, cartoon museums in Switzerland, Turkey and Poland, the Westmount Library, Wolfenbuttel Bibliotheek, and the State Art Museum in Padova. For further information about Oleg or his upcoming book, please contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die… for the harder I work, the more I live.” This is my mantra, which encapsulates the intensely and sometimes uncomfortable feelings I explore when I’m creating in clay. When I am working on a new sculpture, it feels as though it’s coming from places deep in my subconscious, the clay helping to shape and reshape my inner self. Frequently I feel that I have uncovered blocks of unwanted emotions, after which I feel newly free and happy. Sometimes this exploration exposes shame, or pain, or anger, despair, even death – and always, intimacy.
I let my intuition guide me and I am often surprised at the result. I use pigments, colours and glazing – layering, removing, adding, subtracting – in order to nuance the rawness of each piece. This process melds, for me, my visions of identity, loss, anxiety and loneliness. I want the experience of my work to be excruciatingly intimate, so that the viewer is in it with me. I believe that only when we remove the glossy surfaces we display in our public lives, allowing ourselves to show our nakedness and vulnerability, only then do we try to live with courage and authenticity.
In my works you will experience with me, and beside me, a life and art in progress.
Réflexions de l’artiste
La photographie est entrée dans ma vie à l’adolescence et s’y est taillée une place unique. Suivant les traces de mon père, passionné de photo, je capturais tout ce que mon oeil curieux trouvait beau. Mon Minolta argentique ne me quittait pas. La chambre noire de l’école était mon repaire tranquille, ma deuxième maison.
Aujourd’hui, 25 ans plus tard, jeux de lumières, silhouettes, contrastes et textures, sont autant d’éléments qui attirent mon regard et m’inspirent. Appareil en main, mon œil devient un capteur de poésie visuelle. Je m’émeus devant un ruban de brume, un lac sans ride, des fleurs gelées, des enfants rieurs, un personnage rêveur, des ombres sur la neige, le crépuscule…
Mon expérience photographique est d’abord un rendez-vous avec moi-même, pour ensuite devenir une immersion dans le vécu du sujet, une rencontre avec l’autre.
Bon voyage à travers mes images.
The current land and seascape paintings combine near-abstraction with realistic references. The portraits, initially inspired by increasing signs of intolerance towards minorities in Québec, are also set within abstraction. I continue similar works in Toronto.
Truth be told, I’ve been neglecting my boudoir. J’ai négligé mon boudoir. Some of you might think that négligé and boudoir go hand-in-hand (or tongue-in-cheek, even), but I want to warn you that it’s risky, if not risqué, to let your boudoir languish in neglect. Mine felt so délaissé that it slipped out the back door while I was endlessly and ponderously weighing words… and took a dip in the cool dark waters of my back alley.
Refreshed and energized, my sleek new boudoir headed up Park Avenue (just north of Boulevard St-Joseph) for a little action. I know, because my secret source at the Québec Provincial Police leaked the photos from a hidden camera.
All that pink was a little too much, and after heading east on St-Joseph, my boudoir took refuge on Jeanne Mance, only to be tantalized by a lippy message smack in the middle of the sidewalk:
Pursing its lips, my boudoir strolled down to Boulevard Mont-Royal, minding its own business, when the furry scent of danger came wafting across from Parc Jeanne-Mance. Who knew there’d be so many alley cats on the prowl?
Fur and feathers flying, my boudoir turned tail and headed east on Boulevard Mont-Royal. But before it reached St-Denis, even stranger wild beasts began beckoning from the alley.
After hanging out with the beasties on the horizontal tree, my budding boudoir was drawn southward and ended up on Marie-Anne wondering where to go next. The wise words of the elders came out of nowhere. “Stay calm. Be brave. Wait for the signs.”
Well, Gracie Heavyhand was in on it now, and my emboldened boudoir blazed a trail west toward Boulevard St-Laurent, into more fertile (seedier?) territory.
Gracie was regaling my boudoir with true confessions from the Dead Dog Café, but when she started on about her escapades with food, my undernourished boudoir got a terrible hankering to go home.
I’m all for bananas, not so much for bowing and scraping. But if you’ve gotta bow down to someone, let it be Gracie Heavyhand or Beyonce, I say.
Now that my boudoir’s back, I’ll never take it for granted again. This winter, we’re going be cookin’ with Gracie in a strange-looking tent near the Quartier des spectacles. Gracie’s gonna be humming “Midnight at the Oasis” while she fries up something nice and greasy. My boudoir’s going to get full and plump. Just the way it should be.
