Sunday, 28 August 2016

"The Teaching is the Making" at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

    Ending soon, September 4th, at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery is “The Teaching is the Making” featuring the beautiful works of Leanna Marshall and Celeste Pedri-Spade. The show combines two very different approaches to reestablish and enliven First Nations culture by bringing forth the past to the present and highlights how different traditional and contemporary mediums can accomplish such a feat.
     As an Anishinabekwe from Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, Pedri-Spade is a member of the Bear Clan. She fills the roles of mother, all round creative person, and teaches at the School of Northern and Community Studies at Laurentian University. She teaches “courses on Indigenous art, culture, photography, qualitative research and modern material culture.”
     With experience in the visual arts Celeste works with textiles and photography to explore “modern material culture” with an activist’s role in decolonization. This is an interesting and worthwhile process where a person or group researches a subject to fully comprehend the history with the intention to actively resurrect the culture from its colonial past. The extent to how this is made possible depends on what is recorded and remembered and then how much of that is viable in the present day. Cultures shift and blend, degrade and progress, so restoration in whatever manner has to be picked up again and celebrated.
      Chance, choice and change, as the Canadian historian George Woodcock noted are the preeminent determiners of history. And a major part of that change, in a very positive way, are artists willing to explore the past to reveal it afresh and possibly find new ways to celebrate a culture once targeted for extinction by an invading culture.
      Celeste’s commitment and determination is definitely felt in her photography where the images bounce between past and present. As juxtapositions with heart and soul they create a variety of endearing, somber, and reflective feeling about the passage of time and a changing world. They resonate with humanism. As we peer into someone else’s personal visual history we simultaneously wonder about our own involvement, our own history. What were our ancestor’s up to? How long were they here? From where did they come?
     A culture to be viable has to be actively performed and celebrated, seen, heard, smelt and felt by lots of people with all that can enrich an individual in a group to bind them spiritually with their kin and friends. Such is the case with Leanna Marshall’s work where the jingle dresses sitting in a gallery are a treat to have available for close inspection, are typically put to use, but here Leanne intends for them to be something more than dresses.
     Leanna Marshall has been making jingle dresses since 2006. As Leanna describes. “My jingle dresses or ‘story dresses’ as I like to call them are from a project called Ziigiidwin, meaning love.” And the dresses show it. Although not ceremonial, they have that aliveness to them, replete with fascinating colour and a sense of mystery about them. The dresses stand as if they are speaking or just ready to make music.
     “The inspiration for Ziigiidiwin came from an awareness of the anger that I was feeling. It was around this time that my mother spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I realized that the anger that I have carried with me my entire life was the outcome of colonial, sexist, & racist policies, the Indian Act, residential schools, and Bill C-31 that govern First Nations people in Canada; and how the effects of the policies trickles down into people's lives in very real and very tragic and sad ways.”
     “My people carry a lot of pain and suffering that is directly because of policies created and enforced by the Canadian government and by mainstream society that live behind and within a colonial context. That is why I feel angry... because of the suffering and the sadness within my own family; and within myself.” 
      Leanna began making jingle dresses since 2006. As part of the Anemki Art Collective she worked with Jean Marshall and Christian Chapman who both contributed to the project. The audio component to the exhibition tells the stories of the dresses. In them you will “hear the love, the pride, the joy, the strength, the relationships, the language and the land.”
    Describing one particular dress with the title, ‘She Swims with the Fishes,’ Leanna states that the dress honour “the women murdered on the ships and where bodies have been placed in Lake Superior. Importantly, this dress explores how men view Indigenous women and the historical context in which Indigenous women have been and continue to be devalued.” 
      Leanna isn’t referring only to history, but to what is an ongoing tragedy in Canada.  Visit the CNN website and search for a story that came out a few days ago titled: ‘Canadian Teens Sold for Sex.’
      Leanna continues. “I don't see the dresses as ‘art objects.’ For me they each have a spirit, they came from somewhere and they will continue to travel forth. The women who dance in these dresses when the show is complete will continue the stories and the healing. In artworld speak all of the dresses are ‘wearable art.’ We chose deliberately not to do a 'performance' because of the intent and spirit of the dresses wasn't to entertain. They were created to heal, share, inspire, and connect."

Friday, 19 August 2016

Diversity in the Arts as Expressed in the Bar and Restaurant Scene.

