Aren’t we all in the West?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Nigit’Stil Norbert, Representation (detail), 2011, stills from stop motion video


By Tony Martins  /  Images courtesy of the Ottawa Art Gallery

Given his baffling statement made at the 2009 G20 summit about Canada having “no history of colonialism,” I can think of few Canadians besides Stephen Harper more in need of a visit to one of the current exhibitions at the Ottawa Art Gallery: Decolonize Me.

While Canada has never laid claim to, say, verdant Caribbean islands, we certainly did expand our colony to Vancouver Island and many other huge tracts of land—both ceded and not—where Aboriginals had been rooted long before the first Europeans arrived.

The effects of this are inescapably a part of who we are today—the operative “we” here includes both Aboriginals and descendents of the colonizers, living together uneasily, inequitably, and still trying to figure the best ways forward. If a key step in that process is a greater understanding of our shared history, Decolonize Me
is an important body of work for any Canadian to examine for its broad and frank look at the effects of colonization and decolonization on Aboriginal people.

A grouping of projects by six emerging or mid-career artists from across aboriginal peoples of Canada, the exhibition is the work of Heather Igloliorte, an independent curator from the Nunatsiavut Territory of Labrador and currently based in Ottawa.

Igloliorte told Guerilla
that she “began building the exhibition around the initial idea of revealing the hidden histories of colonization in Canada and investigating how the dual processes of colonization and decolonization were impacting the daily lives of Aboriginal people.”

You could argue that the current mainstream approach to dealing with Canada’s past (and current) treatment of Aboriginal peoples is to politely acknowledge it, apologize, and then quickly purge the details from memory. This exhibition is a reminder of such details and the ongoing challenges that result, particularly for younger Aboriginals now attempting to “decolonize” or reclaim themselves and their heritage.

In her 2009 stop motion video called Representation,
Nigit’Stil Norbert (Gwich’in / Yellowknife) juxtaposes the unbraiding of a woman’s hair with the binding and confining of a stereotypical “Indian” doll with braided rope. “As the braid unbinds, the doll becomes bound,” Norbert wrote in her artist’s statement. “It is believed by some First Nations people that braids are a physical representation and extension of our thought and of our spiritual essence, our strength.”

Preservation of that strength seems of primary concern for Norbert, who wrote in a statement about her Enframe
series of photos also included in the exhibition, “Without traditional knowledge, and my grandmother’s specific beading style, I feel as though I would cease to exist.”

While many of the techniques and art-making methodologies involved in the exhibition may seem decidedly “Western” at first glance, Igloliorte feels that broadening the conception of Aboriginal art can only be a good thing—even if it wasn’t her primary objective. The central aim was instead to use “the brilliant communicative tool of art to change the way Canadians view their relationship to Aboriginal culture and to the history of colonization and imperialism in this country,” says Igloliorte.

To that end, works such as The longing Series
(2011) by Sonny Assu (Laich-kwil-tach / Vancouver) point to the intersection between Aboriginal artworks and the Western world’s predilection for consumption even in art gallery settings.

Assu’s project includes mounted wedges of reclaimed cedar found discarded by log-home builders/exporters on Vancouver Island. The wedges happen to resemble the prefabricated Northwest Coast masks often found in gallery gift shops.

In his artist’s statement, Assu contends that his version of the masks “have an inherent beauty: the poetics of a chainsaw paired with centuries-old growth rings reveal the wisdom of these once majestic cedar trees … The felling of the rainforest enables us to display wealth in the form of luxury vacation homes, but we often give little thought to the waste produced by such affluence.”

Sonny Assu, The longing Series, 2011, reclaimed cedar, brass mount

The most disquieting project in the collection is also the most straightforward: Barry Pottle’s 2009 series of photographs documenting our federal government’s now-defunct Eskimo Identification Tag System.

Pottle (Inuit / Nunatsiavut, Labrador) contrasts enlarged, dehumanizing images of the numbered tags that Inuit were required to wear until around 1969 with re-humanizing portraits of smiling Inuit people who wore the tags.

Because Inuit names were considered difficult to write and pronounce, the tagging system was developed for census purposes: “Inuit people either wore or had to memorize their identification number,” Pottle writes in his artist’s statement. “Inuit even signed their names with their numbers, and Inuit artists often carved their numbers, instead of their names, into stone sculptures.”

Barry Pottle, Awareness #1, 2009, digital photograph

Such historical acknowledgment is both compelling and important, yet the irony of mounting Decolonize Me in a Western gallery is by no means lost on Igloliorte.

“Let's be frank; the Ottawa Art Gallery resides in one of the most ‘colonial’ historic properties in the city, the old courthouse,” she said. Consequently, attempts were made to “decolonize” the gallery space as much as possible.

“Doing things like including sound elements and having live performances are definitely more in line with decolonizing methodologies and Indigenous art practices,” said Igloliorte, “which do not privilege the visual the way that Western galleries have in the past. Inclusion of the artist's first-person narratives was another way to “contextualize the works was also a deliberate attempt to decenter curatorial and institutional authority over the art and artists,” explained the curator.