Oh yeah, one last thing. Maybe you’d like to see the “before” photo… what my neglected boudoir scene looked like before I wised up. Boudoir blues.
All photos by Jody Freeman’s secret boudoir informant
 Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, written by Tom King.
Grant Munro, affectionately known as “Grantie” to his friends, is as beguiling and entertaining as ever, edging toward his mid-nineties. His sly wit, quick insight and dancer’s sense of rhythm draw us immediately in, giving us just enough of a taste of his artful charm to leave us craving for more. This postcard was created by Grant on a trip to Cuba in 2007. Other ink and watercolour sketches from that trip, along with a sweeping range of drawings, paintings and collages from various moments in his life, can be found in a delightful book called Grant’s Sketches, A Book for Rita (2014). http://www.blurb.ca/b/5341951-grant-s-sketches
Grant has been a live wire in the creative arts since his youth. Born in 1923 in Winnipeg, he was a young artist studying with Group of Seven painter Frank Carmichael when the renowned film animator, Norman McLaren, saw his work and interviewed him for the National Film Board of Canada. That was in 1944, during the war. The rest, as they say, is history. After six months of titling work in the newly-formed Animation Department at the Film Board, Grant proved he had potential as an animator and began collaborating on films and making some of his own. In 1947, he spent a year in Mexico, painting and studying silverwork, before returning to Canada to pursue his work in film. In 1970, the Canadian government sent Grant to Cuba to reorganize the animation department of the Cuban film agency, the ICAIC, where he forged lifelong friendships. He retired from the Film Board in 1988; but luckily for us, he didn’t retire his trusty sketchbook.
Here is a tribute Grant received in 2003 from the Museum of Modern Art, when it presented a retrospective of his film work, entitled Grant Munro Rediscovered:
On the occasion of Grant Munro’s eightieth birthday and the release of a new DVD, Cut-Up: The Films of Grant Munro, the Museum of Modern Art pays tribute to this seminal but under-recognized animator. Working from within the historic Animation Unit of the National Film Board of Canada from 1945 through the early 1970s, Munro directed, produced, shot, edited, and even acted in some of the most significant hand-drawn and pixilated animation ever made. A frequent collaborator with Norman McLaren, Munro brought a wicked wit and sublime grace to the art. “MoMA.org | Film Exhibitions | 2003 | Grant Munro Rediscovered”
The website where you can find Grant’s films (“Cut-up: The Films of Grant Munro”) says it all:
To encounter the work of Grant Munro is to discover an artist of inimitable talent and charm. Whether as animator, documentarian, actor, dancer, editor, cinematographer, or general provocateur, his talent, humor, passion, and all-out goofiness have graced the world of cinema for more than fifty years. He is a combination of Joan Miro, Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones, Gene Kelly and Felix the Cat. There is no one like Grant Munro. http://www.milestonefilms.com/products/cut-up-the-films-of-grant-munro
I don’t know about you, but when I think of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I think of the height of his notoriety in the 1980s, when he photographed the rich and famous the way Rodin sculpted busts for his aristocratic patrons. In his spare time, Rodin went on to create the Gates of Hell, and Mapplethorpe took his most dynamic photographs of the gay S&M scene. In certain circles, he could do no wrong, and he travelled swiftly from the underground of lower Manhattan to the salons of the Upper East Side, an arresting prince who was paradoxically gentle and ambitious. When I think of him, I think, yeah—I had style back then myself. But it’s easy to have style when you are young, attractive, smart, intellectually curious, and willing to travel in circles known for complicated but fascinating members. It was easy for me in the Montreal of that time. As I came of age in the 1980s, Montreal changed along with me—we grew up together, this city and I, from awkward things to sophisticated, open-minded entities.
When I settled here with my family in 1967, frozen fish sticks were considered good fare and by the time Pierre Trudeau was elected prime Minister of Canada a year later, frozen broccoli became available as well, but you couldn’t find fresh broccoli stalks at your local Steinberg’s or Dominion store. There were no baguettes—you ate POM sliced white bread or you went without, and you drank powdered instant coffee; there were no lustrous coffee beans or home grinders, no Greek yogurt, no prosciutto, no fresh figs, no oyster bars filled with gargantuan Kelly oysters, no chestnuts from Italy to roast on a Fall day, no jasmine green or Earl Grey tea, no bottled water from Iceland, no creamy French-milled soaps, and Coty was considered a serious perfumer. Montreal was no different from Detroit at that time: it was a city of narrow working-class tastes. But by the 1980s, the city exploded into sensuality as it opened itself up to foreign cultural influences and markets.
