Jan Wade at the Vancouver Art Gallery

By Andrea Valentine-Lewis

In 1969, radical feminist Carol Hanisch wrote an essay later titled “The Personal is Political” that discusses how an individual’s experience is never severed from external systems of power relationships. While written during the height of second-generation feminism, largely responding to gender discrimination in the workforce, Hanisch’s sentiment can be applied to any situation involving systemic inequality. Jan Wade’s exhibition Soul Power at the Vancouver Art Gallery (and online at the Art Canada Institute) presents a large body of work spanning several decades that is deeply connected to the artist’s familial and community-based lineages, while also speaking to histories of slavery and racism – the backbone of so-called North America. Although the exhibition reveals stark phrases and imagery related to intergenerational trauma, ongoing systemic racism, and war, the work also manages to be celebratory – highlighting the strength in community, family, and collective action.

Jan Wade, Prophecy, 1990–20, wood, metal, plastic, found objects, paint (photo: Ian Lefebvre; courtesy: Vancouver Art Gallery)

When she was a child in Hamilton, Ontario, Wade’s great-grandmother would tell her stories, mainly Bible parables, originating from the African Diaspora during the Transatlantic Slave Trades. As a pledge to remember these histories, she translated the stories’ visual language into her paintings, sculptures, and assemblages composed of found and reclaimed objects.

While it feels trivial to compare Wade’s assemblages to those which emerged out of the European Surrealist movement, they both share two visual commonalities: the use of found objects in their compositions and, strangely, the similar muddied colour palette of black, brown, red, orange, grey, and blue. Although the origin of this specific palette is unclear, the impetus behind it could relate to the way that both Wade and the Surrealists create imagined societies out of already-established materials. The use of colour, then, is grounded in this reality, but decidedly and ruthlessly amiss.

Jan Wade, Spirit House, 2021 (foreground) and Epiphany, 1990-2021 (background) (photo: Jessica Jacobson; courtesy: Vancouver Art Gallery)

Throughout her career, Wade has utilized recurring symbols and motifs, notably crosses, skulls, eight balls, pistols, wide-toothed hair combs, and the right index finger pointing skyward. A standout is the Christian crucifix, which for Wade is the “ultimate pop icon” that extends beyond religious specificity and instead acts as a “symbol of cultural survival.” The most impressive work in this exhibition is Epiphany (1990-2021), an installation composed of over one hundred crosses of various dimensions, each adorned with phrases and images pronouncing the Black experience and reclaiming the power of the cross. Instead of Christ, one of the crosses centralizes the iconic child slave, Topsy, with the phrase “I have a dream” spelled out in Scrabble tiles. In replacing the epitomic symbol of Christianity with a black infant – one of many subjected to slavery – Wade invents a holy figure with healing powers specific to the intergenerational trauma caused by the Transatlantic Slave Trades.

The artist also includes a Spotify playlist as a component of Soul Power that can be accessed on the VAG’s website to listen to while viewing the work. The music, from the likes of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Kendrick Lamar, and Muddy Waters, not only masks the distracting sounds coming from the nearby escalator but profoundly emphasizes the feeling that Wade’s exhibition is not about conjuring pity or remorse. Soul Power is about the unshakeable strength of community, Wade’s community – one that has prevailed through hundreds of years of ongoing oppression.

Jan Wade: Soul Power continues until March 13.
Vancouver art Gallery: https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/
The gallery is accessible.

Note: The online exhibition will remain at the Art Canada Institute.

Andrea Valentine-Lewis (she/her) is an independent curator and writer based on the unceded and ancestral territories of the Coast Salish Peoples – colonially known as Vancouver. She is the Gallery Manager of Burrard Arts Foundation and sits on the Board of Directors as Treasurer at UNIT/PITT Society for Art and Critical Awareness. She has curated exhibitions at Equinox Gallery, Deluge Contemporary Art, and Unit 17, and her critical writing has appeared in Peripheral Review, ReIssue, and Galleries West. She holds a Master of Arts in Art History from McGill University and a Bachelor of Arts in Art, Performance, and Cinema Studies from Simon Fraser University.