Pointing to the Art World’s Possibilities: A Speculative Future – Catherine Sinclair, Ottawa Art Gallery

Over the past year, as galleries across the country have had to hold their daily operations in check due to quarantines and lockdowns, a space for some serious reflection opened up. 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 this week’s instalment, Catherine Sinclair, Deputy Director/Chief Curator of the Ottawa Art Gallery, provided her answers.

  1. Who is an artist whose work points to future possibilities?

Cara Tierney, They, 2019, aluminium, LED lights (fabricated by Ornova Studios, installed at the OAG, photograph by John-Finnigan Lin)

Cara Tierney is a Western Quebec-based artist, scholar, and curator who, through their artistic and curatorial practice, studies, and consultation work, advocates for greater acceptance and understanding of both queerness and transness, including non-binary identities. They are future-oriented in several ways: their work is audacious; they inspire us to do better, to listen, educate, and think; and they forefront access and inclusion, cooperation and engagement.

I have engaged with Tierney already in several capacities and they continue to influence our work at the Ottawa Art Gallery. They acted as our consultant towards amending our bylaws, facility, and staff training to encompass all-gender inclusiveness across the organization. They also took on a major art commission for our main lobby. They is a sculptural construction of what has come to serve as a non-binary pronoun for the English language. The work’s tall metal letters are created out of diamond-plated aluminum, symbolizing the linguistic traction and social momentum currently experienced by those with a non-binary gender identity. Back-lit and bold, it brings to the fore the potency of language’s ability to both create barriers and liberate us from them.

Tierney’s importance is also present in their curatorial practice. Their group exhibition To Be Continued: Troubling the Queer Archive, co-curated with Anna Shah Hoque and recently on view at the Carleton University Art Gallery, questioned the white, cisnormative gay lens that dominates the queer archive. The necessity of treating archives as spaces requiring decolonization, reclamation, and re-examination is key to how we move towards the future, and projects such as this are invaluable in this regard.

  1. What belief systems, theories, and new knowledge could revolutionize your institution?

We have been challenging each other, as a curatorial team, to read widely on a variety of Canadian perspectives and stories of belonging and identity in the last year. One book that struck a chord with me recently was Joy Kogawa’s Gently to Nagasaki due to her deep exploration of harm, personal responsibility, and power dynamics. It is a philosophical memoir and Kogawa addresses Japanese-Canadian history as a whole, couched in the story of her own family’s experience, from internment in the BC interior to how they are dealing with this legacy in current times. Throughout, she brings forward questions about dichotomies such as individual/collective, good/evil, victim/perpetrator that are applicable to my curatorial practice and beyond. This has led me to ask my own questions: Who do we represent in our exhibitions, collection and platforms? Who haven’t we represented? How do we move forward as supporters of what is collective and equitable?

Kogawa’s entire book is structured like a Hebrew Chiastic poem, working its way from the front and back towards a conclusion centred in between. In this form of poetry, for example, the first line relates to the last line, and the second line to the second last, etc. Using this structure, Kogawa looks at several subjects from two sides, including the nations of Japan and Canada, as well as individuals such as her father who had two opposing and distinct aspects to his character. In doing so, Kogawa confronts what makes an individual or a nation a victim, what makes them a perpetrator, and how both can exist at the same time. She asks us to look honestly at ourselves and each other, and acknowledge our role as perpetrators and understand our areas of subjugation as well. This call for honesty was echoed in a powerful talk I recently heard by Dr. Kenneth Hardy on How to be a Racial Ally, which emphasized the importance of creating space for conversation, no matter how difficult. If mistakes are made, it’s better to make them and then claw our way back out through a series of steps of restitution.

In my curatorial work, these discussions, ideas, and affirmations emphasize for me the importance of not being afraid to reach further out than we have before, to dive into communities that we haven’t yet engaged with, to ask questions, listen, and take risks. I am continually encouraged when I see new and unexpected successes after I try a new avenue towards greater inclusion. In keeping with the structure of a Chiastic poem, as curators, we should look back and reflect, correct, examine, and then project towards a better future by exploring the possibilities and taking chances before coming to that beautiful place in the centre. Only through looking at ourselves, our communities and institutions with honesty and boldness, and properly naming the inequities, can we move forward to where we want to go.

  1. What creative initiative could your art gallery do to shape your future programming?

Our ambition for future programming is centered on expanding our consultative and mentorship models, and creating more cooperative artist-led projects. In every instance where we have ventured in these directions – from our extensive consultation with the Anishinābe (Algonquin) communities on our new building’s inaugural exhibition in 2018 to the more recent partnership we’ve had with the Ottawa Black Arts Kollective – they have proven to be beyond rewarding. In both cases, it has expanded our list of artists and contacts, and, importantly, allowed us to lean into sometimes difficult conversations, leading to an ever-growing understanding of what communities are looking for from our institution.

In particular, we are attempting to increase our facilitation of artist-led projects by Indigenous artists upon whose land we sit and other under-represented communities, and diversifying the staff who are shepherding these projects. An example of an ambitious future project is that we are in the nascent stages of working with the Anishinābe (Algonquin) to create a large-scale outdoor public art commission as a landmark object for the Ottawa Art Gallery. Ideally, we are thus using our site in downtown Ottawa as a signpost to Anishinābe unceded territory and through art are flagging it as a safe space where people and communities are the key priorities. Projects like this require funds, staff, and hours of collaboration to consult, create bridges, fundraise, and actualize their outcome. Like this Anishinābe commission, we will continue to move outwards, towards and with all other communities, to welcome, bring in, follow the lead of their needs, their artists and their ideas, to make them ours as well, in increasingly collaborative ways.

The galleries featured in Pointing to the Art World’s Possibilities: A Speculative Future are part of the Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries research project Data Shy to Data Driven.