Art

A Canadian Museum Rehangs Its Collection to Center Feminism and Race

Two exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Hamilton highlight the dual role of programming and outreach in light of identity politics and the erasure of women in one of the nation’s oldest art institutions.

Installation view of “Speaking for Herself” (2018) at the Hamilton Art Gallery, (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

HAMILTON, Canada — Last year, during an inventory of the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) collection, curator Tobi Bruce made an eye-opening discovery: only 12% of the works in it were made by female artists. Established in 1914, the AGH houses a permanent collection of more than 10,000 works of national and international repute. The Women’s Committee at the AGH is one of the oldest and most storied in Canada. Within 18 years of its founding in 1951, it had collected over $87,000 for the gallery’s acquisition fund. By 1975, funds raised by the Women’s Committee went to the purchase of 105 works of art, which made Bruce’s discovery this year all the more startling.

In the current exhibition, Speaking for Herself, Bruce wants to platform female voices from the AGH’s own collection, voices who have not been given adequate space or attention to date. Highlighting the fact that gender disparity in the gallery’s own collection remains an overwhelmingly feature — 88% of the collection is by male artists — the exhibition establishes an important conversation about gender inequity that all galleries and museums in Canada ought to be having today, though many, it seems, remain reluctant.

But facts about gender and ethnic disparity in the arts don’t lie. In Michael Maranda’s Waging Culture series, he analyzes the socio-economic status of visual artists in Canada, using quantitative analyses he undertook while at York University. Canadian-resident professional visual artists, galleries, and administrative leadership are analyzed using variables like gender and ethnicity. What Maranda found with respect to exclusion in galleries and museums was not surprising; namely: the bigger the gallery, the fewer women in power. And the less money a gallery receives, the more likely its leadership is Indigenous.

Perhaps in response to these and other studies, the Canada Council for the Arts has revamped its funding model to reflect greater emphasis on community engagement and diversity. Now, their expressed commitment is to provide “grants [that] support institutions as artistic leaders to carry out activities that encourage and promote the work of creators, strengthening their relationships with the public.” In “commitment to reflecting — through artistic programming, organizational make-up, and development of your publics — the diversity of your geographic community or region.” Yet, how exactly this is being implemented and measured raises important questions about arts funding in Canada, especially considering the lack of diversity it has been battling for decades.

In turn, Speaking for Herself demonstrates that the collection’s strength is anchored by its own holdings of work by significant women artists. “This is not to say that we wish to re-enforce notions of gender binary or suppress the myriad intersectionalities that occur across female subjectivity,” Bruce said in her curatorial text. “Rather, we want to explore the breadth of our holdings by women artists — historical, modern, and contemporary,” and how “conversations between historical and contemporary artists of diverse cultural backgrounds explore a broad range of themes including the body, identity, materiality, and private versus public selves.”

Annie Pootoogook, “Cutting Meat by the Pampers Box” (2001-2002), pencil, crayon, and ink on paper (courtesy Art Gallery of Hamilton)

Chronicling the intersectionality of gender and indigenous oppression, a work by Annie Pootoogook speaks volumes. In the work, a box of Pampers lays strewn with toys and stuffed animals inside, next to three adults, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a single-family home, eating meat presumably from a recent hunt. Nearby, a group of children gather around a television playing video games.

In it, Pootoogook invites the viewer into the everyday domestic reality of her Inuk First Nations community, located in Cape Dorset, near Baffin Bay, on the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. It is there at the Kinngait printmaking studio on Baffin Island where Pootoogook learned to hone her art making skills. While many in her community focus on the naturalism of the surrounding Arctic, Pootoogook looks beyond the superficial tropes of romantic landscapes, instead capturing the gritty reality of her community and the domestic modern challenges of life for First Nations living in northern Canada.

Pootoogook’s work has been widely shown, including at Documenta 12, and has won many accolades and awards. Yet, despite this, she was trapped in a near endless cycle of poverty, street life, substance abuse, and precarity, which likely came as a result of her double oppression as a First Nations person and as a woman. In 2016, at just 47, her body was found floating in Ottawa’s Rideau River. Her death and the subsequent investigation drew media attention not only because of her status as an internationally renowned artist, but also because of a controversy surrounding an Ottawa police officer who posted racist comments about her after her death.

Installation view, Hamilton Now: Subject (2018), at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

Another current exhibition, Hamilton Now: Subject, curated by Melissa Bennett, brings together artists who examine fractional notions of identity politics in art, albeit moored with underrepresented voices in Hamilton. The exhibition felt in total reciprocity with Bruce’s exhibition upstairs.

Kiera Boult, “The Solidarity Series” (2018), gif, (image courtesy of the artist)

In Kiera Boult‘s The Solidarity Collection (2018), by far my favorite work in the exhibition, the artist channels her inner Gayatri Spivak and Drake by asking: “Hey Kiki, can the subaltern speak?” “IDK,” she answers.

Amplified by the power of social media to create communities, the two-minute-thirty-second GIF is imbued with equal doses of comedy and camp. By touching on race, politics, class and gender, Solidarity Collection felt like a wave of intersectional theory expressed through art. Accordingly, I started to think about the link between Boult’s work and Pootoogook’s work upstairs: namely, that both exhibit a desire to bring radically different perspectives forward, disturbing decades of dominant white patriarchy in Canadian art and culture.

Kiera Boult, “The Solidarity Series” (2018), gif, (image courtesy of the artist)

Calls for museums to demonstrate more accountability are gaining steam. Many of these are informed by a need to appeal to the diverse communities they serve. In doing so, movements to “decolonize” and create gender parity in the arts are starting to gain momentum. As such, nearly a half century after the founding of the feminist art movement, token feminism and curatorial rhetoric are now beginning to bear the fruits of bona fide institutional action. However, whether all-female shows are an effective long-term strategy for mitigating gender disparity in the arts remains to be seen, so too with shows that focus exclusively on ethnicity. One thing that is certain, however, is that corrective measures are being undertaken today by bold museums like the AGH, unafraid of peeling the layers of their own institutional complicity, which for decades has led to disparity and institutional bias towards white males in art. About time, if you ask me.

Hamilton Now: Subject is on view until November 18 2018; Speaking for Herself continues through to March 17, 2019. Both shows are located at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (123 King W, Hamilton, Ontario L8P 4S8, Canada). Melissa Bennett curated Hamilton Now: Subject. Tobi Bruce curated Speaking for Herself.

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