June 23, 2017

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All systems go

Interconnected exhibits at the WAG highlight productive partnerships

Stone heads (centre and right) by Robert Tatty in the Our Land exhibit.</p>

Stone heads (centre and right) by Robert Tatty in the Our Land exhibit.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/12/2016 (204 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I wouldn’t have complained if the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) had made the skate park in its front lobby a permanent feature. However, as I walked through the doors last Friday, there wasn’t much time to dwell on whether I was sad to see a crew dismantle the half-pipe — there’s too much else going on right now.

Boarder X curator Jaimie Isaac’s killer group show positing board sports as drivers of artistic innovation and indigenous resistance — is part of a thriving ecosystem of exhibitions currently on view. Together they showcase a WAG that’s nimble, responsive and mindful of its unique position in the community, smartly mobilizing its own resources alongside those of partner institutions.

Painted surfboards by Vernon Ah Kee on display in the cantchant exhibit.</p>

Painted surfboards by Vernon Ah Kee on display in the cantchant exhibit.

Australian artist Vernon Ah Kee’s cantchant arrives courtesy of the National Gallery in Ottawa, a compelling pair for Boarder X. Walking in, visitors are confronted by a phalanx of surfboards blazoned with aboriginal spear designs. The flipsides reveal sensitive, larger-than-life drawn portraits of family members, and the walls are jammed with confrontational, cryptic painted statements in heavyset block letters: "notawilling participant," "first person," "terriblethings arerevealed."

A three-part projection sets surfing videos against more abstract footage of crashing waves and unsubtle, unsettling images of surfboards bound in barbed wire, strung up from trees, and shot. Hang 10 takes on ominous overtones here.

Ah Kee made the work partly in response to the 2005 Cronulla race riots in Sydney, and he deploys polemics, poetics and a pop sensibility to ride out the racial and colonial politics of land and water, sovereignty and freedom.

As gunshots ring out and ricochet through other galleries, it’s easy to hear echoes of water cannons and rubber bullets fired at water protectors eight hours south of us at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

More hopeful sounds also carry, such as the lilting harmonica of Noah Tiktak and Leo Subgut’s jangly folk-rock Aullaarumannarmaat (Longing for Spring).

Startled Owl, a stone block carved by Eegyvudluk Pootoogook.</p>

Startled Owl, a stone block carved by Eegyvudluk Pootoogook.

The charmingly homespun music video is part of Our Land, a wide-ranging exhibition highlighting Inuit artworks on extended loan from the government of Nunavut. The show is eye-opening both in the sheer diversity and dazzle of the works included and the measures it takes to situate them within and against historical, cultural and economic realities.

Looking beyond the soapstone carvings and stonecut prints that dominate southern markets (while featuring many stunning examples) and together with clothing, functional objects and the music video, the works in Our Land reflect a range of traditional and contemporary influences and less-often-seen media such as ceramics and photography.

A room devoted to Inuit printmaking includes carved stone plates (remarkable in their own right), chisels and ink rollers alongside finished prints.

While organized around broad themes of community, spirituality and the natural world, gallery texts further illustrate how forced relocation, shifting demographics, government programs, market forces and events like the 1963 closure of the Rankin Inlet nickel mine have all shaped developments in Inuit art.

Meanwhile, the assembled artists’ inventiveness and skill puts their work on level footing with luminaries of the Western canon, a point this exhibition and others on view are keen to reinforce.

A text accompanying three smiling stone heads by carver John Tiktak (father to musician Noah) notes that in a 1970 solo exhibition (the first by an Inuit artist) his work was likened to famed British sculptor Henry Moore. Moore, helpfully, is one of the artists featured in an engaging and deeply researched collections show on the mezzanine level curated by University of Manitoba professor Oliver Botar, which examines the influence of Rodin on modernist depictions of the human figure.

Starting with Rodin examines Rodin’s influence on depictions of the human form.</p>

Starting with Rodin examines Rodin’s influence on depictions of the human form.

Back on the third floor, the WAG’s historical galleries set a procession of Inuit sculpture and a grid of abstract acrylic and porcupine-quill meditations by Robert Houle against a backdrop of European religious and historical painting, to spectacular effect.

(Tucked behind another gallery, The Man Who Made Time Stand Still, a gripping selection of ultra-high-speed photographs by Harold Edgerton, is ironically easy to miss — don’t blink — but definitely worth your time.)

All of the current exhibition remains up through the holidays. It’s as good a time as any to dust off those memberships and pack up the family for a day of culturally enriching "quality time."

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

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