1 North Square, Cambridge, ON
When water accumulates it is called a body, a body of water. A human body is also a body of water. Body of waters and bodies of water, a conversation: encounters on ocean shores and river edges, accumulations and movements, gravitational pulls, generational pulls, history, geography, the stains of industry.
This exhibition brings together six artists - Barry Ace, Erika DeFreitas, Lindsay Dobbin, Merritt Johnson, Anne Riley, and Ehren "Bear Witness" Thomas - whose work brings the human body into contact with water where they consider the many ways water shapes and is shaped by human life.
Curated by Lisa Hirmer and Iga Janik
Barry Ace is a practicing visual artist and currently lives in Ottawa, Canada. He is a band member of M'Chigeeng First Nation, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. His mixed media, assemblage and textile works explore various aspects of cultural continuity and the confluence of the historical and contemporary.
Drawing inspiration from multiple facets of traditional Anishinaabeg (Odawa) culture gathered from historical sources, traditional knowledge, found objects and cultural research, Ace creates objects and imagery that utilize many traditional forms and motifs. By disrupting the reading of these works with the introduction of other elements, Ace endeavours to create a convergence of the historical and contemporary. He states, "My textile and paper works replicate traditional Great Lakes' floral motifs often sourced from reclaimed and salvaged electronic schematics and circuitry (capacitors and resistors) that act as metaphors for cultural continuity (antithesis of stasis), bridging the past with the present and the future. In doing so, my work intentionally integrates traditional cultural art practices, such as beadwork, which is juxtaposed against contemporary ephemera, breaking new ground as a distinct genre of contemporary indigenous abstraction."
Erika DeFreitas is a Scarborough-based artist whose practice includes the use of performance, photography, video, installation, textiles, works on paper, and writing. Placing an emphasis on process, gesture, the body, documentation, and paranormal phenomena, she works through attempts to understand concepts of loss, post-memory, inheritance, and objecthood.
DeFreitas' work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including at Project Row Houses and the Museum of African American Culture, Houston; Fort Worth Contemporary Arts; Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita; Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery; Platform Centre for Photographic and Digital Arts, Winnipeg; and Gallery 44, Toronto. A recipient of the Toronto Friends of Visual Artist' 2016 Finalist Artist Prize, the 2016 John Hartman Award, and longlisted for the 2017 Sobey Art Award, she has also been awarded several grants from the Canada Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council. DeFreitas holds a Master of Visual Studies from the University of Toronto.
Lindsay Dobbin is a Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) - Acadian - Irish water protector, artist, musician, curator, and educator who lives and works on the Bay of Fundy in Mi'kma'ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of Lnu'k (Mi'kmaq). Born in and belonging to the Kennebecasis River Valley, the traditional territory of the Wəlastəkwiyik, Mi'kmaq and Passamaquoddy, Dobbin has lived throughout Wabanaki as well as the Yukon in Kwanlin Dün territory.
Dobbin's relational and place-responsive practice includes music, sound art, performance, sculpture, installation, social practices and writing, and is invested in Indigenous epistemologies and cultural practices, such as drumming. Through placing listening, collaboration, and improvisation at the centre of creative process, Dobbin's practice explores the connection between the environment and the body, and engages in a sensorial intimacy with the living land and water.
As a passionate educator, Dobbin employs traditional and contemporary land-based practices, creativity, play, and improvisation as tools for self-awareness, collaboration, experiential learning and community building - revealing that people and the environment are related in dynamic ways. Dobbin is also active artistic collaborator, and have worked on projects with musicians, sound artists, dancers, visual artists, and filmmakers.
Merritt Johnson was born in West Baltimore spending her childhood navigating between trees, tarps, and concrete. She earned her BFA at Carnegie Mellon, MFA at MassArt.
Her work navigates between bodies and the body politic, land and culture: making reflectors, and vision shifters looking through puddles of blood and oil, plastic tarps, chainlink fences, cloud cover, tree lines, clear cuts, shell, bone, skin, and hair. She has seen and felt tongues and knives cut intersections of land, culture, sex, and body; in response she weaves together seen and unseen to build connection and vision. Johnson exposes not-seeing or listening as a route of fear. She casts, weaves draws, beads, paints, carves, performs, films, and projects into and out of how we are, to tell stories, asking how we could be.
Anne Riley is an Indigiqueer multidisciplinary artist living as an uninvited Slavey Dene/Cree/German guest from Fort Nelson First Nation on the unceded Territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlí̓lwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-waututh) Nations. Her work explores different ways of being and becoming, touch, and Indigeneity. She received her BFA from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012 and in 2016 she graduated from the Native Education College with a Certificate in Family and Community Counselling. She has exhibited both in the United States and Canada. Currently she is working on a public art project commissioned by the City of Vancouver with her collaborator, T'uy'tanat Cease Wyss. Wyss and Riley's project - A Constellation of Remediation consists of Indigenous Remediation Gardens planted throughout the city decolonizing and healing the dirt back to soil.
