Present Tense is a complex–and telling–title for Studio Sixty Six’s newest exhibition curated by Rose Ekins, featuring painting and mixed media work from Kosisochukwu Nnebe, Guillermo Trejo, and Florence Yee, which runs from April 6 to May 6 2017. The title plays simultaneously between grammar and the tensions of postcolonial and racial discourses that are inherent in Canadian society and abroad. The exhibition aims to encourage a dialogue between the artworks and the viewer on the social, political, and cultural frameworks from which these tensions arise in Canadian history and how they also carry into the present.
The exhibition opens with Florence Yee’s paintings and an embroidered work which tackles Canadian art history as it is represented in historical art, textbooks, and cultural institutions. Drawing from her experience as a 2.5 generation Asian-Canadian, she reproduces images and texts to reimagine this history from a postcolonial and diverse ethnocultural perspective. Her work often satirically undermines the art historical canon, which can be seen in the works from Variations on the Tourist Gaze and A History of Canadian Art History. These two series cleverly critique Canadian visual culture and the ways in which it has been thought about in textbooks, offering an art history that aims to [re]-introduce indigenous, minority, and feminist voices and perspectives that are underrepresented or are severely lacking in the official historical canon.
Yee’s other works on view, such as Finding Myself in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, also critique the lack of representation of people of colour in major art museums collections and exhibitions. As she states, “I try to find my place in their space, and decide to insert myself into their paintings.” As a result, she draws attention to the profound problem in the collecting habits and exhibition practices relating to representing marginalized communities in the historical collections of art institutions, like the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, across the country.
Displayed in the centre of the first space alongside Yee’s work, is a multimedia sculpture by Kosisochukwu Nnebe, a Nigerian-Canadian artist whose artistic practice engages with critical race theory. This work entitled Of Canaries and Revolutions is painted on four planes of plexiglass plays with optics, perspective, and the lived experience of marginalized black women. Nnebe celebrates and comments on the role of black women as both the “canary in the coal mine” and as leaders of the vanguard in moments of revolution. As one walks around the piece, the woman comes into full-view through the different layers of painted glass, her knowing stare conveying her history and asserting her place within the viewer’s attention.
In the second space of the exhibition, Guillermo Trejo’s An Essay About Immigration Identity and Geopolitics presents a personal and politically charged reflection of his experience as a dual-citizen of Mexico and Canada, and the issues surrounding the Mexican-American border. The work, which is described as a “fluxkit,” draws inspiration from the experimental art of the Fluxus art movement founded in the 1960s. The entire installation is comprised of a series of paper-based works, including images drawn from his Mexican and Canadian passports, maps of North America, and silkscreen and letterpress prints fits into a portable, wooden box. The images of his passport reflect the identity politics surrounding immigration and travelling within North America.
The series of maps in the “fluxkit” comment on the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States as outlined in Executive Order 13767 issued by American President Donald Trump. One map boldly states “America first,” the text hovering over the border, another has simply removed Mexico and displaced it from the map, and the final map has a silkscreen template of the imposed line of the border pasted over where the two countries meet. This template of the border is reused several times throughout the “fluxkit” and is even silkscreened onto the gallery’s floor, dividing the space. Trejo’s Essay is a hard-hitting comment on immigration and international relations today.
All of the works in Present Tense draw from personal experience and they connect to very relevant contemporary issues such as Canada’s sesquicentennial, Black Lives Matter, and Trump-era politics. Together, they paint a vitally important picture of the tensions surrounding the representation of marginalized communities within Canadian history, museums, and politics.
Present Tense is on view at Studio Sixty Six until May 6, 2017. For more information, please see the gallery’s website: www.studiosixtysix.ca