This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council Art Bank, which houses 17,000 artworks by more than 3,000 artists and is the largest collection of contemporary Canadian art anywhere. Curated by Amin Alsaden, the anniversary exhibition Looking the World in the Face features close to 40 artworks that examine cultural representation in the Art Bank collection for over half a century, with a focus on “otherized” communities.
“From self-portraits to depictions of kin, comics to allegories, and historical figures to contemporary groups, these works by Indigenous and racialized artists convey a wide range of preoccupations, aspirations, and world views in unvarnished, critical, and creative ways,” reads the exhibition statement. Looking the World in the Face opened with a reception in the Âjagemô exhibition space at 150 Elgin St., which I attended and where I had the opportunity to chat with an artist whose work is displayed on the cover of the exhibition.
Alsaden’s complete curatorial statement is a deep and sombre reflection of Canada’s art culture and inclusion: “As a member of a displaced family who sought refuge in Canada, I have come to cherish the security this country affords many of us. But I have also experienced the systemic issues that divide Canada’s communities, and which otherize those of us who are perceived and treated as different,” he writes. “I hardly see our stories represented in Canadian museums, and art history programs are barely interested in what those who are like me and my family have to offer.”
We are all familiar with the deep, primal fear of being different. In prehistoric times, not fitting in meant certain expulsion, exclusion, and often death. Unfortunately, this obsession with belonging translated into people’s immediate rejection of anything that was outside the norm, even if today “inclusion” shows up in everyone’s speeches and manifestos. “I have painfully discovered the dichotomy that exists between the rhetoric around inclusion and prevalent exclusionary practices, which tend to manifest in institutional settings,” says Alsaden.
This is exactly what the curator addresses with this anniversary exhibition, seeking to provide a tribute and the act of being seen to otherized artists, taking visibility to another level with authentic recognition in an act of resistance. “These works provide an opportunity to centre those of us who are routinely relegated to the periphery: to celebrate the creative output of our communities, the sense of solidarity and affinities that emerge out of common struggles, and our undeniable contributions to this country,” writes Alsaden.
The words resonate deeply. As an immigrant myself, brought toward a better future by my parents, I often feel a confusing concoction of both privilege and displacement. I find common ground with anyone from a remotely similar place, and the camaraderie is intensely validating. Thus, I cannot imagine how members of other communities must feel, having the work of their kindred souls proudly on display at Canada Council for the Arts’ space.
Walking around the exhibition, I was struck by the breadth and depth of the works, ranging from paint and digital photography to traditional Indigenous wood carving. The artists represented share a piece of their history with the viewer, a piece of their heart and soul, both personal and generational, often encompassing centuries of persecution. The collection asks: “Can an exhibition give a glimpse of an imaginary Canada where the traumas of the past and the agonies of the present may lay the ground for a future built on elevating plural lineages, creeds, and belongings?”
I, too, ask myself, “What is my place here? My history? What is the intersectionality and how can it weave with the complex stories of others, combining our deep layers of different perspectives and pasts?”
The exhibition is inspiring. It highlights the works of historically underrepresented communities while at the same time decolonizing the “traditional” perception of art—you won’t see dark Baroque portraits here, nor fine oil paintings of lives that expired centuries ago. Speaking of the art itself, I had the pleasure of chatting with Cecilia Bracmort in person at the exhibition, whose pineapple mask image graces the cover of the exhibition and carries tremendous meaning.
“This photograph is from a series that questions the perception of my body and identity in the West. Tropical fruits became an obvious choice: like exotic fruits, my Black and female body points to an idealized elsewhere. This evokes notions of displacement (importation or immigration) and to an obsession with origins, of both the product and my identity, which puts in doubt the legitimacy of my presence in a given space. Fruit skins take the form of masks that Western society forces me to wear because of a colonial heritage, rooted in the history of slavery, that still shapes the collective imagination,” says Bracmort’s artist statement.
“When Amin (Alsaden) contacted me, I felt so excited—this is a curator I don’t know! My artwork means something to people,” says Bracmort. Originally from France, the artist has been creating since 2009, focusing on digital photography. When I ask what the acquisition of her work by the Art Bank means to her, she says, “It means the work was being recognized. Even though I see it here today, it’s still surreal. Beautiful and positive surreal.”
“I used to not be able to say I am an artist,” says Bracmort. “Now I accept that I’m an artist and I feel confident when I say that. Now I think—what’s next? To be next to artists I admire, I am thinking, this can happen to me too. I’m thankful to the universe.”