April 8, 2020

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Paddling her own canoe

Franco-Manitoban artist looks to her heritage to chart a forward course

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/12/2013 (2302 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With its emphasis on tradition, the holiday season offers many of us the opportunity to reflect on "heritage" -- the good and the bad of it, whether we like it or not.

There's no question that learning about and celebrating our respective backgrounds can be sustaining, providing a crucial link to the shared histories that knit communities and families together. Cultural expectations can define us too narrowly, however, and we each have to strike a balance between honouring the past and acknowledging the present.

In St. Boniface, where beards are already growing in preparation for Festival du Voyageur, artist Jacquelyn Hébert navigates the contradictions of her own Franco-Manitoban heritage in her approachable, engaging exhibition, Les deux bords de la rivière ("the two banks of the river").

The show, on at the Maison des Artistes through the holidays, features a diversity of works spanning sculptural and video installation, documentary filmmaking, textiles and performance. Though propelled by a certain angst about language, national identity and gender roles, the tone is easygoing. While Hébert draws many of her tactics from the conceptual art playbook, the work is singularly accessible -- at times nearly to a fault.

Two documentaries pair footage of voyageur festivities, historical re-enactments and local scenery with individual reflections on language and culture, supplemented by historical information on cultural policy (mostly regarding Manitoba schools, which long withheld support for French-language education). The films provide a capable if rambling introduction to the issues at hand, but Hébert is most engaging when she abandons this didactic approach for more personal, more poetic, more humorous explorations.

In one corner, a life-size photograph of Hébert in contemporary street clothes projects onto a freestanding screen. Gradually, the image fragments into smaller, rectangular sections that cycle among overlapping views of the artist in traditional attire. This "Self-portrait as a voyageur, a voyageuse and myself" presents Hébert as a Rubik's cube of identities: contemporary and historical, masculine and feminine.

Received images of Franco-Manitoban womanhood get a gentle ribbing in an amusing trio of photographs. They show Hébert (or perhaps a stand-in) literally grappling with modern conveniences -- a food processor, vacuum cleaner, and chainsaw -- while drowning in drab, bulky period dresses, her face obscured by outsize bonnets.

The show's strongest offerings are also its most ambiguous, befitting the complexity of its themes. If I was a "real" Canadian, I would know how to build a canoe translates a set of detailed schematic diagrams into an exquisite, machine-woven tapestry. The sense of failure half-jokingly expressed in the title is more than matched by the work's beauty and technical accomplishment.

The motifs of navigation, tension between expectation and experience, and the inevitability of change carry through to the exhibition's two-part centrepiece, Stories change with time. In the gallery, we encounter neatly stacked piles of cast-paper canoe paddles. In an eloquent companion video (undercut slightly by gratuitous text captions -- Hébert's greatest fault is a seeming reluctance to let her audience reach its own conclusions) we see the papier-m¢ché paddles put to "use." Once in the water, they instantly go rubbery, falling apart completely soon after.

It's an absurd gesture whose futility speaks to genuine longing and frustration, but there's comedy to it as well. Out of a "failed" attempt to live out and live up to her cultural patrimony, Hébert creates something new and surprisingly poignant. She keeps the story moving.


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


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