Interview by Genevieve Flavelle
Kat Frick Miller
Sovereignty, a show curated by Becka Viau in Gallery 3 of the Anna Leonowens Gallery ran from October 9th to 20th. To enter the gallery the viewer had to push aside plastic sheeting to reveal the small brightly lit hallway lined on either side with chain link fence. The fence, topped with barbed wire, held human hair against the wall. When the viewer completed the short journey through the threatening hallway they stepped down into a drastically different, dimly lit space. The gallery was painted black and the artwork contained within resembled a traditional museum display more than a group show of contemporary artwork. Pieces that immediately stood out were Becka Viau’s The Sovereignty Cloak and Bonita Hatcher’s Laid Bare. The cloak was suspended from the ceiling, arms outstretched, presenting the viewer with a fur pelt, a pile of blank paper in disarray directly beneath it. Next to this stood Laid Bare, a taxidermic beaver behind a velvet rope. The beaver had been shaved, its hair piled around the plinth on the platform below. The small show presented a powerful comment on Canada’s identity as a nation. I spoke with Becka about the show and the power of national identity.
Genevieve Flavelle: Where did the idea for the show come from?
Becka Viau: I started the master’s program at NSCAD in 2011 and when I got here I started taking self-portraits of myself as Queen Elizabeth I. I was exploring my family resemblance to Elizabeth I, but also my connection to British colonial history. I’m eighth generation Canadian, white, blond hair, blue eyes, English-speaking. I was trying to figure out my place amongst this history through self-reflection, so I started building what turned into The Sovereignty Cloak and I was wearing that, performing it for the camera. At the same time I found the painting of Stephen Harper’s head or face on a totem pole in the apartment that I was subletting. I knew it was a powerful piece and deserved more discussion, so I brought it to my studio and put it on my wall and through the process of me communicating with the cloak and this painting, the show started to form. I realized that there was more conversation to be had through multiple voices besides just my own articulation of my research into colonial history. So that painting by Aaron Weldon was a huge influence on the show. Then I took a course with Carla Taunton, which illuminated a lot for me and solidified that I was going to curate the show.
GF: What was the decision behind creating the newspaper and distributing it through the show?
BV: The newspaper comes out of a conversation I had with Ursula Johnson early in my first semester here in 2011. Because I was performing this monarch, which opened the doors to colonizing North America, British colonization, I felt like I needed to talk with the other side of the story. So I approached Ursula to see if she would have a mini studio visit with me and look at some of the images I was creating. Through my conversation with her I realized I was really uncomfortable in my own place as a “Canadian”. I was learning a lot of history in Carla [Taunton’s] class that I had never learned before in educational institutions and so I was pissed off. I was feeling guilty and Ursula just said that because I was feeling so uneasy about this history that had been held back from me, maybe it would be a good opportunity for me to create an educational piece of material about the things that I had been learning. And I’ve been in academia for a while now! So I started thinking; do I make a schoolbook, an educational zine… how do I handle this? I decided on going with more of a grown-up schoolbook in the form of a newspaper that functions as something that is in the public realm and everyone has access. It’s the symbol of truth, news, and fact and when you read the paper you assume you’re going to learn something new and current. Another thing is that newspapers don’t last long, they’re ephemeral, and it’s hard to make a newspaper archival, you scan it but the actual physical object will deteriorate pretty quickly. That was important to the concept of the whole show. The show only existed for two and a half weeks and it will only exist in that form in the past now; it will never articulate itself in that way again. I wanted the show to be a quick ephemeral expression because it was so full of pretty direct pedagogical or didactic information and it was pretty angry so I just wanted it to exist in that ephemeral way. But the newspaper also functions as a catalogue; the pieces are all in there and I think of the show as having three parts. The first part is once you have the catalogue at home; it functions in this timeline-based way – you get the catalogue, you open it up and the first article is Nationhood, so that’s the first thing that you consider if you read it. The second stanza is Sovereignty, which is the show, and then the final piece is Assimilation. So that’s how the newspaper embodies that show in general and it’s also funny because there are 2,000 copies out there – what’s going to happen to this catalogue? Maybe people are lining their birdcages with it or have just thrown it in the recycling bin, so it talks to this fleeting unsturdiness of history in general, of fact.
GF: In reference to the authority of history can you speak to the decision of mimicking a museum space in the gallery?
BV: The show is directly engaging with history so I wanted to talk about symbols of power and Canadian identity and the symbols that rearticulate this power dynamic in the nation. I was thinking about the museum and how if you are going to preserve something that is integral to our historical culture or to our culture today, it would be in a museum. The lighting would be dark: these objects being archival, you want to preserve them forever, which is also funny when you think of that in relation to the newspaper which will just compost. I wanted the show to feel museum-esque so that when you walk in you feel like you are looking at really important objects. Also the gallery’s painted black also references a black box theatre. So there’s the idea of pageantry, hovering these objects between museum artifact and theatrical prop. When you go to a theatre you don’t expect to see reality – you know it’s not real. I wanted that contradiction to hover in that space, between over-dramatized theatre performance, and the unspoken, quite dead space of the museum. Which is like the idea that history is concrete, dead, solid not fluid; it exists as is and that’s why I darkened that space.
