Art-goers in Toronto will tell you that the Art Gallery of Ontario never shies away from giving Canadian art the consistent praise it sometimes lacks. Their newest exhibit shines light on nationalism, history, and a great Canadian past that is seldom forgotten. It’s called Every. Now. Then: Framing Nationhood, and its crossing boundaries that some of us didn’t know existed.
I continue my way through the exhibition and I pass a room which holds a painting that catches my eye. A familiar Lawren Harris piece sits above a display that’s closed off with string. His 1931 “Grounded Icebergs” is quite similar to the pieces I’m used to observing.
I am surprised Harris is not featured more in the exhibit, but I decide to realize a few things about this piece, nevertheless. Harris is a Brantford-born artist and a member of the iconic Canadian Group of Seven. However, something interesting to consider is that Harris is not celebrated here. As much as a national treasure he may be to some, this exhibit does not welcome him as bravely as I did a couple of minutes prior. Some art-goers who have relished this exhibit may not even find joy in his painting if they’re true to the message of the exhibit itself.
Harris is a figure that shapes Canadian art to be true to our landscapes and identity. His idea of the north involves landscapes splattered on his canvases, but is a common portrayal of the actual experiences of the north. Settlers silence those who matter in the north, and so his art isn’t so much appreciated here as it is shamed. Harris’s presence as a hot shot Canadian painter almost appears invasive. There’s a sense of regret that we’ve allowed him to identify Canadians and the art we live by.
The exhibit runs quickly while its message resonates slowly. It takes me a good two rounds of the exhibit to fully understand the issues that are buried so deeply within it. Some pieces of art struggle with defining Canadian identity. We are forced to question how we reckon with it and what makes up our national recognition.
An image is taken from the “Wanted” series, by Camille Turner and Camal Pirbhai. The collection comes from a repertoire of pieces that tries to avoid showcasing slaves in their wretched pasts, but instead, portrays them in a new and positive light. The piece does not relive slaves and their history, but rather showcases slaves in juxtaposition to the future. For instance, speaking on the phone in this piece is considered a form of liberation. It’s something that is honest and true.
Only a few steps into the exhibit do I find a wall full of small paintings by Métis artist Rosalie Favell entitled From an Early Age – Revisited depicting family gatherings and childhood outings. It’s a colourful string of work that pops with not only colour, but memory. This idea that growing up in an aboriginal family is exactly what it’s supposed to look like. On the left, there’s an image of the family embracing each other beside Christmas decorations. Near it, there’s a framed piece of three children on a horse and another piece of a children’s birthday party. There’s beauty in this normality, especially if you can make art out of it.
The pieces I’ve uncovered are different, yet the same. They convey the notion that Canadian nationalism is something we all share but the ways in which we express it differ.