Pointing to the Art World’s Possibilities: A Speculative Future – Sharona Adamowicz-Clements & Michelle Gewurtz, Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives
Over the past year, when galleries across the country had to hold their daily operations in check due to quarantines, COVID and lockdowns, a space for some serious reflection opened up. Add in a continental reckoning with the enduring impact of colonialism and white supremacy, and the necessity for arts institutions to rethink their past, present and future is undeniable.
In response, Akimbo has partnered with Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries and asked the curators of eight public museums and art galleries to speculate about their future through the lens of what needs to be done to be access driven, anti-racist and anti-colonial. We proposed three initial questions and gathered the responses in text and video.
For the first installment of this weekly series, Curator Sharona Adamowicz-Clements and Michelle Gewurtz, Supervisor of Arts and Culture at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives, provided their answers.
- Who is an artist whose work points to future possibilities?
Recently I have been thinking about the work of New Haven, Connecticut-based artist Titus Kaphar. His grand narrative paintings, executed in the style of the Old Masters, have been the focus of his attempt to retell stories from the perspective of the “other” Black body that has been hidden from art and its history. He reimagines African-Americans in spaces where they would normally exist, refocusing our gaze so we can see what previously was overlooked. His is an effort to “make an amendment.” In his series From a Tropical Space (2020), he paints mothers and their children in interior and exterior urban settings – except the children are cut out and represented as ghostly white spaces. The absentees symbolize loss and are a commentary on the killing of young Black men – once innocent children, now violently torn away from the loving arms of their mothers. The artist bestows a quiet dignity on the mothers who are engaged in everyday activities of care and nurture. Kaphar reminds us that Black bodies are more than the objectified and irrelevant images we have seen in history books, in photographs and paintings, and on the news. These bodies are real people who belong to their families and communities.
Kaphar’s commitment to making a difference is reflected not only in his art practice, but also through his community work. In 2019, he cofounded the arts organization NXTHVN to support emerging artists and curators of colour. His formidable work as an artist who creates compelling imagery and as a social activist who cares about empowering young members of society would resonate with PAMA’s audience particularly since we are situated in the Region of Peel, which is also home to Black and Caribbean communities. His work could become a catalyst, a point of access, for an untapped sector of our region who, through artists like him, may find a way to the arts and see themselves as integral members of the local arts community.
The Global Pacific Art Exchange (GAX) is a collaboration between academics, artists and curators that looks at Asian/Asian-diasporic art globally. It is a community whose meetings are designed to be generative and foster cross-disciplinary dialogue. This model of a generative space where collaboration and dialogue are possible certainly informs my thinking about curatorial practice.
GAX 2019 took place in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal and focused on Global Asian Indigenous relations in contemporary art. It was through GAX that I connected with Samoan artist Yuki Kihara. Along with Prof. Alice Ming-Wai Jim, Dr. Alexandra Chang and the artist, we began a series of virtual conversations about her work. Our discussions ranged from Kihara’s practice, emphasizing gendered roles and cultural mythologies, to her ongoing preoccupations with Asian-diaspora, Indigenous representation and how the legacies of colonialism collide with ecology, climate change and the environment. We began talking more concretely about a project that could bring many of these concerns together for public presentation.
Envisioned as a five-phase project, サ–モアのうた (Sāmoa no uta) A Song About Sāmoa, when completed, will comprise twenty-five beaded and painted kimonos. To date, Kihara has produced two series of kimonos: the first suite of five centres on water and presents the oceanscape as an opening to another world. The second series of five features land and confronts Sāmoa’s participation in neoliberal capitalist systems. The project brings together two culturally specific artforms: Sāmoan siapo and Japanese kimono. Siapo, hand-made barkcloth made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree is a labour-intensive practice and one of the oldest traditional artforms in Sāmoa. These beaded and painted kimonos are presented as sculptural objects and surfaces for illustration and design. By combining the visual metaphors, material traditions and histories of Japan and Sāmoa, Yuki creates a starting point from which transnational connections and Indigenous knowledge might be explored and re-framed.