The historical symbolism of the OAG space itself may call into question whether the mounting of exhibitions such as Decolonize Me
are themselves evidence of colonizing or decolonizing—or both. For Igloliorte, the issue is more about the growing acceptance and relevance for Aboriginal cultures in the Western art world.

“Couldn't infiltration be one of the first steps towards decolonizing ‘white man's’ art institutions?” the curator asks. “When contemporary Aboriginal artists started showing in fine art galleries twenty and thirty years ago it was cause for an uproar amongst those who thought Aboriginal art only belonged in anthropological institutions and natural history exhibitions … We are now building towards such a critical mass and there is hardly an institution in Canada that doesn't show Aboriginal art or work with Aboriginal curators. Who knows where we will be ten years from now?”

Assimilate this!
(2011) is a fascinating two-channel video installation by Ottawa’s Bear Witness (Cayuga) that adds strong local representation to Decolonize Me. The exhibition resulted from a conversation between Igloliorte and former OAG contemporary curator Andrea Fatona, who had made a point of showcasing work that would draw a more diverse audience to OAG. Now that Fatona has moved on, we can only hope that such diversity continues.

Decolonize Me
is more than compelling art; it is critical evidence of greater tolerance and integration on both sides of the Aboriginal/Western equation. Despite this progress, however, Stephen Harper and colonial Canada have a long way to go toward fully acknowledging the past and present. Igloliorte cites our education system as just one example.

“I can barely remember learning anything about the first peoples in high school, and if I hadn't sought it out deliberately, I wouldn't have had to learn anything about Aboriginal people in university, either,” said the curator. “I have colleagues with doctorates who've never studied any non-Western history. Aren't we all in the West? Are our histories so easily separated?”

Girls come up against Cowboys

Monday, September 19, 2011


Photos and text by Magida El-Kassis


I never thought about pairing up these images because they seemed so different to me. But when Tony Martins mentioned it and I tried it out I think they do work and play with the idea of juxtaposition.

The photos of the Girls is an ongoing series of beautiful women in natural settings. The portraits of the Girls range from fall 2010 to 2011 and all were shot in our city of Ottawa; at various parks, beaches, and anywhere that really just caught my eye. I love to capture emotion relating to its environment and a lot of these places had this dream-like state.

The Cowboys were shot in July 2011 in a small town about two-and-a-half hours west from here called Warkworth, where a traveling rodeo was happening that weekend. This was an idea I had from personally living in a small farming town outside of Ottawa. I just thought it would be neat to see if cowboys actually exist and how could I capture them with my camera to prove it.

It's funny, the images may seem quite different, but the people in them really are not. It took time and preparation for my crew and I to prepare outfits and do makeup for the girls. With the cowboys, I asked them for a minute of their time, yet spent ten minutes because they would all tell me “Wait, I need a second to tuck in my shirt, straighten up my hankerchief, put on my chaps, get my hat,” etc. It was quite funny that these manly cowboys needed time like the girls to make themselves look good for the camera.

I have these ideas in my head of what girls do or are supposed to do compared to men. And if you look at my work as a whole, you can see that: the Girls portraits are quite planned out, and, I would like to think, show the beauty in structure (referring to a well-composed image and to the girls as a human being), and my photographs of men have very little planning.

I show up to places with the idea to take photos of people with character and they always turn out to be of men who are working hard to feed their families. From a construction worker, to boxers, or cowboys, they are stereotypes of what a man is.

I love photographing people and just showing whoever looks at my images these beautiful people I get to spend a few moments with.





Uncle Zeke’s existential character sketches

Monday, September 5, 2011


Although he spends most of his days creating digital images via computer, illustrator Michael Zavacky (aka, Uncle Zeke) is careful not to abandon his foundational skills by regularly creating hand-drawn character sketches in his personal time.

As explored in the below dialogue with the artist, the resulting character sketches reveal him to be an astute observer of human nature.

Guerilla: Where do you get the ideas to create these characters?

Zavacky: I always loved drawing people's faces, just doodles … nothing too realistic. And I like to observe folks on the street and imagine about each particular life story. A lot of the stories I come up with are based on people I have met and some are pure fiction.  A lot of it is autobiographical, too … the way I feel about things and experiences I have had.

Are these pieces a kind of commentary on modern life?

Maybe. Not sure if I planned it that way, but I do see them as a glimpse of important episodes that occur in everyone's life at one point or another. Seemingly insignificant experiences that prompt someone to make a major change, break the routine. I love it when people get honest and recount stories of something that really made a difference in their life.

How many of these have you done in total?

I have little sketch books that I try to fill up, doing two new characters a day. I started back in January and must have about two books filled by now. I usually draw the character first and then come up with story that seems appropriate. Some work, some don't.

Do you consider them to be sketches or studies or finished artworks?