 Recently the Tate Modern in London expanded in a way that left critics wondering if the additions were designed solely to attract tourists and not out of historical precedent. The interactive and educational advances of the Tate are part of the current reflection in the art world regarding the value of the traditional gallery. Much of the art in galleries never gets a second glance, the average painting or sculpture about three seconds of attention. This has left many in the art world wondering if art can be more relevant if taken out from the gallery and into the community.
    Sadly the obvious never occurs to the hoi polloi fine art supporters that art already exists outside of the gallery. It’s called popular art/culture. Contemporary galleries host mostly fine art, which comes with a totally different set of functions. And it seems that the hipsters are not hip to it, referring to contemporary art as "philosophy on the walls." On Reddit, artists bemoan the fact that for all the supposed progressive thinking displayed on the site there is more ignorant hostility to the contemporary art which they find dismaying. 
     Popular culture has its drawbacks with its primary problem being that of equal representation. Although popular culture is improving there remains a world where stereotypes abound and diversity is not often considered. A wonderful series like Netflix's Marco Polo features only a couple Caucasian actors amongst dozens of Asian, Arab and Indian actors. This is very rare. Television is only beginning to represent the LBGTQ community or admit to human foibles explored more often by contemporary artists and writers. If there is one thing that contemporary art does well it is in its egalitarian mission to allow for diverse voices often at the expense of quality, but not without a lack of great honesty, commitment, experimentation or creativity. 
     Changes are happening rather quickly in the popular culture world as the appetite for honest representation of human life continues to find a bigger audience. Our prejudices are breaking down and we are fascinated by the multiple angles now taken up in stories that were once otherwise uncomplicated by reality. It’s a reality that not even Shakespeare could handle. The paragon of animals is far more complex than we ever imagined.   
Onur Altinbilek of Black Pirates Pub
     So who would have thought a bar or a restaurant might come to the aid of contemporary artists and expand their reach into the community? In a community that is typically blue collar there is enough of a population in Thunder Bay to harbour a great diversity of people, but not so big that groups of people with different interests, different make-ups, can find public spaces where they can share their interests and readily express themselves, share stories and empower themselves.
     In 2008 Onur Altinbilek was co-founder of Black Pirates Pub. He became the sole owner in 2014, and from the beginning ran the space as a live entertainment venue focusing on local and touring entertainment, including bands of all stripes, drag shows, burlesques, cabaret, fashion shows, art performances, movie nights, video and more. Right from the start BPP has been supporting the local music and arts community. “It’s a community I’m proud to be a part of,” says Onur. 
     On any night the diverse make up of an audience is apparent and the the freedom to be who you are and to be with likeminded people goes without saying. But it wasn't long ago when cliques and prejudices abounded, where a gay man would have a difficult time letting himself go in Thunder Bay. Now cross-dressing and transgender sorts can have a ball with supportive straights and the guys from the Mill who when asked how they feel being amongst such diverse people simply reply. "So what?" Or, "Really, I couldn't give a f...."
     Having worked at Jacks, a restaurant that shut down a few years ago, Onur has always been connected with the Definitely Superior Art Gallery, which has sought out venues in the North Core to fundraise, expand opportunities for artists, improve business for everyone downtown and to essentially liven up the city. “I love what Dave and Renee do for the arts community, for the visual arts and the music scene,” says Onur as he unloads the mega pack of raw chicken he’s going to cook for the throng of people who will show up a few hours later. He adds, “It’s little known that they’ve (DEFSUP) even given some bands gas money so they could get to the next gig.”
       The big event in the North Core is The Hunger, a Halloween event in October. It’s less artistic than say, Urban Infill in which artists and models parade artistic statements made into fantastic costumes, but there is creativity galore that comes with the event where young people get to work planning and building their costumes months in advance. BPP and other restaurants get involved in the Hunger, Urban Infill, and the but it is BPP that keeps the contemporary ball rolling with multiple events throughout the year, like the Derelicte fashion show where artists run a catwalk with fabulous creations that are also personal artistic statements.    
      “There’s no stone unturned. We try to cater to every group within the community, which is why we do drag shows, metal shows, punk shows. We’re basically the home for the punk and metal bands, and we do the local festivals and fundraisers,” says Onur.
     Referring to Thunder Bay Onur states, “We cater to everybody, whereas in a big city you go to one place for one thing and another place for another thing. But if you got to BPP you can go to a different kind of show all the time. Places like ours have to cater to everyone. I see myself as a piece of the puzzle in the community where there‘s a lot of collaboration. Collectively everybody downtown has made it come alive. We’re one of the older ones here, and I’m happy to still be doing it. It’s still exciting.”
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.