Manuel Axel Strain at Burrard Arts Foundation, Vancouver
By Ogheneofegor Obuwoma
Manuel Axel Strain‘s solo exhibition A Howl! is self-described as “resisting precise definition.” The culmination of the artist’s residency at Burrard Arts Foundation, it is also a thread in their ongoing practice of connecting with and referencing relatives to centre their ancestral/traditional knowledge and realities.
The exhibition’s description proposes to give viewers a “glimpse beyond the settler colonial perspective.” We are invited to challenge our way of looking at and engaging with Indigenous art and storytelling. This glimpse reminds us that we will never know all there is to know about Indigenous being, and we are not entitled to that knowledge. Instead, we are provided with an opportunity to engage in a different way of looking at the world based on Indigenous perspectives.
When I first stepped into the gallery, I was welcomed by a range of work, from paintings to a hole made in a free-standing wall. Pictographic and petroglyphs depictions felt like they were escaping, jumping from wall to painting, creating a space that felt outside of reality. I asked myself what there was to say about a exhibition that asked not to be spoken about and instead called for intuition as a guide to curiosity. In answer, all I can share are my feeling in response to being in the space and my personal understanding of the importance of closed knowledge to Indigenous communities the world over.
Strain’s paintings feel like they depict scenes from Indigenous folklore through pieces fallen from a storyteller’s mouth. The familial elements and invitations feed from these fallen bits to acquire a tangible quality as they take the stories from the paintings and enact them as lived history. In doing so, they connect history with the realities of family and collective memory. What struck me about the artist’s collaboration with family and familial history is how the exhibition is a literal manifestation of their family through transformed family photos from their archive and works by the artist’s brother Cam Strain and niece Segwses Strain. This element of Strain’s practice reverberates with the idea that, as a person of color, the archive is more than reference material, but also a symbol that acts as a testament to who we really are outside of the binaries and paradigms of the white imagination.
I was especially drawn to the show’s titular piece, which hangs in the center of the gallery, displayed over a blue section of the free-standing wall structure. With fish leathers dangling from the canvas, this painting is a portrait of a youth in disarray. The eerie image of disarranged eyes and mask-like shape is a visual theme that Strain repeats and modifies throughout the exhibition to create distance and provide layers for the work to rest within. It is an invitation and a non-invitation, a request not to venture further than allowed.
A Howl! left me with much to think about as a Black person who is constantly battling to find ways to present work that is true to me and my family’s reality, but often has to be shown in a majority-white city like Vancouver. What can we keep to ourselves while still upholding these decolonial ways of thinking and being? This exhibition offers a way to consider these questions and celebrate collaborative familial relationships and their entanglements with history while also upholding the importance of ancestral knowledge.
Ogheneofegor Obuwoma is a Nigerian filmmaker, storyteller, and artist with a BFA in film and communications from Simon Fraser University. Her work explores “the personal” in relationship to her larger community and the cultural experience of being Nigerian. She is interested in African futurism and the ways we access the spirit.