All of a sudden, you could taste a couscous broth made fragrant with fresh coriander. All of a sudden, a simple Italian restaurant on upper Saint-Laurent would serve delicate, steamed slices of calf’s brain drizzled with a wine-based white sauce, capers, and roasted pine nuts on a bed of simple risotto. All of a sudden, Ogilvy sold Karl Lagerfeld’s KL fragrance, the glass bottle in the shape of the designer’s signature fan and filled with a rosé nectar, and strange men followed you down Montreal streets and demanded to know what you wore because the combination of fruits, flowers, and youth enchanted them. All of a sudden, roasted ground coffee smelled like a man’s sex, spoonfuls of tiramisu slid down your throat in a slow unctuous tumult, and when you bit down into a ripe persimmon, it had the consistency of tender flesh yielding to bruising molars.
All of a sudden, too, fashion became affordable. Madonna Ciccone introduced women to the bustier, Paloma Picasso to solid jewellery, Kate Bush to see-through flared pants, Hannah Schygulla to oversized trench coats, and Iman to mules made out of black lace. Marithé + François Girbaud dresses appeared on the market with zippers running through tantalizing parts, and long printed dresses were worn over toned nude bodies, but if you insisted on underwear, women’s chic lingerie was making a comeback after two decades of wholesome but essentially shapeless cotton.
And all of a sudden, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of cool and often icy celebrities, their skin like marble, appeared in magazines along with his sexualized, narcotic flowers and his tamer prints of the New York gay scene, and from there on there were few limits to pleasure as couples formed and were swiftly undone or complicated, loft shindigs went on all night, and book launches and vernissages were packed with people who cared about avant-garde or novel culture. It seemed for a split second as if we had finally transcended good and evil. We were youthful grown-ups, beautiful supermen and superwomen, and we were responsible for our artistic, aesthetic, and personal choices. In the age of Mapplethorpe—the almost two decades between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s—sex and creativity, the twin children of a healthy libido, were antidotes to the rat race of industrialized and corporate America; they represented liberation from the exigencies of the man; they were their very own urban guerrilla, their very own theatre.
And then all of a sudden, at the height of my twenties, as I was finally mastering the difference between a muscatel and a muscadet, between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy, the first of a handful of friends began complaining of swollen glands, strange fevers, and awful night sweats.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is currently hosting Focus: Perfection, a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic and other art until January 2017, and up until mid- to late September, three art exhibits in greater New York City were devoted to the topic of art and AIDS. Few people these days speak of HIV/AIDS daily as they used to in the 1980s and early 1990s, which raises the questions: why are museum and gallery curators suddenly interested in an epidemic that shook the world for over a decade as they associate AIDS—itself often linked to sex or drugs—and art production? Why Mapplethorpe? Why now? My guess is that for an instant, we who were young then had it all as we summoned the magical energy of art, sex, and fame until that same energy broke some of us and we were suddenly robbed of that splendid instant. Perhaps what these exhibits capture is that formidable struggle when life becomes creative and destructive at once, a mythos that is worth re-visiting if we wish to learn where we are now.
Not too long ago, by way of catching up with people I had not seen in a while, I checked out an old friend’s Twitter account. One of his tweets offered a reaction to recent news that Hillary Clinton had praised Nancy and Ronald Reagan for having opened up the American national debate about HIV/AIDS. My friend, with whom I had worked when we were both in our twenties in the 1980s, wrote that this was an appalling lie, an insult to the dead, and an affront to those who had lived through the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and saw their friends decimated. Perhaps because he is not an outwardly emotional man and his few words seemed to seethe with barely contained indignation, his tweet reawakened buried memories.
