One of my favourite quotes ever is one that I was introduced to in a volume of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry: I’m going to speak recklessly here, and I ask you to listen recklessly. So, with that caveat: Canada is, in its own way, a very racist country. Further, there are times, since my relocation to Niagara, that I find this region as racist as my old stomping grounds, Saskatchewan, just in a different manner. Whether this be the ‘support’ for the ignorant religious commentary of someone like West Lincoln Mayor Dave Bylsma or that the St. Catharines Standard regularly runs a column by a higher echelon leader of a cult that has weaseled out of their responsibilities regarding residential schools in Canada, the racism is implicit and undeniable.
As well, in Canada it’s very institutional, and we see this clearly in the heated debates here in St. Catharines around the statue on the lawn of city hall, for a soldier of the Northwest Rebellion, which is a prong of the argument about the legacy of John A. MacDonald. We can be smug looking south, but shouldn’t be: my own experience on the Prairies has been that many who will invoke a land acknowledgement will still be the most fervent defenders of the status quo, as though they’re actors only reading lines, forgetting them as soon as they’re spoken.
This was all in my mind, when I walked into the latest annual juried exhibition from the city of St. Catharines, titled More Than Words: Truth and Reconciliation. Is this exhibition a gesture with meaning, or a facile, empty one? LIke several past iterations of the STC Annual Juried exhibition, there was a curatorial theme, as follows: Artists were asked to engage with the truths of Indigenous experiences in Canada and address meaningful reconciliation as we move forward together as a community.
There’s a wide strata of individuals in this exhibition, which is appropriate, and some of the names are hopefully familiar to you. Before I proceed further, I’ll add that you can make an appointment to see the show safely and mindfully, and there’s also a video online, from the day More Than Words opened, in which some information, both from the curator Olivia Hope and several participating artists is offered.
Much of the work is political, as it must be, but this doesn’t detract from the aesthetics at play. One of the works that takes up significant space physically, but also resonates through the space conceptually are the painted masks in the piece We Are Not A Conquered People (2017), by Soaring Eagles School Group. The simplicity of the piece, with the repeated masks, and the directness of the message seems to speak directly to the debate around the statue of Pte. Alexander Watson out on the lawn (I’d suggest Chester Brown’s fine graphic novel Louis Riel for a less pedantic, and less ideologically hobbled, accounting of that historical chapter). Alternately, it’s worth considering that at the time of the manufactured crisis, to further both the interests of the railway building across Canada, and the political, Machiavellian machinations of John. A. MacDonald. It’s amusing to me, that having lived on the Prairies, the statues you see there are of Gabriel Dumont, as perhaps that history is understood as being a contested narrative, with all the vagaries of ‘empire building’ and the dirty underbelly of it.
Other works are more hopeful, but not in a juvenile, but more experienced manner, perhaps: Gillian Dickson’s Hope, or Kim Bell’s Path Towards Healing, or even the quiet contemplation and empathy of Rajshree Jena’s Respect. Others offer a settler perspective, as with Arnie McBay’s Birch Poem: Witness or Melani Pyke’s Open Water. All of the works have brief statements offering the words of the artists, offering a gentle direction in our interaction with the artworks. In Dickson’s Hope, she wisely offers that ‘finding agreement that concludes with a reconciliation is very hard when memories, histories, injustice and reparation are not always agreed upon….Some parts of the painting do not seem to be completely resolved because finding the truth and a reconciliation is hard and all that can be done is to look, listen and hope to improve on all past attempts that have been made at reconciliation.”
These comments from the artists can be understood as snippets of a conversation, just as the works installed in the space relate to each other, sometimes challenging, sometimes offering another place to stand when considering the individual or the groupings on display. Pyke ‘responds’ to this, with her words about her painting, a softer work replete with open hands. Pyke offers what might be a prayer: “May we open our hearts like these sets of hands and listen to others in humility.” McBay’s use of the word ‘witness’ is intentional, I’d wager, in his piece: “Inspired by Ojibwe artist Carl Beam [whose work you could visit, post COVID, at the PAC in downtown STC], Birch poem: Witness is a visual poem in three graphic verses that reminds us that human presence in nature (and in this particular case Settler culture) always assumes the form of violation, abuse and the silencing of Indigenous cultures and nature.”
In many ways, More Than Words is not solely about the artworks on the walls as these pieces are manifestations of ideas and an ongoing dialogue: each of the works has a brief didactic, along with title, date, artist, etc. But beneath this is an answering voice, if you will, credited to the Niagara Regional Native Centre Youth Committee. These words are often direct, brief and succinct: in their ‘answer’ to McBay’s previously mentioned Birch poem, they mused that “If this tree could talk, it would tell us what life was like before assimilation. It would remind us of how we need to act to move forward.”
There’s something very powerful about having a ‘youthful’ voice responding to it all, having a ‘final word’ at the bottom of each work’s description. Considering the way in which the dynamic has changed, even in my lifetime, where the bland assertion that ‘it has always been this way’ (which is an outright lie, as the truth of history is not simply what serves the status quo, or those in power) is now not just dismissed but openly challenged.
This is just a taste of what’s on display here, with intersecting but variable nuances. Other artists in this show include Rhiannon Barry, Irma Bull, Marge Dorant, Holly Iconomopolous-Ryerse, Jill Lunn, Francie McGlynn, Steve Remus and Soaring Eagles School. Many of the works have incorporated text into their aesthetic, and with the words of the artists and responding thoughts from the Niagara Regional Native Centre Youth Committee, this is a dense show. Due to COVID, it isn’t as easy to visit, nor to spend as much time with the works in a singular visit. However, the exhibition is on display until April of 2021, and even though visits at this time are limited to thirty minutes, it doesn’t mean you can’t visit repeatedly.
There is, in the works, the idea that you’re not looking at individual pieces, but a larger installation where each contributor is a voice in a larger choir. As I alluded to earlier, it’s also very fitting that the words of the next generation are the points of accentuation, the ‘final words’ if you will, on each piece. The Niagara Regional Native Centre Youth Committee are hopeful, in their summations, but also are wise, and frankly, there’s a strength in their observations that leaves you hopeful for genuine change, as you leave More Than Words.
More Than Words: Truth and Reconciliation is on display at City Hall in St. Catharines, until April 26, 2021. The artworks are installed on the Third Floor City Hall, 50 Church St. (and you can visit by appointment only).
Current available (and there will be more slots later) bookings for in-person viewing will be available as follows: Thursdays January 7, 14, 21 and 28, 2021. At pre-determined times, 30 minute maximum duration. February and March availability will be released in the new year. The Curator (Olivia Hope) will be on-site to facilitate discussion. You can book your time here.
In the “Service” dropdown menu please select “More Than Words-Exhibit Viewing.” COVID 19 Protocols: A maximum of 4 visitors per booking is permitted. Groups are encouraged to visit only with household members or social bubbles. Masks are required; social distancing and sanitization protocols will be followed. Use James St. Entrance.
All images are courtesy the city of St. Catharines or shot by the writer. The header image is We are not a Conquered People, Soaring Eagles School Group, 2017.