Ehren "Bear Witness" Thomas is the artistic output of Ehren Thomas, a multimedia artist, DJ, and filmmaker based in Ottawa, Ontario. He remixes appropriated images and sound to create video assemblages that speak of his interest in the portrayal of aboriginal people in mainstream media. A member of the Cayuga Six Nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy BEARwitness examines not only is own history but the way in which popular culture and art history leave their mark on a broader indigenous identity.
List of Works
Barry Ace: Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin The Five Great Lakes, 2016
Gici-aazhoogami-gichigami: Lake Huron (Great Crosswaters Sea), 2016
Hudson's Bay Blanket, velvet, beads, capacitors, resistors, light emitting diodes, horse hair, copper wire, metal, mountain climbing rope.
Anishinaabewi-gichigami: Lake Superior (Anishinaabeg Sea), 2016
Hudson's Bay blanket, velvet, beads, capacitors, resistors, light emitting diodes, micro-chips, horse hair, silver dollars, pewter, copper wire, metal, mountain climbing rope.
Aanikegamaa-gichigami: Lake Erie (Chain of Lake Sea), 2016
Hudson's Bay blanket, velvet, beads, transistors, metal, mountain climbing rope.
Gichi-zaaga'igan: Lake Ontario (Big Lake), 2016
Hudson's Bay blanket, velvet, beads, transistors, horse hair, metal, mountain climbing rope.
Ininwewi-gichigami: Lake Michigan (Illinois Sea), 2016
Hudson's Bay blanket, velvet, beads, resistors, horse hair, metal, mountain climbing rope.
Barry Ace: Bandolier for Nibi (Water), 2019
Bronze screen, velvet, capacitors, resistors, light emitting diodes, inductors, circuit boards, glass beads, copper wire, copper jingles, plastic, paper, polyester braiding, plastic buttons, cotton and polyester thread, calico cotton fabric, horse hair, scrolling LED text panel.
Erika DeFreitas: within the cut and slender joint alone, video 3:04 min. 2017
Lindsay Dobbin: Arrival, soundscape 36 min. 2019
Merrit Johnson: Exorcising America: Water Safety Exercises, video 5:01 min. 2016
Anne Riley: Where River Meet. 2014 - ongoing.
Ehren "Bear Witness" Thomas: Strange Home Land Part 1, video 10:30 min. 2009
Strange Home Land Part 2, video 10:15 min. 2009
We started with the Grand River. This river, right here: the river that has sustained people for thousands of years, the river that has been conduit and boundary in the colonization of the region, the river that was the spine on which the Haldimand Tract was centred, the river that gave power to the textile mills of early Cambridge, the river squeezed by concrete edges and lapping against the Architecture School and the Old Post Office right now. She rolls by, just steps away from the gallery and starting with her felt like the only way to build an exhibition that centres water as a vital entity. What has it been for this river to encounter us, human bodies, social and political beings; beings which at the simplest chemical scale are made primarily of water, just like the river…
I watched “Strange Home Lands” many years ago. I filed this work by Bear Witness in an imaginary space knowing, one day, it will come back and the words within it would say all that is necessary to acknowledge the Grand River’s story, memory, the politics of the land that surrounds her, the complex history of where she moves, through whom and with what others. These works prompt us to understand the context of where we are as we assemble thoughts for the bodies of waters. [IJ]
We then traced this river out to the Great Lakes into which she flows, huge bodies of water carved by glaciers fourteen thousand years ago. The largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, they give geographic and political shape to our region and are home to many communities both human and more-than-human.
I came across Barry Ace’s suite of the Great Lakes somewhere else entirely. I was moved by their presence and their reason for being. I wanted to show them. I wanted them to interrupt the textile history of this place, and to question our very own collection of fibre art based on the riches of industrial past, built on the land that wasn’t ours to take. But it seems I needed to wait to know how they could be here. [IJ]
“Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin, The Five Great Lakes” is a series of honour blankets. They honour the lakes and that is their reason for being. The inspiration for the work is the story of the artist’s great-grandmother who used a Hudson Bay blanket as a sail to cross Lake Huron. Despite its contested and difficult history, this blanket found use in the land.
Like the pull of the blanket sail, propelling people across water, we continued to let our thinking be guided by the water and her movements. We followed the Great Lakes out to the ocean’s edge, where bodies—both water and human—are swayed by planet-scaled forces. The tides are highest in the Bay of Fundy in the Maritimes, higher than any other edge on earth. In 2014 they were at their peak, which happens every 28 years. Lindsay Dobbin walked with the tide coming in that year, drumming the surface of the water over the course of six and some hours. Their body pushed by the tide, their hands on the body of water. They walked together.
