Gary Evans: Farther Afield

I was pleased to be invited to write an essay on the work of Gary Evans for his exhibition at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario (June 28 – October 30, 2016).

The essay is available on the gallery’s website attached to the exhibition web page.


Gary Evans, Switchblade, 2015, printed paper collage, 56 x 76 cm. Courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art. Photo: Hailey Mulhall


Gary Evans, Two, 2015, oil on canvas, 107 x 137 cm. Photo Hailey Mulhall

Bonnie Devine: The Tecumseh Papers

No Vacancy on This Land

Bonnie Devine, The Tecumseh Papers.

Art Gallery of Windsor, September 27, 2013 – January 5, 2014.

By Pearl Van Geest

“Over the course of his lifetime he went from having everything to having nothing”, Bonnie Devine says of Chief Tecumseh.[1] He was a shooting star dragging history behind him – the legacy of successive betrayals by the Europeans in their thirst for land and their willful delusion that it was virgin and theirs for the taking. In The Tecumseh Papers Bonnie Devine finds an “artist’s way into history” and presents us with openings and resonances. She offers us a richly interwoven history in which the past, present and future fold into and around each other and have implications for our present social situation.

Two years earlier Devine accepted the invitation of Art Gallery of Windsor curator Srimoyee Mitra to respond to the historical record of the War of 1812 and to transform this response into an exhibition on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames, close by in Chatham, on October 5, 2013. Beginning with two works from the AGW’s collection – terracotta busts of Chief Tecumseh and General Brock by Hamilton MacCarthy, circa 1896 – Devine uncovered “a completely fictional representation” of Tecumseh and consequently a “story that demanded to be told.”

The accounts of the War of 1812, while acknowledging the crucial importance of Chief Tecumseh and the native warriors in battle, none-the-less relegate their role to a secondary one; one that sidelines Tecumseh’s tremendous leadership and vision for a sovereign state for the Native confederacy northwest of the River Ohio. It is generally recognized that the British (Canadians) could not have won against the American forces seeking to control British territory in Canada if it were not for the Native warriors who fought along side of them. What is pushed aside however, is the primary motive that Tecumseh and the Native confederacy had for doing so. They wanted their inherent nationhood in a sovereign homeland to be acknowledged. Brock himself recognized this when he struck an agreement with Tecumseh and the confederacy – one that was implicitly state- to -state. They agreed that the Indians would fight with the British against American forces in exchange for a guarantee that the British government would support the recognition of the sovereign state that Tecumseh’s confederacy demanded. This would have stemmed the tide of American settlers westward onto Indian land and changed the course of history.

But we know what happened to this land instead – in spite of living up to their end of the bargain and thwarting the American drive northward, the sovereign nationhood that should have been made part of the treaty that ended the war was ignored. Brock and Tecumseh died in separate battles and the Treaty of Ghent basically reestablished the pre-war borders between America and the British colony that would become Canada – with no explicit mention of a Native sovereign state. The legal fiction, the doctrine of terra nullius (that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty) prevailed, and together with the idea of Manifest Destiny, rationalized an unabated colonization of the American west by European and American settlers. The land was lost and Tecumseh’s confederacy broke apart.

“Land was not just an abstraction for Tecumseh as it was for Brock. It was everything.” His life was contemporaneous with the loss of land as European colonists claimed greater and greater proportions of it. Devine shows this shrinking distribution with three wampum belts that are affixed to the red strips of fabric that trail behind the robe that she made for Tecumseh out of an old Union Jack. The robe is decorated with shells and deer hide fringes with the “mantle of the alliance”, a stretched rawhide painted with glyphs, draped down the back. Beginning from Tecumseh’s right to left hand side, the wampum belts represent three treaties: the Royal Proclamation, 1763; the Treaty of Greenville, 1795; and the Treaty of Ghent, 1814. The brass beads sewn into the belts signify native land and the nickel ones, the land claimed by the settlers. In 1763 half the belt is nickel and half is brass but on the wampum belt for the Treaty of Ghent, negotiated after the War of 1812 (fought by Tecumseh and the native warriors he rallied) not one brass bead is to be found. The entire belt is nickel. I found it impossible not to feel the tragedy and injustice and this itself makes the historical “facts” less an abstraction, more relevant to present circumstances and thus not just an irrevocable issue of the past. As Devine pointed out, this legacy connects directly to the Idle No More movement in its vision to “honour Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect land and water.”[2]

