Tom Wilson: an image of one’s own making

The Grimsby Public Art Gallery is a good space to visit right now, if we continue to avoid another lock down. The gallery is large, spacious, allowing for appropriate distance between visitors, but Tom Wilson’s exhibition Mohawk Warriors, Hunters & Chiefs currently on display is also a good show to visit alone. The majority of the works on view are massive paintings with elaborate detail that you can lean in to, ‘deciphering’ the words that make up the swathes of colour and shapes, or alternately stand in the centre of the space ‘within’ the work. And this is a show that requires contemplation. 

We’re still in the grips of COVID: but it’s necessary to note that amidst the moronic and too often religidiot driven ‘criticisms’ of putting public safety over a juvenile ‘assertion’ of ‘rights’ that several lager political divides – I could call them contested narratives, but that’s too polite – are not resting, in this country. Look to Alberta, where Jason Kenney’s UCP is proposing changes to educational curriculum that white wash – or outright deny – colonialism, in the service of the petro state. Consider what’s been happening here in Ontario, with the arrest and persecution of the fine activist and journalist Karl Dockstader (you can learn more about that here). In light of that, Wilson’s works in the GPAG space may seem to be ‘quiet’, but offer a story that is something else. This show was originally curated by David Liss, for the Art Gallery of Burlington in 2018, and it would be fitting for it to travel to other, further venues. 

Tom Wilson, The Long Road Home

Wilson’s paintings are large, alluding to portraits and figures, though the faces and players are sometimes abstracted, or straddle human and more animal figures, with noses potentially being beaks, or the characters becoming monolithic. Mohawk Handsome (2018) is perhaps the most striking work, on a purely formal basis, and the colour palette isn’t as compact as the others, but the strength of the faces – implying a fierce character – spans across nearly all the paintings. The image you’ve perhaps seen in the media for the show, Kahnawake- The Long Road Home, is more indicative of his other works in the show, with deep, rich colours and deliberate and delicate mark makings and symbols. In this respect, the pieces ‘exist’ differently from when you stand away from them, then they do when you move closer and the solidity of the marks and words are revealed, and become less opaque. 

An excerpt from the statement for the show: Tom was well into his fifties in 2015, when he learned that he was adopted and that his birth mother was an Indigenous Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve outside of Montreal. This shocking discovery has had a catalytic impact upon his life and his art. In 2017 he released his bestselling autobiography Beautiful Scars chronicling his life growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, the evolution of his music career, his triumphs and struggles, and his coming to terms with the truth of his identity.

Tom’s visual art too has taken on urgency and renewed purpose. His recent series of works titled, Mohawk Warriors, Hunters & Chiefs, have become another means of exploring and understanding his history and his identity. Mostly the imagery consists of faces and masks vaguely resembling those of certain Indigenous cultures or perhaps beings from some other realm. They look at once ancient and futuristic. These are the warriors, hunters, chiefs, tricksters and shamans; the characters and figures that embody myths and legends of the past and the future; the stories that connect Tom to his culture and his place in the universe.

When I was mentioning a number of the political discourses outside the gallery in Grimsby that resonate with Wilson’s work, one I didn’t mention was the 60s scoop. This was a less directly physical genocide against Indigenous children than the residential schools, but is just as brutal, in negating and denying identity and heritage and, at its core, destroying communities and families. This intersects with Wilson’s conceptual motivations, here, in exploring a heritage and a legacy that is ‘new’ to him.

But it’s also worth noting the contemporary and historical significance of the Kahnawake reserve outside of Montreal (‘the people of Kahnawake have generally not had the political turmoil of the nearby, smaller Kanesatake reserve…[but] support of Kanesatake during its Oka Crisis in 1990, people from Kahnawake blocked the Honoré Mercier Bridge to Montreal, which had an access road through their reserve. The Kanesatake reserve had been blockaded and isolated by the Sûreté du Québec in a conflict over use of lands the Mohawk considered sacred’, to quote wikipedia). Wilson is fittingly positioning himself among an amazing people, including activist Mary Two-Axe Earley to filmmaker Tracey Deer, and even Kateri Tekakwitha (who perhaps exists in a more ‘real manner’ as a unique and intriguing character in Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, and one I wasn’t sure I should include here, either. This is not so much due to the controversial nature of Cohen’s book, but for the cult crimes of the catholic ‘church’, which still refutes their role in residential schools, and offers haven to some of the worst anti indigenous hatred in this country…).

A short looping video, installed in the corner alcove of the Grimsby Public Art Galley, accompanying Wilson’s exhibition.

But the ‘people’ that Wilson presents here are powerful: the guitars and paddles, dispersed throughout the space, are interesting, but the experience of the show is defined by the ‘people’ you’re standing amidst. Often filling the frame, larger than life, and almost intimidating the visitor, the space is theirs, and you’re just ‘visiting.’ But, as I said earlier, as you move closer to Wilson’s figures, you can read his story in paint, with the textured writing revealing another aspect of itself, that is more inviting, in a shared story.

One of the walls of the gallery have the following words from Wilson: Painting is the meditation / The place I go to find and reinvent myself / Where I touch the hands of my ancestors / I am a Mohawk when I paint.

But, despite my reticence in citing Tekakwitha earlier, I’d add some words of Cohen’s from Beautiful Losers, to Wilson’s poetry: Empty your memory and listen to the fire around you. Don’t forget your memory, let it exist somewhere precious in all the colours that it needs but somewhere else, hoist your memory on the ship of State like a pirate’s sail, and aim yourself at the present.

Tom Wilson’s solo exhibition at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery is on display until early December. All images are copyright of the artist. The GPAG, as it’s affectionately known, is located at 18 Carnegie Lane, Grimsby, in the same building as the public library. Their hours are noon to 5 PM (on the weekend), 10 AM to 5 PM (Monday and Friday) and 10 AM to 8 PM (Tuesday through Thursday). They have no proper web site, but their FB page is here.