Art Beyond the Canon

Duo, Etching (Artist’s Proof) © Sharon Bourke


Duo, Etching (Artist’s Proof) © Sharon Bourke


A group of oil-on-canvas camel herders in Rajasthan, a number of plants sent from different parts of the Middle East and Africa to Montréal by mail, a black-and-white photograph of the longed-for “velvet hush of a foggy evening,” hand embroidery on cotton toile, sublime images from a toy camera, and an abstract gold-and-red acrylic homage to dancer Carmen de Lavallade combine with the voices of filmmakers and wordsmiths in this unprecedented issue: “Just Art.”

When asked to provide an example of a great work of art, people will more often than not give an answer that unwittingly reflects the major biases asserted by the widely-accepted canon of art history. That is to say, the selection of works deemed “great” reveals the ideologically motivated construction of the canon. The omission of queer, racialized and gendered voices – as well as the dismissal of entire artistic mediums – has resulted in a distorted and incomplete representation of “universal” creativity and aesthetic effort.

Until quite recently, this canon had gone largely unchallenged. Over the past few decades, however, the artistic communities that make up the global art milieu have become increasingly critical of institutions that have naturalized the Western male perspective as the only perspective, and their voices are slowly making their way into the mainstream consciousness.

For over 35 years, Montréal Serai has been committed to bringing the margins to the centre. In the case of the current “Just Art” issue, our open call naturally attracted artists from a diverse array of backgrounds, with distinctive, original, often political voices, working in “unconventional” mediums, and spanning at least three generations.

The landing page features the work of Marie-Josée Tremblay, an Anishinaabe artist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. In her own words, Tremblay “paints what lives in [the] unconscious without being aware of the process.”

Author Veena Gokhale reviews Dede Crane’s One Madder Woman, which outlines the life of Berthe Morisot and her journey towards establishing herself as a professional artist in the 19th century – a time when women were largely excluded from artistic recognition.

Anahita Norouzi’s piece, “A Glimpse into the Displaced Garden,” addresses themes of colonial displacement and diasporic movement. The work was created in collaboration with eight refugee families from the Middle East and Africa, who provided Norouzi with dried plants native to their land – plants categorized as ‘foreign and invasive’ in Canada. “Displaced Garden” draws parallels between the botanical specimens – slightly damaged and deteriorating due to their cross-continental journey – and the refugee families that have participated in the realization of this project.

Florence Yee’s “PROOF,” an ongoing series of embroidered watermarks on textile prints, explores the problems that are inherent in archival documentation. Yee’s textile prints of seemingly mundane yet intimate spaces, obscured by the repetitive embroidered word “PROOF,” reveal that certain bodies cannot – and should not – fit into the neat classifications and fundamentally limiting boundaries of archival documentation. Yee writes, “How do we hold space for the unrecorded, the unrecordable, and the yet to be recorded?” “PROOF” attests to the nuanced and complicated reality of identity and warns of the dangers that follow the desire for documentation.

Rajath Suri’s review of Bahman Tavoosi’s 2019 film The Names of the Flowers (Los nombres de las flores) focuses on myth and legend. The film follows the development of a curious story in the mountains of Bolivia, involving Che Guevara, a local school teacher and a bowl of soup.

Divya Singh’s collection of text and film photos, “Tell Mother, I’m Home,” reflects on the passage of time. Her introspective exploration with the camera captures the liminal and intangible passing between one moment and the next. The blurred long-exposure images verge on offering respite from the inescapable force of time by fracturing it into multiple temporal and spatial registers, allowing them to coexist within one image.

Marie Thérèse Blanc’s photographic series, “Things We Lost in the Curfew,” captures the comforting cover of nightfall, the “sensual obscurity” Montrealers were deprived of under the curfew.

Our issue editor, Jody Freeman, interviews Kahnawà:ke-born filmmaker Roxann Whitebean in “She Cleans the Sky.” In the conversation they had in mid-May, before the unmarked graves of children were discovered on various sites of former Indian residential schools, Whitebean shares memories of her formative childhood, including the Oka resistance in 1990, and how these experiences inform her work. In a telling revelation, Roxann states that she doesn’t consider herself an activist: “I think that when you’re an Indigenous person who lives your culture, standing up for your people and the right to be recognized as a sovereign nation is just a way of life.”

Sharon Bourke’s impressive series of digital and acrylic paintings are accompanied by her meditations on her life as an artist, poet and writer committed to racial justice, social justice and women’s rights, in her home state of New York. Her collection of semi-abstract works portrays the celebratory aspects of life and nature in this piece entitled “A Communion with the Atmosphere.” It closes with her poem, In Lieu of a Salute. Sharon Bourke’s etching, Duo, is featured in this editorial.

Author and Serai editor Rana Bose reviews H. Nigel Thomas’ novel, Easily Fooled, in his piece entitled “The Skin Below the Mask.” The story follows a young gay Methodist preacher who flees from St. Vincent to settle in Montréal. Bose examines Thomas’ careful narrative in which the main figure, Millington, struggles with reconciling his faith and his sexuality.

Zachary Couture’s essay, “Palestinian Voices in Theatre: Where Are They?” calls attention to the reductive treatment of Palestinian perspectives in North American plays centred on the Israeli/Palestinian “conflict.” Couture argues that many of these productions discuss Palestinians in the abstract, only portrayed or acknowledged through the eyes of Jewish or white characters.

“The Painted Earthling,” a story by author Gloria Macher, is a sci-fi parody that playfully comments on the greed and consumption of human beings through a discussion of the makings and alchemy of colour.

Lastly, Ajit Ghai’s collection of oil paintings, “Heart of the Desert,” depicts scenes of daily life in Rajasthan, India. Ghai’s artistic process involved studying Bargue and Gérôme’s Cours de dessin – the famous late 19th-century drawing course consisting of almost 200 lithographs of subjects to be copied by students. Ghai has applied these skills to his own practice by capturing naturalistic scenes of everyday life in Rajasthan, effectively bringing 19th-century technique into the contemporary.

As with any anthology or exhibition, the artworks gathered here are sown by an aleatory thread. In this case, the particular backdrop of our post-quarantine climate, combined with Montréal Serai’s history and the mysterious paths that our call to artists may have followed has resulted in a “quilt” of diverse techniques and ideas – all unique, all driven by a desire to represent the intangible lived experience.


Zoë Johnston is in her fourth year of undergraduate studies in Concordia University’s Department of Art History. She has previously contributed to the Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History and has written for the Undergraduate Fine Arts Student Exhibition. Her interests lie in critically engaged contemporary art, and more specifically in work that counters the construction of national narratives.