At our old workplace, a rather bohemian typography on the lower fringes of Westmount where I worked until I found a purpose, two of our co-workers and friends were pronounced HIV-positive, as were their partners. When one of them called me one morning to tell me he had pneumonia, I knew he had AIDS. My mother, a microbiologist, worked at the Montreal General Hospital with one of the City’s top HIV/AIDS specialists, and she still remembers him tearing up with frustration because his scientific knowledge wasn’t of much use in containing the spread of the infection as every day he faced patients whose faces were disfigured by the plum-coloured marks of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Meanwhile, two more friends and a relative were infected with the HIV virus. To date, only one of these persons has survived. The others became thin and broken and died young when they had been striking, vigorous, and filled with a mutinous lust for life. The reason I was moved when I read my friend’s tweet is that in few characters he had managed to cover a decade’s worth of sorrow: politicians were cynical, loved ones died, devastated friends grieved and then grieved again, and again. That about sums it up.
Some 30 years have passed since HIV and AIDS began their ravages, and although many are still being infected even now, perhaps that is enough time for different communities to reflect on this epidemic and its effects. Mapplethorpe himself died of AIDS in 1989, and across the arts, the losses were staggering. Among others, we lost dancers and choreographers Rudolf Nureyev, Jorge Donne, Alvin Ailey, Christopher Gillis, Tim Wengerd; singers Freddy Mercury, Liberace, Ofra Haza, Lonnie Pitchford, Eazy-E, Fela Kuti; photographers Peter Hujar and Herb Ritts; writers Isaac Asimov, Bruce Chatwin, and Michel Foucault; visual artists Carlos Amaraz and Keith Harding; fashion models and muses Gia Carangi and Tina Chow, actors Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, and Elizabeth Glaser, and filmmaker Tony Richardson. Among numerous others.
I wish I could say that those 30 years now allow us to look back on those days with greater objectivity and a more sober temperament, but I don’t think they do; if anything, the losses feel more dire now with time and distance. And it isn’t just that we lost friends, family, and inestimable artists. It’s also that those who survived those years lost something of themselves, even if they got to keep their lives.
As he attempted to explain his artistic quest, Mapplethorpe declared that he was seeking “perfection in form.” “I do that with portraits,” he added; “I do that with cocks. I do it with flowers.” No doubt, what Mapplethorpe meant by perfection is an almost Apollonian condition of flawlessness, a state of purity in form; but perfection may be defined too as the height of a quality, condition or faculty, and in those same years, youth—and Mapplethorpe himself—also expressed a longing for perfection in Dionysian ways: in sexuality, in experimentation of all sorts, in rebellion, non-conformism, bold provocation, and a drive toward inimitability. What we looked for was perhaps Nietszchean—a new ontology. Our iconic composer wasn’t Wagner, but Philip Glass, whose obsessively strict and repetitive yet outlandishly operatic and campy scores married rigour and surrender.
When HIV/AIDS struck, the rhetoric was histrionic. Susan Sontag has covered it at length in AIDS and Its Metaphors: we were facing a “plague,” and rumours were that it had come to us from animals and had then been transmitted to Africans and then to homosexual missionaries stationed in Africa, who had travelled back home. Others thought it was a CIA-engineered form of viral warfare against Western decadence and a soft youth no longer capable of, or interested in, fighting Communism. However it did come to us, the HIV virus was a microscopic incarnation of the wrath of God, because we had gone too far in our search for perfection and freedom. It became synonymous with moral laxity and was attributed to homosexuals and drug users long after heterosexuals had begun contracting the infection. With time, every doctor learned to ask patients whether they had a “stable partner.” Western civilization was at war, not only against the constellation of diseases produced by the HIV virus, but against lifestyles deemed insalubrious.
What the survivors of the age of Mapplethorpe lost with the Western world’s hysterical, judgmental reaction to HIV/AIDS was a sense that we were safe in our own pursuit of perfection and that unregulated desire was attainable. Our dubious gain was the awareness that the push towards an experimentation aimed at flawlessness and completion through excess would in the end be curtailed, leashed, boxed in, and sullied as HIV/AIDS became associated with foreignness, immorality, homosexuality, needle-sharing, promiscuity, and poor hygiene, words the political right seems to abhor to this day. As people began to die, toeing the line became the norm: we exchanged sexual transgression for conformity, iconoclastic distinction for uniformity, risk-taking for safety, unfettered pleasure for anxiety. Avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson heralded that shift. Of those of us who lived through those years, who can forget Anderson’s edgy pixie haircut and electronic violin, her vocoded robotic voice announcing in “O Superman” that “you can come as you are, but [you must] pay as you go,” as she seemed to broadcast, like a futuristic, deranged oracle, the price we would all forgo for our boundless love of individualistic freedom?