I started off by thinking of these as a daily creative exercise with a long range goal of perhaps turning whatever I came up with into a sort of graphic novel. Who knows? The main thing is to just be doing something and we'll see how it ends up.

A case study in content development

Monday, August 22, 2011

picture 1

Stargazer Volume Two: A preview

Monday, August 8, 2011


Ottawa’s Von Allan creates graphic novels as a labour of love. New technology makes distribution easier, but there’s no pot of gold at the end of his Stargazer rainbow. That doesn’t stop Allan from being very excited about the upcoming release of his Stargazer Volume Two. Below we present a nine-panel excerpt from the book.

Released in 2009, Stargazer Volume One received positive reviews from a number of sources, including heavyweights such as the Midwest Book Review.

While the release “didn't set the world on fire sales-wise,” says Allan, he wasn't exactly expecting it to.

“It's an all-ages title with young girls as the main characters and that, sadly, is still a bit of a tough sell in comics,” admits Allan.

Now in volume 2, Allan completes the Stargazer storyline. “The first volume ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and the second volume resolves everything,” the artist says.

“I tried to establish a status quo in the first volume that created the rules of the world.  The main characters—and hopefully the reader—came to expect certain things to work a certain way. That changed in volume two and I think that will challenge some assumptions about the first one.”

The Stargazer story follows a young girl named Marni struggling to cope on her own with the recent death of her grandmother. When a “quirky little object” bequeathed by the grandmother suddenly sends Marni and her two friends into a parallel universe, the threesome embark on a number of very odd adventures in an attempt to return home.

Stargazer Volume Two will arrive in stores worldwide on October 12. In the meantime, there's a bigger online preview than what we’ve excerpted here available at



OAG's urban garden is rooted in community

Monday, July 25, 2011

Story by Michaela Cavanagh  /  Photos by Jennifer Cook


Although the summer weather beckons us outside and inspires us to foster a greater sense of community with our neighbours, many people in Ottawa have no choice but to interact with the outside world whether they welcome it or not.

All year round, the neighbourhoods of Lowertown and Sandy Hill are stomping grounds for people without homes. The majority of the city’s shelters and social service providers are found within a three-mile area encircling Rideau Street.

Right in the middle of this neighbourhood, in the unlikeliest of locations, sits Arts Court, home of the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) and its “Will Work for Food” garden project, a collaborative, community-building initiative propelled by Ottawa-based artist Jennifer Cook.

This urban vegetable patch grows in the Arts Court yard bordering Daly Avenue and Nicolas Street. Touted as a “lush, colourful, edible, community collaboration” by the OAG, “Will Work for Food” is much more than just a vegetable garden.

This fusion of food, art, and community seeks to bring under scrutiny the vast array of political issues surrounding food production and self-sufficiency, access to food, and the cultural significance of food to the artist and the targeted community. Part of the charm of the project is that the produce created will be consumed by The Ottawa Mission, Operation Come Home, and the community at large.

(A g-Gallery story on the project appeared back in January when the garden idea was in its germination phase.)

“Will Work for Food” got underway in February when artist Jennifer Cook was selected by a jury to lead the initiative. Cook has since worked with community organizations including Operation Come Home and the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and numerous volunteers to see the project through each stage of the food-growing process. The garden is just starting to see returns now, but with workshops and artists’ talks in the future, there is much to look forward to.

Cook, especially, has big dreams for the 28-cubic yards of soil that the garden consists of: “‘Will Work for Food’ is a reclamation, and transformation of space—it’s a large scale public intervention. It is the most urban approach to food production I have seen in this city,” said Cook. The project does more than provide much-needed meals to people who wouldn’t otherwise get them. Cook points out how the project also “explores themes of consumerism, food security, organic food production, urban agriculture, our dependence on fossil fuels, sustainability, community, and our estrangement from nature.”

How can a collaborative community garden, a project that will bring people together to get dirt under their fingernails be considered political? “The fact that this project is an edible garden grown in the downtown core of Ottawa behind the biggest shopping centre is political,” argues Cook. “The fact that this project is collaborative is political. Though all of these themes come up simply by nature of the project, it is not overtly head hammering political. This is a project of growth, joy and community,” Cook added.

With such lofty aspirations, one might expect the attached physical manifestation to be equally grand. This is not the case with the unassuming “Will Work for Food” garden.

A tall placard at the entrance of the modest green space bears a poem written by spoken word artist Oni the Haitian Sensation that reads:

Culture works full-time
On the walls of your imagination

Art is within your reach dans une pensée creative
Impact changes everything!

Further inside, evidence of this poetic idea is seen in the deep red of a radish protruding from a raised dirt bed. From humble beginnings come delicious returns.

A community vegetable garden in the middle of the city in the fast food age acts as an unexpected political intersection of the arts and the surrounding urban reality. With “Will Work for Food,” as Oni the Haitian Sensation writes, the product of art is indeed within anyone’s reach.