2023 Critics’ Picks – Part Two

As per tradition, Akimblog has reserved the last two weeks of our publishing year to reflect on the past twelve months of art happenings in Canada. Our writers have selected the exhibitions that stuck with them long after they left the gallery. At a time when we’re inundated with an endless array of images, to dwell on those that captivate us and be transformed in their presence is a rare feeling indeed. This, then, is a tribute to those experiences. Here’s to more in 2024!

Jenny Western in Winnipeg

Marisa Gallemit, Winnipeg Pag Ibig, 2023, performance

The Winnipeg art scene chugged along in 2023 as it has most years; this year perhaps a little quieter than others. That isn’t to say there weren’t some incredible things happening in the city – among them Plug In ICA’s Stages biennial. Always innovative in its approach to take art outside of the gallery, the fourth year of this offsite series saw the programming of Plug In’s first (and among the first in Winnipeg) public art piece by a Filipina artist – Ontario-based artist Marisa Gallemit.

This is not insignificant for our city, which is home to the third largest Filipino diaspora in Canada, a community that is known in Winnipeg for music, dance, and visual art yet markedly underrepresented by our contemporary art venues. Gallemit’s piece, Winnipeg Pag Ibig, incorporated wheat-pasted posters, performance, video work, and collaboration with other second and third generation Filipino-Canadian artists to investigate the complexities of labour and contributions by immigrant populations.

2023 also seemed to be a year of departures. The Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq lost curator Jocelyn Piirainen to the National Gallery when she packed her bags for the last time in the spring. Piirainen brought smart and considered exhibitions to the WAG as the gallery’s inaugural Assistant Curator of Inuit Art. She will be missed. And there was the culmination of Marion Butler’s twenty-year career with the Manitoba Arts Council when she retired as Senior Program Consultant. Butler was a friendly face through a stressful granting process and will surely remain a champion for Winnipeg art and artists.

 

Terence Dick in Toronto

Alanis Obomsawin filming Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child, 1986 (courtesy: National Film Board of Canada and the artist)

It is a sign of the times in more ways than one that art’s connection to the past was its crucial character for me this year. Nowhere was this felt as intensely as in the Art Museum’s museum-worthy survey of Alanis Obomsawin’s decades-long career. The exhibition’s title alone, The Children Have to Hear Another Story, summed up its intent and positioned every gallery visitor, no matter how old, as the recipient of the necessary stories told by this Indigenous elder.

Prior to seeing the show this October, I knew Obomsawin as a ground-breaking, fearless, and celebrated documentarian. But learning so much more of her early activism, her musical career, her media appearances, and her tireless efforts to challenge settler historical narratives in Canada made her body of work, up to and including her later films and their unflinching accounts of the political battles of Indigenous peoples, all the more vital as a record of this land which we occupy. It was inspiring (and not a little intimidating) to pay witness to a life dedicated to art, expression, liberation, education, and community. It was a lesson in what’s possible in the shared space of art and justice, as well as an indication of the thankless labour it takes to challenge power.

Apart from its content, this exhibition provided a succinct history of media that induced flashbacks for those of a certain age. In addition to newsprint clippings, vinyl records, and black-and-white television clips, there were iconic National Film Board educator kits stocked with numbered slides for classroom slideshows, posters, and lesson plans for distribution in schools at a time well before YouTube or Ted Talks. These objects were beautifully crafted in their own right as instruments of engagement with young minds to elicit new visions of what their country was and what it could be.

 

oualie frost in Montreal

Kosisochukwu Nnebe, Is a language a flag? / What is a flag on stolen land?, 2022-ongoing

Far too often this year, I was lead to wonder (without denying the importance of creatives in revolutions) exactly what artists can offer a cause they lack direct experience with. One of the most moving functions of art, to me at least, is its ability to speak truth to power. And it is beautiful to witness those standing by claims of anti-oppressive and decolonial values, even when it may risk their careers. Kosisochukwu Nnebe and articule offered us one potential answer this fall.

In light of current events, Nnebe transformed the artist’s talk to mark the closing of her exhibition I want you to know that I am hiding something from you / since what I might be is uncontainable into an Anti-Imperialist Reading Room with the aim to “[shift] the focus of the previously planned programming … to center current and urgent political struggles for freedom in Palestine.” In her own words, articule was “transformed into an active site for contemplation, learning, and sharing resources… an opportunity to reflect on how you may stand in solidarity with Palestinian people while understanding the need to resist and confront the broader forces of Western imperialism.” articule also offered their space for community solidarity events, including teach-ins and protest material-making workshops.

The search for appropriate responses comes in the light of inappropriate ones, notably the Art Gallery of Ontario’s removal of Wanda Nanibush due to her pro-Palestine and anti-genocide stance, an action which has inspired boycotts. The greatest use of privilege, platform, and power is to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. While other galleries and artists have failed to do so, Kosisochukwu Nnebe and articule have heeded the call to justice by flexibly de-centering their own agendas in favor of mobilizing for a greater good.