“Arrival” is a soundscape of that day created so that we can contemplate waves: high, powerful, unapologetic waves that we are able to listen to at the end of the choreography that is this exhibition.
In learning about the work, I discover that Lindsay ends this durational performance by taking off a cape they’ve been wearing and giving it to the ocean. A year later, working on the same shore for other reasons they discover the cape buried in the sand. The ocean returned the cape with tides. I can’t help but think that it too is a sail, just like the blanket used by Barry’s great-grandmother. You can’t find these nuances between works by trying. You find them only when they want to be found. There is always a reason for waiting. [IJ]
The river, the lakes, the ocean, the tides, and two metaphorical sails all speak about movement across water. At the edge of the Atlantic Ocean we think about the movements that happen across it, the threads of industry and capital that connect the textile mills of Cambridge to plantations in the south growing cotton, dyeing with indigo; movements of people and materials across water implicating this place in the wealth generating activities of colonial empires. The accumulating stains of indigo on Erika DeFreitas’ hands, cast as doubles in white plaster, lowered and raised in slow and deliberate motions, are of acknowledging history. These hands, marked in ever-darkening blue by their labour and directed by the artist’s hands above them, absorb the encounter into themselves.
I first encountered Erika’s video “within the cut and slender joint alone” in the prairies, far away from the waters it spoke about. And yet, global economies pick up where water leaves off, implicating us with places and people across great distances. The stains Erika makes visible, the marks of the labour that brings objects and materials to us, are relevant everywhere. Like Barry’s blankets, I knew this video would act on the textiles in the gallery’s permanent collection, suggesting a ghostly presence in the material lives of the objects. Erika’s work also made me wonder whose hands get stained and to whose benefit. Who carries the consequence of this action? I also think of the river and what stains bodies of water are marked with, whether visible or not. [LH]
As we thought about waters flowing from, to, and through bodies, we thought of poisoned waters, bodies that poison, bodies that are poisoned, and our responsibilities as carriers of water. Merritt Johnson feels and tastes the sadness of poisoned water. She brings herself into contact with it, wipes the poison away from her face, which sticks to her not unlike the indigo on Erika’s hands. What does the sickness of water taste like? How do we recognize that her trouble is our trouble?
I stumbled across Merritt’s video “Exorcising America: Water Safety Exercises” online a few years ago and it has haunted me since. She puts her body on the line as filter, taking the poison into herself in order to pull it from the water. We cannot think about water now without thinking about the harm being poured into it by the short-sighted machinations of petro-capitalism—an externality transformed by Merritt into an internality, a reality felt in the body. [LH]
As Merritt brings herself to the water to suck poison away, Anne Riley brings herself to the waters she crosses on her journey home so that she can meet them, dipping her hair at each encounter. The sympathies between the gestures of these two indigenous women are impossible to ignore. One pulls her hair away from the toxic water while the other moves to absorb river water—perhaps pulling her hair forward in a similar but opposite motion.
Anne and I became friends during an artist residency in Australia, where I first encountered her work around water and how we meet it with our bodies. Her work “Where Rivers Meet” speaks of return and what it means to greet the body of water that flowed through your ancestors. In this performance she works through her body to bring herself into relation with the rivers she meets. There is a beautiful exchange: body, as hair, becomes part of the body of water; the body of water is revealed as human mother. [LH]
Anne’s work makes us think about what we carry within ourselves: waters, histories, relationships...body as a kind of carrying bag. Barry’s “Bandelier for Nibi” is also a carrying bag. Here, it is meant for water, conceptually of course. Built with electronic components it responds in stillness, perhaps asking us to better communicate about what water means, what she needs, how we carry and care for her. The exhibition too was made to be a kind of carrying bag, where the works can meet each other in their own ways. We tell the exhibition story as though it’s linear but it wasn’t. We worked like water, meandering slowly until it all came together.
We choreographed this show so that all the voices are heard and no one speaks on top of others, so that there is space to be with each work. Those who have audible, directional works play one at a time. For the others who have gestures, objects, or non-audible words—like the text version of Anne’s intimate performative work—they exist in relationship to each other throughout as the show plays out. At all times we are in the presence of the honour blankets. They wrap not around us, but onto themselves. Holding a shape of an invisible boat within them. Caring and loving. And when we arrive with Lindsay through meditation created by waves we are brought back to the ocean only to be washed ashore as we know the tides will move out once again and we are left to consider how do we move next. What traces will be left behind us, our bodies of water.
Lisa Hirmer & Iga Janik
Opening Reception: Body of Waters
Idea Exchange, Queen's Square
Friday July 12, 2019 7:00 - 9:00 PM