Canadian Stories on Display at the MacKenzie
author: quinn bell | a&c writer
A name to behold / Jeremy Davis
The art gallery is, once again, bringing their a-game.
It is going to be an exciting fall at the MacKenzie Art Gallery this year. Featuring works by great Canadian artists including Florence Ryder of the Qu’Appelle Valley’s Standing Buffalo Reserve and the renowned and distinguished Garry Neill Kennedy, it’s well worth your time to check out this season’s exhibits (but isn’t it always worth your time to go see art?).
The first fall exhibit this year is Home Economics: 150 years of Canadian Hooked Rugs. Alright, it sounds lame. I mean… rugs? How can that be special? But truly, hooked rugs are an essential part of Canadian heritage, both economically and culturally. I also bet you didn’t realize that Emily Carr (famous Canadian painter, poet, hooked rug maker, and namesake for the West Coast’s finest art school) once made a living making and selling hooked rugs.
These rugs tell Canadians’ stories. Walk through the galleries and you’ll quickly notice not-so-provocative fine nature scenes and goofy portraits of the family dog. Alongside these, however, are hung the more recent rugs of folk artists who are reclaiming and challenging traditions. Ryder’s work, for example, is emblematic of the recovery of Sioux artistic traditions: striking geometric designs that were once painted or beaded with quills are given new life in the hooked rug. On the other side of things, the rugs of artists such as Nancy Edell and Yvonne Mullock question traditions. Edell’s work asks critical questions from a feminist perspective — see her colourful rug “Peter and Nancy as the Two-Headed Dog.” Meanwhile, Mullock’s rugs question hooked rugs themselves — don’t rugs belong on the floor?
On the other side of the gallery lies another exhibition centred on Canadian stories: Garry Kennedy’s Ya Ummi, Ya Ummi…, a critique on the government’s inhumane treatment of prisoners of the War on Terror. This particular exhibition has three works, Ya Ummi, Ya Ummi…, Quid Pro Quo, and An Eye for an Eye. Together, these weave a story of Canadians taken and tortured in the name of national security. Quid Pro Quo (latin: “this for that” or “favour for a favour”) and An Eye for an Eye were inspired by the mistreatment of Maher Arar between 2002-2003. A statement on the gallery wall reads: “An eye for an eye: the law of retaliation limiting the punishment that can be repaid for an injury to its exact equivalent.”
One wonders whether Kennedy is expressly saying that excessive force was used, or whether he is critiquing any form of this retaliative punishment. Some may think this treatment is justifiable, but those who are victims to such severe interrogation would likely not. Kennedy questions retaliation, and places individual human rights and respect above national interests. For instance, his text-based work An Eye For An Eye spells out “an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an…” over and over again. All of this is set on a backdrop of five very representative colours: orange (the colour of Maher Arar’s jumpsuit), black (the cable with which he was beat), and red, blue, and yellow (his bruises). Where is the line? When does the violence stop? These are the types of questions that Kennedy confronts us with.
The artist then steps up his empathy game with his Ya Ummi, Ya Ummi…, a piece on display for the first time. The text is Arabic, meaning “Oh Mother, my Mother.” These are the heartbreaking words that were repeated by Omar Khadr during his interrogations, after he was arrested at 15 and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. “Oh mother, oh mother… ya ummi, ya ummi…” His words fill up nearly two walls of the gallery. It is a silent space, but you can hear Khadr’s pleas all the same. The work is so large that it forces viewers to give it a thought — you simply can’t stand in that room and not notice his cries, ignored as they were for so many years.
The official opening of this season’s exhibitions will take place on No. 9, at the Fall Premiere and Reception. There, artists and curators will welcome the community into the space and celebrate the exhibitions (this is a free public event, by the way). The fall’s third exhibit, Punk Orientalism (featuring post-Soviet works of many stripes from Central Asia), opens Nov. 11.