GF: The pieces within the gallery drew on the symbolism of the historic and the contemporary but the hallway piece was quite different. Can you speak about that piece by Scott Saunders and your decision to include it?
BV: The show came together pretty collaboratively between all of us involved. We were in discussion around how and what sovereignty was according to each person. Scott Saunders’ work is unsettling and I knew I wanted to engage with Scott because he isn’t afraid to challenge audiences, and his work engages with the body pretty directly. A lot of his work actually has parts of the body isolated but communicating with you directly. So there is this sense of anxiety in Scott’s work that I wanted to have as the lead-in piece to the show. So that you weren’t just walking into comfortably what could fool you as a museum collection. His space functioned to make you question your own body in relation to the gallery space. It’s also a hallway so it’s a transitional space; if you stop in a hallway when someone else is trying to go by, you know those aren’t the rules, you have to go through. There are lots of pretty direct symbols and signs in the piece, there’s the chain link fence with the barbed wire on top – is it keeping you in? Or is it protecting you? For me that speaks to questions of national security, international security, and terrorism, but also the ways that our bodies and behaviors are policed under the guise of protection. We have all of these rules and laws that we have to follow, these structures of truth in relation to power that function in pretty unseen ways.
GF: So talking about systems of control that are hidden within the identity of our nation, your second essay was about Canada’s policies of assimilation toward the Indigenous people of Canada and I was wondering why you decided not to include any Indigenous artists.
BV: Well it was pretty deliberate; there is also no French or French language representation in the show. Because I am a white, English-speaking, settler Canadian, I wanted it to express that dominant disgusting unspoken system in Canada. I feel like the show hovers on the line between fascism and anarchism so it was really deliberate to not have that. But in the essay I do address those issues because I think that’s the main reason why I created the show, because I had all of this illumination on my own history which I felt had been deliberately denied, deliberately hidden. But at the same time it was really important and very deliberate to have the show happen at the same time as Ursula Johnson and Jordan Bennett’s [L’Nuk (the people)]. I feel like if I had included those alternate voices in the show they wouldn’t have had that same essence of active living resistance in that dead museum space. I think it wouldn’t have done justice to the current situation. So having Ursula and Jordan in Gallery 2 bringing that space alive with an active endurance performance really embodied reclaiming histories, reclaiming identities, decolonization. It was really important that they were expressing that and that it was not coming from me because no matter how much I want to deny it I am part of that unspoken dominant controlling culture.
The show will never exist like that again. If it’s shown again it will either have to be programmed along these alternate voices, undermining my show, proving that no matter how disgusting or powerful there is resistance and change happening. And if that is not possible the show will have to be revisited and those alternate voices will have to be included, because without that communication between that dead colonial space that is the Sovereignty exhibit, without that interaction outside of it, it becomes what I could call fascist. Power expressing power, and I would not be comfortable with that.
The show was a definitive process [in] the initiation of my own process of decolonization within myself. Because as it shows, no matter how powerful you are, within any structure of nations or any government you are still controlled. You are colonized by the system, but it is important to recognize your place within the system, your position of privilege. So the show works as a deconstruction or to problematize that unspoken Canadian identity. But if you didn’t read the catalogue, there are some people who went in there and probably felt really proud. So there’s that aspect that you can’t control with the audience. And there’s a reason why our culture is the same way, a reason that we are oppressing other cultures, and we are still not living up to our charter. And so without the alternate voices around the show, there is that possibility that the show could flip from the idea of an anarchist perspective to the ultimate corporation, super branding that could come forward and influence the audience, which is something that I don’t want to do. So I really don’t know how the show would have functioned without Ursula and Jordan in the other space because you had to walk through their space to get into ours. So yes it is a reflection on my place of privilege, on the dominant side of Canada, but it hovers precariously on that line between being a celebration of it and undermining it. That is why I am so uneasy about it to this day. But I’m glad you read it that way; some people were celebrating our strong country.
GF: Well I’m also taking Contemporary Indigenous Art with Carla Taunton and I read your essays, so I am biased in my reading of the show. What do you see as the role of Canadian contemporary artists in creating or challenging the imagery of Canadian identity?
BV: I think that artists play an important, powerful role, though we might not see it all the time because we are struggling to make ends meet in this country. People who create visual culture are creating symbols that will become part of history, and part of the identity of a nation or community. So if anything is going to transform or move from the static state of what we know as the foundation of our country, we have to have new images, new narratives created and artists have to not be afraid to question the meta -narratives that we all blindly live by. I think that curators and artists and people in general are pretty easily blinded to systems of power. That’s how they function – unseen – that’s how they affect our behavior but it’s just a matter of not being afraid to question, rearticulate, or reclaim parts of history that have been used for the wrong purpose.
You see it now with the emergence of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit curators, academics, and artists working within institutions. They are starting to deconstruct this foundation that has been built up, that has dictated the symbols and icons that we as a country use. And I think that without artists challenging the homogenous existence of nations that we will go down the road of a lack of empathy, which just ends in another ethnocide or genocide. So I hope that artists will continue to express themselves without the fear of being censored or censoring themselves in order to avoid being punished. Because as much as we think we live in a free country, we are all governed by systems, we all have to make money. If we can step past that fear and open our eyes to what is happening around us then we will create the Canada that we want, create our own identities and break down the homogenous side of nationhood that is branded upon us.