MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — As soon as you enter Blackwood Gallery, a one-room space tucked into the University of Toronto Erindale Campus, you are immersed into the exhibit The Figure in the Carpet. The main display consists of seemingly opaque black vitrines on a carpet of multicolored squares. The set-up is simplistic yet confronts a battle that museums and galleries have been faced with for centuries: How do we combat colonialism and the troubled history of ethnographies?
The Figure in the Carpet is site-specific, and is the result of an artist residency that occurred from May 11 to June 14 this year. The exhibit, thoughtfully curated by Christine Shaw, features resident artists Sameer Farooq and Mirjam Linschooten, a duo that has collaborated on similar exhibitions internationally. Upon reading the spiral-bound literature and watching a video by the artists at the exhibition’s entrance, you discover that the carpets’ colors are based on anthropologist Paul Broca’s Field Guides, published in 1879. The guides categorized individuals by skin tone to create a “definitive hierarchy of races.” A page from his skin tone classification is displayed on a reading table and is akin to categorizing people as if they were paint chips. Many anthropologists, curators, and ethnographers had used his work to build on their own until it began to be debated as racist and inaccurate. Broca’s guides were intended to create a hierarchy where surely the “other” and colonized subject would be deemed lesser.
Visitors must take off their shoes to view the opaque vitrines closely, walking directly on the carpet that divides races in a pseudo-scientific manner. Walking around the black vitrines activates and illuminates the displays inside. They range in nature but are mostly thoughtful arrangements of animal bones, many collected by academics affiliated with the University of Toronto, the institution where the gallery is located and where the artist residency took place. By suddenly shining a spotlight on these objects, the installation reminded me in an almost exaggerated way whom the pieces were being shown for, a default Western audience, and whom they may have been taken from overseas.
Nearby, is a list of words: “Yoroba,” “leopard cranium,” “Near East,” “Inka,” “Ugandan,” and “Pakistani,” amongst others. The list shows whole cultures and peoples simplified to one-word subjects and is meant to embody a Western ethnographer’s future “projects,” which Farooq describes as “idiosyncratic,” highlighting the notion that archival work is never truly complete. There are always more places and cultures to collect and curate from. Opposite from this list is a remnant of an ancient-looking wall, which appears unfinished but really has just been taken from another place that is not named, broken off for display.
The exploration of the ethnographic museum “style” is critiqued intelligently within the exhibition’s details, which subtly mimic previous styles of collecting and display. In a video about the exhibit, Farooq highlights “the possibility to write history” — when we choose specific objects to display, we create a narrative. By making this process transparent, Farooq and Linschooten make an institutional critique of archival work. The chosen literature at the exhibition’s entrance illustrates how the museum collection began as a colonial science and how current collections may still be intertwined with past ethnographic studies. The ethics of curating and collecting are often erased in the journey to create educational moments in the galleries.
The Figure in the Carpet reminds us that, to this day, we should approach every curated space with a critical lens and be cognizant of the colonial and exploitative collecting processes that sometimes still occur and have influenced modern-day curation, enabling us to relish in educational experiences at museums and galleries. At whose expense do we view and learn from?
The Figure in the Carpet continues at Blackwood Gallery (3359 Mississauga Road, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada) through August 2.
Correction: A previous version of this article said the vitrines included human bones and that the bones were excavated. The vitrines only included animal bones that were acquired. This has been fixed.