In a world where speaking about feminist and environmental issues can be seen as controversial in some circles, Beneath the Tame, Gallery 101’s current exhibition curated by Lisa A. Pai, is a timely examination of history, women’s agency, and our connections and relationships to nature and to the land. The exhibition features the work of two sculpture-based artists, Anna Williams (Ottawa) and Mary Anne Barkhouse (Kwakiutl First Nation) and will be on view until December 2 2017.
Entering the exhibition, one is confronted by Barkhouse’s Red Rover (2012), a work featuring five bubblegum pink poodles facing off against five pitch black wolves over top of a map of Alberta, B.C. depicting the now-cancelled Northern Gateway Pipelines built from foam playground tiles. Created out of a memory of a previous oil spill near her mother’s home and the ecological disasters that ensued, the work reflects the confrontations and impositions that humans make upon the land. As Barkhouse commented, “the rights of people always seem to trump the rights of the land.” Positioned like the pieces of a political and tactical game, the poodles and wolves are seen at odds to each other, yet they also share are inextricably related to each other as they share the canine bond—as the installation 99.96% seen on the gallery’s roof signals, referring to the percentage of DNA domesticated dogs and wolves have in common—making a pointed critique of energy policies and eco-politics through the idea of “play.”
The concept of play runs through all of Barkhouse’s works in the show. Pieces from her Aerie (2017) series, including High Tea with Thunderbird and Fledge, adopt the notions of “play” to highlight how we learn codes of conduct with regards to interpersonal and inter-national relations. Drawing again from family history, Barkhouse created these works after seeing a photograph of residential school students from St. Michael’s School in Alert Bay, B.C. (one of whom was her mother) and was inspired by the “strong and amazing individuals” they had grown up to be. She presents baby birds of prey and birds from Northwest Coast mythology, like Thunderbird as symbols of nascent strength, but also as fuzzy children’s toys sitting down to tea-time and in toy chests. In this way, Barkhouse seems to be commenting on the way in which children can learn the codes of conduct needed to navigate life with nature, with other children and other nations. “Here, “play” has an important role to play with regards to how we learn the etiquette of how to treat each other,” Barkhouse says.
Moving farther into the exhibition, Anna Williams’ bronze sculptures also navigate the fragile permanence of the natural world and the human connection to nature. Her piece Gust (2017), a 100-piece installation of cast bronze oak leaves from an oak tree at her parent’s house that are swept up and suspended from the gallery’s ceiling, invokes nostalgia for a passing memory and/or the passing of time, while also commenting on the more threatening aspect of the piece’s materiality and flying metal as shrapnel. Similarly, Leaden (2017) is an installation of birds’ nests Williams found on her morning walks cast from lead recycled from the Parliament buildings resting on wooden lath taken from her own home. The work comments on the care, the fragility and the assumed permanence that goes into making a home. While Sanctuary (2017) depicts a fox surrounded by a circle of ceramic flowers, either a wreath of protection or the accoutrements of a sacrificial offering or memento mori.
Another thread that runs through Williams’ work is a dialogue with history and an empowering feminist conviction. Displayed on a stark red wall are 16 bronze renditions of plants that were historically used to treat mental illness and various female disorders. Referring to the hierarchical nature of medical classifications and conditions ascribed on the basis of one’s gender that were so often made for women, presenting a powerful critique.
Williams’ three sculptures Diana’s Stole, Eve’s Rib, and Leda and the Swan (2017) all continue in this feminist vein by revisiting classical and biblical mythologies that have been entrenched in patriarchal art historical tropes as a way to reclaim womanhood, female agency and power. As Williams says, “we have all of these stories in art history where women have a horrible time. Let’s reimagine these women as heroes that have agency and power over their own fates.”
Diana’s Stole shows a tender meeting of the huntress and a fox, a moment celebrating the kindred relationship, respect, and vulnerability of women and nature. Similarly, Eve’s Rib depicts a crow holding a resin rib, with more gathered on the floor, riffing on the biblical creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, but all the while undermining this patriarchal narrative to suggest that women are rather a gift from nature. Finally Leda and the Swan rewrites the Greek myth, showing the swan—Zeus—at the mercy of Leda and her axe. Here, women are depicted as strong individuals taking control of their vulnerability and strength. Such messages that are especially poignant in today’s social and political climate.
As a whole, Beneath the Tame is a powerful exhibition that showcases the artists’ convictions about the natural world, identity, and culture. Tying them together are nuanced relationships to their materials that are integral to their work. Both Barkhouse and Williams have selected materials that emphasize the power relations inherent to the relationships of settlers and First Nations, humanity and nature, feminism and patriarchal tropes, and art and history. Their materials—bronze, lead, wood, silk, and ceramic, among others—carry with them historical values that assist to make their contemporary commentaries ever more clear.
These artists adopt and engage with narrative, subject matter, and materials to poke at and undermine ideas that have been culturally manipulated and established, presenting feminist and indigenous viewpoints. As curator, Lisa A. Pai writes, “the tame has already been tamed. And yet, life lived and observed, remembered and considered empowers these artists to burrow in, under, below, beneath.”
Beneath the Tame is on view at Gallery 101 from November 4 to December 2 2017. It will also be the last exhibition in their current space as they will be moving in the new year! For more information about the exhibition, visit www.gallery101.org