The fluidity between the past, present – and the future – implicated by Devine in her work extends into a triad of concept, story and materials that are interwoven together throughout the installation. Look closely at the red fabric runners flowing from Tecumseh’s robe and you can see that they are stained with dirt. This dirt comes from reeds gathered by the Humber River where Devine intertwined with them with the three strands of red cotton to make a braid, Toronto Braid: for the Mississaugas, an outdoor installation on the grounds of the McMichael Gallery. The braid was a tribute to the Mississaugas, who also fought along side the British in the War of 1812, in this case at the Battle of York in 1813. After the braid was disassembled and the reeds returned to the land, Devine used them in Tecumseh’s robe. She had wanted the cloth to inhabit the space of the AGW, to flow from the robe, down the stairs of gallery towards the Detroit River that Tecumseh was fighting to protect, but because of safety concerns, had to compromise and confine their reach to the upper gallery space.

These interwoven connections between time, place, materials, ideas and history are amply shown in other works in the show as well. In the Dictionary of Names Devine draws and paints on top of old novels that romanticized the history of Tecumseh. She erases and selects certain words, painting into and over a glamourized history, not completely eradicating what was presented in these novels but bringing the world inhabited by Tecumseh to the fore in the pictorial tradition of the Anishinaabek. This method of working is a reference to the Plains Indians’ ledger paintings, done over top of accounting ledger books used by the European settlers in the 1800’s. The most celebrated were done by Indian warriors in the mid-1800’s while held as POW’s in Fort Marion in Florida. The ledger paintings themselves come from pictorial traditions in the Plains whereby winter counts were drawn onto rawhide deerskins during the winter months. Devine works in this manner as well, painting and drawing the stories surrounding Tecumseh onto rawhides and paper, all materials carefully chosen in a way that is integral to the story and conceptual framework of her meeting with Tecumseh.

Devine isn’t just giving a history lesson from a new perspective – valuable as that would be, nor is she romanticizing the past. Instead she is, as she described, finding “an artist’s way into history” – into the dense geographical, political, American, Canadian, First Nations and colonial histories. In her re-telling the past is interwoven into the present and the future and it enfolds into our current social conditions. This enfolding of time and particular approach to history and the past is also part of the process whereby Devine found her artist’s way into this history. She describes how she “inhaled a complicated and conditional place in Tecumseh’s world.”

In The Tecumseh Papers, Bonnie Devine offers us a complex history: of events, of materials and materiality, of politics and spirituality and of relationships – relationships that extend beyond those between Tecumseh and the people who inhabited his world to those between artist and viewer, artist and subject and the artist and her work, and through this between the viewer and this new envisioning of an old story. In this way we are compelled to not only reexamine what we thought we knew about the history of Canada and the First Nations people (including the events of the War of 1812) but to accompany Devine into the space that she inhabited when she entered into Tecumseh’s world, a place that she describes as “complicated and conditional”. This enfolding of time and place, and Devine’s inhabitation of these simultaneous presents makes it clear that the past isn’t far away at all.

In moving towards the future, she said, that is impossible to “unlearn the dominant paradigm from an aboriginal and feminist perspective.” This was the central question posed during a panel discussion at the AGW. Instead, she suggested that the question should be reformulated to ask how to “develop a way to be inside a more complex and multidimensional world” to become “nimble, quick, angry and responsive” in transitioning between different worlds. As viewers of her installation, The Tecumseh Papers, Devine asks us not to be mere spectators, but to pay attention, to live for a moment in the complicated and continent world such as that inhabited by Tecumseh and by doing so to think compassionately about the present circumstances of First Nations’ people and ways to move as allies, together into a uncertain future.


[1] All quotes unless otherwise noted come from an interview that I did with Bonnie Devine at the Art Gallery of Windsor during the installation of her exhibition Sept. 2014.

[2] Idle No More. Website. Accessed Dec 31, 2014.

Bonnie- robe

[1] All quotes unless otherwise noted come from an interview that I did with Bonnie Devine at the Art Gallery of Windsor during the installation of her exhibition Sept. 2014.

[2] Idle No More. Website. Accessed Dec 31, 2014.

Canadian Art Foundation’s Writing Prize

by Canadian Art

We are pleased to announce that Pearl Van Geest of Guelph, Ontario, is the winner of the 2015 Canadian Art Foundation Writing Prize. Van Geest will be commissioned to write a feature story for a future issue of Canadian Art and will receive a $3,000 award. The two runners-up for this year’s prize are Nancy Webb, of Montreal, Quebec, and Benjamin Hunter, from Toronto, Ontario. Each will receive recognition in the magazine and a $1,000 award.

The Canadian Art Foundation Writing Prize, now in its sixth year, is an annual juried prize designed to encourage new writers on contemporary art. For eligibility, writers cannot have published more than three pieces in national or international magazines. A national jury of curators, critics and other art professionals review the submissions. The 2015 jury consisted of Andrew Kear, curator of historical Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Ryan Doherty, director-curator of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery; Lesley Johnstone, curator at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; and Richard Rhodes, editor of Canadian Art.

Pearl Van Geest is an artist, arts educator and emerging arts writer. In 2014 she was Guelph’s inaugural Artist in the Community. She recently completed her MFA at the University of Windsor and has exhibited her artwork in solo and group exhibitions across Canada.

Nancy Webb is a writer currently completing a master’s degree in art history at Concordia University, and the founding editor of Spiffy Moves. She was recently in residence at the Banff Centre, participating in the Critical Art Writing Ensemble program.

Benjamin Hunter was raised in Scotland and spent time working in Uganda as an educator and filmmaker. He completed a BA in photography at Edinburgh Napier University and is now finishing his photography studies at OCAD University. Hunter is interested in lens-based art and its capacity to generate social change.

Three of the jurors’ comments on the winner and the runners-up:

“Pearl Van Geest brings a refreshing combination of vivid clarity and richness to her writing on contemporary art. She exhibits a rare skill, that of being able to provide a concise overview or summarization of truly ranging artistic initiatives and materials without submersing the reader in vague generalities and uninspired truisms. Resisting linguistic ornament and intellectual posturing, Van Geest’s writing is, simply put, wonderfully paced, unselfconsciously purposeful and seemingly effortless.” – Andrew Kear, curator of historical Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

Nancy Webb writes with conviction, charm and a sharply attuned understanding of contemporary art and culture. Her submissions were pithy—elegantly and efficiently moving through large, diverse ideas, and probing—inviting the reader to take an inquisitive position of his or her own.  Webb’s voice is compelling and entertaining, populated with thoughtful words and phases that manage to animate the text and rouse the imagination without feeling gratuitous or distracting. In short, her writing allows readers entry into her subjects in a way that feels personal, informative and pleasurable.” – Ryan Doherty, director-curator of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery

The jury selected Benjamin Hunter as one of the two finalist for the Canadian Art Foundation Writing Prize. Benjamin Hunter is a young writer who has great potential. He has developed a distinct voice and his approach to art writing manifests a desire to tackle important ethical and moral issues while not losing site of the aesthetic and experiential qualities of art production. Hunter demonstrates a keen understanding of the larger political and social contexts within which the works are inscribed and succeeds in relating to the reader a sense of the artist’s position. – Lesley Johnstone, curator at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

For more information on the Writing Prize and some of its past winners, visit


Hajra Waheed: “fields notes and other backstories” at the Art Gallery of Windsor

Hajra Waheed: Sublime Tension Disrupts Assumed Narratives in fields notes and other backstories

By Pearl Van Geest

Art Gallery of Windsor, April 19 – June 9, 2013

A state of alert readiness is induced upon entering the second floor of the Art Gallery of Windsor. The roar of a fearsome wave pervades the space. The rhythm of the thunderous crash and the subsequent ebb fades into the background, even if the edge of wariness never leaves, as one becomes engrossed in the work of Hajra Waheed in field notes and other backstories curated by Srimoyee Mitra. The exhibition is comprised of a number of bodies of Waheed’s work, placed in pockets throughout the gallery that nevertheless allow for enticing glances between them. A large set of meticulously rendered pencil drawings of passport photos, from Anouchian Passport Portrait Series lines one wall and bends around the corner to a series of multi-channel videos from the Scrapbook Project, each housed in a modest-sized wooden case hung on the wall with a single padded earphone for listening resting on the top. A similar, smaller set is hung lower down on the small wall opposite this collection with a single chair available for seating in front of each one. The pages from the sister Scrapbook Project (2010 -2011) — this one a series of collages hang on the facing wall and lie in glass display cases below it. Works in a variety of media, all referencing space exploration, are grouped together in the adjacent area under the title Fear Brings About. It is all crafted with an incisive and deliberate delicacy that belies a sublime sense of unease, an accompaniment to the wave roaring in the background.

Installation View: Scrapbook Project and Anouchian Passport Portrait Series

Installation View: Scrapbook Project and Anouchian Passport Portrait Series, Photograph by Frank Piccolo

Still, there is a great deal of pleasure to be had in viewing this work, a frisson that comes from discovering connections, conceptually and visually, within each work, between the works and from the interplay between the work and our personal and popular memories. As “field notes” the items collected seem to be accumulated by processes more idiosyncratic than systematic and the “backstories” suggested in the title, tantalizingly close to being revealed, remain on the edge between mystery and understanding, the familiar and the unfamiliar and as such are in a state of constant construction and reconstruction.

Fear Brings About. Photograph by Frank Piccolo.

Fear Brings About. Photograph by Frank Piccolo.

Perhaps this state has some parallel in the lived-experience of Waheed who, while born in Calgary, was raised in a gated corporate community in Saudi Arabia and who also lived in the United States and India. Her artist statement tells us how she “grew up acutely aware of different lived cultural experiences of exclusion, privilege and difference.” Her concern with the expatriate experience, issues of security and surveillance, the construction of identity and experiences of war are juxtaposed in the series of collages Waheed has constructed on the faded pages of the Scrapbook Project, 2010 – 2011. This allusion to museum display invites an examination of each collage as if it were an artifact with, however, the time and place of discovery remaining ambiguous and beguiling even as clues are glued, painted and drawn onto the pages. The palette is reduced – tones of brown and grey are enlightened by periodic passages of turquoise or by a piece of blue sky and they are punctuated occasionally by the placement of red – running down an edge, as a dot or a flower – and even more rarely by a flatly painted emphatic layer of olive green. It’s captivating, this combination of restraint and force, withholding and revealing, deliberate placement with ink spills and scratches and an economy of means with potent evocations. As you move from page to page things from the sky birds, planes, parachutes and clouds morph into crosses, guns and X’s. It is a world in which the idyllic and the dangerous co-exist in any given moment and in which representations of each, morph into each other and into forms recalling Minimalism, modernist design, Arabic motifs and Islamic architecture.

Still from multichannel video installation.

Still from multichannel video installation.

photo copy

Detail from “The Scrapbook Project.”

