2021 Critic’s Picks: Montreal

By Sarah Nesbitt

Kama La Mackerel (one of the participants in Af-Flux: Biennale Transnational Noir)

As always, it feels impossible to focus on one thing for a year-end wrap up. After a long winter under curfews and lockdowns, we all had a longer break than usual from the Covid dread in Montreal. The summer and fall were vibrant, institutions opened, exhibitions happened, people gathered. Though not the focus of this piece, I have to acknowledge a few important moments in the city—the inaugural Af-flux: Biennale Transnational Noir, and a moving edition of Momenta Biennial de l’Image, which both reinvigorated audiences and set new precedents. Independent arts spaces like tilling, programmed by Chris Andrews, arose and made bold moves alongside strong showings by independent curators such as Mojeanne Behzadi and Philippe Bourdeau, keeping the Montreal arts ecosystem fresh and vital.

Brittany Shepherd, Vera, 2021, oil on panel (from Waltz of the Mind at tilling)

As the fall approached, I started to feel the worry settle into my body, waiting for another set of regulations to hammer down on us and making extra efforts to turn the radio down or off. As the sun and clocks shifted along with our rhythms, I was reminded of Sarah Mangle’s e-mail Art Prompts. Beginning in spring 2020 in the heat of the pandemic, Mangle sent out daily art prompts to a growing email list consisting of parents newly at home with children, and recently unemployed or homebound folks looking to break up the anxiety and isolation. The emails were short but generous and vulnerable, often revealing personal aspects of Mangle’s life, or things she was reflecting on. They included a brief art exercise in text-form, as well as audio for accessibility. She also often shared images of the previous day’s prompt, offered by participants. In 2020, prompts veered towards the political: “Day 91: I Can Imagine a World Without Police” or “Day 101: Portraits of Black Struggles for Liberation (Past, Present and Future!)” In 2021, we were living with our first ever winter under curfew. The now weekly art prompts reflected the deep sorrow and pain that came from this new level of isolation. In February (Week 50), the prompt was “Discomfort in the body: Sarah Mangle wants to hear about it.” Week 59 focused on intentional touch with the prompt: “Cuddles.”

I only actually attempted one of the prompts, but was so comforted by receiving them. The generosity of the labour involved, the sense of community, the vulnerability and intimacy they conveyed, and the way they tracked the ever-amorphous experience of time as we moved from wave to wave and struggled to keep awake past the shutter of darkness and dead streets, navigating fear of police and punishment, watching our unhoused and most vulnerable bear the weight of crisis over and over again.

Sarah Nesbitt is an independent writer and curator based in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal).