Handle with Care at the Gladstone Hotel

By Chiedza Pasipanodya

The most grounding places for me are lush forests, simple gardens, or a small quiet parkette stumbled upon in an otherwise dense city block. In these green spaces there is life, vulnerability, and opportunity for reflection. On the second floor gallery of the Gladstone Hotel, beyond the living wall and green roof, is a similar space in Handle with Care, an exhibition curated by Emilie Croning and Maria Kanellopoulos, and presented by Wedge Curatorial Projects, that brings together the intimate and imaginative work of Toronto-based artist Dainesha Nugent-Palache and American artist Adrienne Elise Tarver.

Often deploying similar mediums in their practices, both artists ask, “How does one connect to the unknown place they are ‘from’?” Atlanta/New York-based Tarver addresses the complexity and invisibility of the black female identity in the Western landscape from the history within domestic spaces to the fantasy of the tropical seductress.

Nugent-Palache responds to this question as a Jamaican-Canadian through photography and sculptural installations that explore themes of otherness, identity, and representation in relation to both femininity and the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

As explained by the curators, “The artworks presented are thoughtful reflections on the artists’ cultures, identities, and desires. The title asks viewers for a moment of pause: to show care, to be care-full, and to reconsider the ways we have come to understand histories of Black women, their stories of origin and personal narratives of the past, present, and future. Throughout the exhibition, there are also symbols that reference a need or desire for care, delicacy, or attention: plants, flowers, women, [but these] ‘delicate’ objects also carry weight, strength and power.”

Adrienne Elise Tarver, Untitled, 2020, site-specific installation

Throughout the gallery Tarver’s rich tropical foliage, an untitled site-specific installation, is suspended from the ceiling, curving around ornate light fixtures and between corners of crown moulding like sweeping vines. Hidden in the foliage, the silhouette of a female body is painted into this impasto landscape. The drapings hang low in some areas or jut out of corners in others, appearing camouflaged at times on the emerald wall while above, the original Victorian decorative features, rich with leafy motifs, are activated into direct conversation with this installation. For it is through the expansion of Europe and the acquisition of its colonies that the plants in these designs became known and exoticized. The artist describes this work in the exhibition catalogue as “existing in the slippage between looking into your neighbour’s window and the imperialistic form of voyeurism rooted in an assumption that [a subject is] open to being claimed and consumed.”

On either side of the French doors that open out to the Victorian balcony is Mirage, a series of fifteen watercolours by Tavers. These intimate watercolours depict black female figures, often lounging and faceless in a formless gradient space. A critique on Gaugin’s “exotic” women, the figures stand in command of their space, yet are fragile in their form as a result of the wet on wet watercolour technique.

In the north hall, a large-scale mural photograph called Jessica, the first of Nugent-Palaches’ photography series Future Portraits, consumes the wall. On the opposite wall, framed by the shadows of Taver’s semi-transparent foliage and evenly spaced against a rich turquoise background, hang images of notable Toronto-based creatives Angaer (Arop), Ella (Cooper), Tau (Lewis), and Esmaa (Mohamoud). Through lighting and their direct and unyielding gazes, these women take up space in a way that is definitive and imaginative, calling into being an unknown present and an approaching future perhaps as a way of addressing where they are “from.”

Dainesha Nugent-Palache, Untitled, 2020, site-specific installation

In the west hall, Nugent-Palache’s own site-specific work brings to form an exploratory space that demonstrates a strong understanding of the fragile balance that is involved in the making of a composition, while also making space for contemplation. We see floor-to-ceiling pink fabric draping the background, followed by fabric covered in pink and purple polka dots on a plinth, with a lemon tree and a ceramic parrot sculpture (a family heirloom) in the middle ground. In the foreground are potted plants, six cement-cast jackfruit and mango – one resting on a plate on a lower level plinth and framed by a lime green clothing rack with a single folded green fabric hanging on it. On the opposite wall, several photographs of dioramas echo the site-specific installation, complete with the presence of real tropical fruits, soil, family heirlooms, and Monsteras in vibrant lighting, drawing on memories of a Jamaican-Canadian upbringing. Standing out amongst the set is a photograph of a live parrot, its talons gently grasping onto a slender arm with bracelets, rings and its own talon-like nails radiating fluorescent pink under a black light. These vibrant constructions act as a fertile playground to explore the very serious questions of one’s own identity, family, and histories.

The strong visual vocabularies both artists exhibit exact a sense of agency that interrogates the colonial gaze while also enabling space for discovery and maybe even vulnerability through their use of media, colour, and framing. In Nugent-Palache’s work fruits and plants become the central subject, communicating migration, travel, and sustenance, while in Taver’s, they conceal and reveal the black female subject shifting between the exotic and visible, and raise questions about our physical and moral boundaries. The thing about plants, about flora, is that we cannot look at them in this post-colonial world without thinking about land, about place, and about our reliance on them.

Handle with Care continues until February 29.
The Gladstone Hotel: https://www.gladstonehotel.com/spaces/handle-with-care/
The gallery is accessible.

Chiedza Pasipanodya is a Zimbabwean-born, Toronto-based artist, curator and writer. Her interdisciplinary practice is concerned with themes of liberation, acts of unearthing, and what exists in the in-between spaces. Instagram: @ccchiedza