Part of our resistance to our square Cold War world had begun to be fought in the late 1940s and 1950s by the Beat Generation. It was the same fight, the same old drudgery. Just as the works of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg had to be dragged through the courts on charges of obscenity in the late 1950s, so did Mapplethorpe’s work become censured due to alleged indecency, as the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Centre was charged in 1990 with pimping out his obscene art to the American public. And just like Burroughs’s and Ginsburg’s works detailing homosexual acts, Mapplethorpe’s art pornography was deemed valuable. The jury took two hours to come to the conclusion that freedom of expression encompasses sexual images. Perhaps they had bought Mapplethorpe’s contention that S&M really stands for Sex-and-Magic.
But by then, Mapplethorpe himself had been dead a year. By then, few of us were still having fun. As the title of a Smithsonian article put it, “Art Fought the Law and Art Won.” But we, the young people, had been defeated by an illness and the stigma it carried. I remember that by 1991, a year after the Cincinnati trial, all my friends had settled down and were on their way to being married. It wasn’t just that we were getting older; they were spooked.
When Vanity Fair published a photograph of the dying Mapplethorpe in the late 1980s surrounded by celebrities, we could all see the extent to which he became unrecognizable in those last months of his life. His erotic shepherd-like good looks first described by Patti Smith in Just Kids were gone; the skin of his face looked like tanned leather and was marked by diseased discolourations.
By the time dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev, another mega-star, died in 1993, I had spent long, unforgiving hours in a hospital, keeping my first AIDS-ridden friend company as bad news was divined from x-rays and scans, and harsh sentences were delivered with the quick staccato of a sleek firearm. As my friend staggered along, fighting pneumonia, then intestinal lymphoma and renal failure, at times crying, at times high with the oddity of his condition or quasi-orgasmic from high doses of morphine—as he fell prey to a death-like gauntness and his eyes grew wider, bluer, and more translucent than a cathedral’s stained-glass sky—I suspected I would never come back from this unaffected. He died in spring; his lover followed him soon after.
And so I too changed slowly, quietly, until it seemed that I had succeeded in turning myself inside out. When news of Nureyev’s death of AIDS reached me, I shut my eyes and summoned the sound of his breathing as he danced, which I’d heard when he had come to Montreal in 1977 and I’d sat in the front row of the mezzanine to watch him up close. I felt in my own body the feline precision of his movements, the way he pursed his scarred upper lip in a sensual, gourmand way before breaking out into a luminous, mischievous smile. I could not stand to look at recent photographs of him in Paris, hairless and brittle, his skin tight around his skull, his body shattered and rolled out in a wheelchair for all to see.
At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, earlier in October, I couldn’t help but be drawn to two of Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits. In Self-portrait, 1975, his naked torso stands at the edge of the image, one arm extended outward and covering the upper third of the frame. At 29, he is bearded and curly haired; he bares his teeth as he smiles in a light-hearted, come-hither manner, and his eyes sparkle with a provocative, lawless sexiness. In Self-portrait, 1988, he is 42 and all you can see of him is his face to the right and, to the left, his thin knotted hand holding a cane, the top of which features a small bleak skull. He is already in pain from AIDS. His eyes reflect his agony: they are hopeless and very large; his brow is furrowed. The background is entirely black, so that you cannot even imagine the slope of his shoulder or the sleeve of his sweater. A face, a hand, a skull. The rest of the man is already engulfed in darkness.
I recognized my friends and, to an extent, myself in those two photographs. I had fun in the 1980s and I was spared an HIV infection, but five persons I cared about were not. In many ways, as Flaubert might have put it, Mapplethorpe, ce sont eux et c’est moi aussi, which may explain in part the show’s current popularity, unless all the public is really interested in are “dick pics.”
By the mid-1990s my own love of perfection had acquired a film of dust. Perfection, I told myself, was nothing but a cloak gliding for an instant in mid-air before it fell upon the surrounding darkness. It extended over life and draped itself upon death’s shoulders with little more than the futile impetus of desire. But perhaps one of the reasons why the Mapplethorpe exhibit has travelled to Montreal at this time is that we may need to reach again for Apollonian and Dionysiac pursuits that defeat our puritanical era and the sleazy conversations it engenders in buses between predatory, powerful men. HIV/AIDS may have wrecked bodies, but the backlash against life itself, beauty, and freedom has sickened our souls. Art, Mapplethorpe tells us, art redeems it all as it redeems us.
 I owe the term to Shakespeare scholar Michael Bristol, whom I wish to thank.