The desert itself figures prominently in Waheed’s work both visually and metaphorically, and its spare richness is both setting and character in the series of videos that make up a sister installation to Scrapbook Project. The converse power of water or oasis within the dessert is also explored within these vignettes. A stationary camera dispassionately captures brief moments in unwavering establishing shots that record, for example, an empty stadium with a tattered green flag waving (Stadium); a stand of trees (Grove) with tracks leading through the surrounding dusty dirt; a water sprinkler going round and round on a lawn with nets, balls and other evidence of playtime left behind (The Garden) and the inside of a full, but neatly organized room (Hut 1) with thobes hanging from a rod on one side of the room, along with pictures of sheiks on the wall, an organizational flow chart and hand drums that stand beside a flat screen TV with an American war movie playing beneath a small, slightly rippling UAE flag. In each video the action is sparse – the repetitive movement from one or two objects in the frame is sometimes intruded upon by something more pronounced happening. Such is the case in The Garden when, in the background, a peacock walks into the compound and over the white wall that surrounds it while the sprinkler continues to turn; an interlude that could be seen to echo the opening and closing shots in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet and the eerie undercurrents that lie beneath the suburban façade and perhaps by association beneath housing enclaves all over the world.


Video Still from “The Garden”.

The soundtracks that accompany the videos, audible only through the handheld earphones, are also repetitive and often feature sounds of water in sprinklers, waves or the lapping in a roof top pool. In others, only the wind, the hum of traffic or calls to prayer can be heard. The sound track begins before the visuals, a time lapse just long enough to encourage speculation as to what will appear on the screen. When it does, the pairing carries with it a jolt of surprise from the seeming incongruity between expectation and reality – both a challenge to cultural assumptions and a case for the fertility of cross-cultural juxtapositions. In these subtle yet powerful mini-films, Waheed invites us to pay close attention to the moments that she has captured and presented to us, and in so doing reveals their potency and magic with both wry humour and dead seriousness. This attention to detail that conveys within it a sense of the import of every image and every mark is acutely evidenced in other works in the exhibition.


Stills from multichannel video installation.

Stills from multichannel video installation.


For the Anouchian Passport Portrait Series Waheed painstakingly recreates every mark in pencil from the passport photographs of Tripoli-based Armenian photographer Antranik Anouchian, who owned one of the first photography studios in the Middle-East (1935-1991). This seemingly excessively laboured undertaking has its roots in Waheed’s experience growing up in Saudi Arabia where all public photographic/video documentation, other than the passport photo, was forbidden and where a passport (along with a note from her father) was required documentation for Waheed to travel outside of the city, even within the country. “Consequently,” Waheed states, “The passport photo not only identified me but came to represent the opportunity to exist as a somewhat free individual.” The passport photo then contains within it an inherent contradiction as both the product of repressive rules and a means by which to gain some freedom. Fear Brings About also plays with inherent contradictions. This section includes a pair of large framed walls works made of insulated space blankets crumpled into their frames and improbably glowing with some kind of internal light. Hung on opposite walls, they reflect back into each other over the space of the gallery creating an illusion of deep space within each surface. The other works in this section also reference the space program, the race to space that was initially fueled by threats of war and geopolitical rivalries. There is a sense of wonder in these works, a play of opposites, fear reflected back as wonder.

Installation View: The Wave

Installation View: The Wave

Fear and wonder together act to generate a feeling of the sublime and both are produced in great measure in The Wave, the final work in field notes and other backstories. Rounding the corner into a curtained room beside the main gallery the quiet desert scene projected large onto the back wall is initially completely incongruous from the sound of the intensifying wave that reverberates in the space. But when a person on a surfboard appears on the bottom of the screen being carried along the crest of a wave that thunders along the wall of what once looked like an empty reservoir, all assumptions are swept away along with it. It is brilliant, exhilarating and like the exhibition is full of subtle twists, sharp surprises, challenging dissonances and captivating mystery.

By: Pearl Van Geest