- What writer, thinker or theorist helps you make sense of where we’re headed in the arts?
I graduated from a doctoral program that was quite heavy on theory. While I still think that philosophy can play an important role in thinking through current concerns, I have recently shifted my focus. Lately, I have been reading more memoirs. Amy Fung’s Before I was a Critic, I was a Human Being, a memoir of sorts, read to me as a call to action. Fung positions herself in relation to Canada as a colonial project. This suggests that we should not leave it solely to Indigenous writers, thinkers, and artists or even BIPOC folks to hold the nation-state accountable for an ongoing colonial system. We ought to question our myths of multiculturalism and tolerance, and our relationship to colonialism.
Griselda Pollock’s writings about visual art and feminism have been a great source of inspiration to me since my undergrad days studying art history. Her psychoanalytic insight into the politics of gender and class, and its impact on art making, particularly the depiction of the female subject, has always stayed with me. When I first started curating, her critical writings helped me remember the social construct of the feminine in art and how to address the complex way in which we access images of women. The challenge was to highlight this construct while attempting to position new ways of seeing that would counter norms of presentation in the gallery space. Pollock was one of the first art writers who made me aware of the mediated way we encounter art; she became a guiding principle in my curatorial practice, not only in the way I approached the female imagery.
After many years in public art service, I still endeavour to remain fair, flexible and openminded. It is also an imperative to consider the viewpoint of others as we continually adapt to accept that differences exist amongst us all. So I offer this: curation of the future is a multiplicity of voices, an ongoing and open-ended question of possibilities. Its premise no longer offers one-sided solutions, conclusions and full stops. There are no ends to our beginnings or middles, just an endless process of experimentation and evolution, an exchange of ideas coexisting in harmony or in contradiction.
- What creative initiative could your art gallery do to shape your future programming?
This is not a new model but one that has been missing from PAMA’s program offerings: the pairing of intergenerational new talent with an established artist through an intensive one-month activity of cocreation and mentorship that would culminate in an exhibition. It would be equally fascinating to see what work could emerge when we invite artists of different cultural backgrounds and practices to collaborate on projects, whether the focus is on creative and stylistic exploration through diverse media or poignant everyday topics that concern us in the spheres of politics, economics and the environment. When it comes to truly encouraging diversity and a multiplicity of expressions, it would be most interesting to demonstrate in a single project different approaches towards ideas that reflect cultural biases, and the unique perspectives which we have developed as an outcome of what we were taught and how we were raised.
For example, PAMA is developing an exhibition on hair. Human hair has been a marker of individual and collective identity for many ethnic and religious groups. We all have hair, but, like the color of our skin, hair’s texture and the cultural rituals around its upkeep, length and cut carry racial overtones. It can divide rather than connect us. But through hair we may also be able to explore our commonalities around ideas of beauty, hygiene and fashion, similar preoccupations that make us all human. This exhibition topic is a great way to engage artists of different backgrounds and to provide a neutral and equal platform from which to enter into sensitive discussions around the politics of race, discrimination and distinctive cultural practices.
PAMA finds itself in an exciting position, situated as we are in a growing and predominantly racialized locale within the GTA. We know we have a lot of work to do to shape our collection so that it better reflects our community. I also think there are myriad possibilities to engage our communities and activate the three collecting areas of the art gallery, museum and archives. I would love to see an artist mine PAMA’s historical archives and museum collection and create a project, installation, exhibition or artwork. I think there is a lot of potential to disrupt the archival process and how we as institutions collect and preserve history. What kinds of alternatives could we conjure? Perhaps that is a question we could ask the communities we serve: how can we contribute to future historical records or better capture complex narratives? There are opportunities to invite artists or engage audiences to think about how history is recorded and remembered.