Canada 150: Relationships to the Land

The following is an essay by Canada 150 Spur Scholar-in-Residence Dr. Jessica Jacobson-Konefall.

At Spur Festivals in Winnipeg (May 4-7) and Halifax (October 27-29) Spur Canada 150 artists and scholars in residence program will integrate artistic practice and scholarly perspectives into the conversation, building networks and creating exposure for the next generation of creative thinkers.

Links to all the Canada 150 Scholars and Artists can be found here.

Spur’s theme of Risk grounded its programming in challenges in Canadian culture, policy, and citizenship in 2017. This year I attended three Spur panels, focusing on art investment, social determinants of health, and climate change respectively. The climate change and art investment panels left me wanting more analysis engaging Canadian identity and Canada 150 in a critical way. As a cultural studies theorist and historian of Canadian eco arts, what I see as the shortcomings of the panels reiterated what many environmental humanists and art historians are fiercely engaged with rearticulating: the arts and the environment in Canada have long been framed and portrayed through the lens of a white middle class desiring to celebrate their univocal experience of colonial nationhood.[1] In recent years ongoing confrontations with these framings have gained mainstream focus in academic and popular discourses. These conversations were deliberately reflected upon, amplified, and nuanced in other iterations of Winnipeg Spur this year, but oddly not in the panels I attended focused on my areas of research.

Relationships to the land are the foundation of Canada, of what Canada 150 is celebrating, and to the Spur festival’s concerns: art, politics and ideas in Canada. In 1971 Canadian artist Joyce Wieland contributed artistic framings of the land to national discourses with her work The Water Quilt, exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in her exhibition “True Patriot Love.” The title of this exhibit, quoting the Canadian national anthem, resonated with many responses from Spur 2017 visitors on the subject of Canadian identity: like Wieland many visitors to Spur were proud to be Canadian, and to hold progressive values. Wieland was the first female artist in Canada to gain renown for her work, and she did much to expand the frame of what counted as contemporary art, deliberately choosing feminine “craft” materials and techniques. Further, Wieland’s aesthetic was both nationalist and socially democratic. A key work of Wieland’s, The Water Quilt is a needlecrafted quilt, a multilayered textile containing pages of a book hidden behind its fabric surface, embroidered with a pattern of accurately sewn arctic flowers featured in each sewn square.

Fig 1. Joyce Wieland, The Water Quilt, 1970–71, Embroidered cloth and printed cloth assemblage, 134.6 x 131.1 cm, digital photograph, unattributed. Art Canada Institute. Web.

 

The title of her National Gallery of Canada exhibit, “True Patriot Love,” was a feminist counter to the following line in the Canadian national anthem “…in all our son’s command.” Wieland’s perspective on Canadian nationalism focused on “sustainability,” social democracy and feminism, and environmental risk –all seem remarkably prescient and aligned with Spur attendee’s emphases around Canada 150 this year.

Under each fabric square of Wieland’s Water Quilt is sewn an individual page of a book called The Energy Poker Game: The Politics of the Continental Resources Deal, written by James Laxer in 1970, and concerned with neoliberal policies like Free Trade and Canadian natural resources, as American business interests wanted exclusive access to northern fresh water. Laxer is the founder of the Waffle, a group of NDP far left nationalists, and he wrote “Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada.” Art historian Johanne Sloan writes,

“Wieland depicts the delicate flowers to suggest an ecologically threatened northern           environment, while linking the problem to questions of national sovereignty. The Water

Quilt is also a profoundly interdisciplinary object, in that scientific knowledge (the            botanical specimens on display) intersects with economics (Laxer’s analysis) as well as        with aesthetics.”

Now, I may “feel” this sentiment. I don’t want grubby American capitalists’ hands on “our” virtuous Canadian north anymore that Wieland did. But, it does seem to me in 2017 that Canada as a capitalist colonial project has itself engaged continuously in the same processes that Wieland’s work decries. For example, Wieland conceptually separates the flowers from the Northern cosmological world of the Dene. Like the transnational water concerns she opposes, in one reading of The Water Quilt it problematically mirrors the nation state, with its extracting and fragmenting of Indigenous lands and life worlds as “resources” for the use of Canadian southerners. The artist is not engaging with Indigenous peoples in her environmental scene or her framing of sustainability. The Spur climate change and risk panel focused on Winnipeg river lots (little individual squares) and flooding (water), and how property owners were affected by flooding and other climate-related events. Panelists never used the word “person” or “citizen” to describe stakeholders in the discussion of climate change and risk, choosing the term “property owner” instead. As demonstrated by their depersonalizing of victims of climate change, this panel was in my view based upon liberal humanist ideas. Historian of Canada Ian McKay, in his essay “Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for Reconnaissance of Canadian History” points out that the assumption of a 1) rational, 2) free, 3) property owning, 4) white male subject is the foundational notion of belonging and humanity here in “Canada.” This perspective advanced throughout Spur’s “Climate Change and Risk”, in contrast to what I anticipated: engagement with mainstreaming of climate science, intersectional feminism, and Indigenous perspectives. Wieland’s The Water Quilt in 1971 at least challenged the aspect of this worldview that centered male “reason,” relating to the environment by making a quilt and thus emphasizing feminine domestic care labour. Still, Wieland’s is clearly white feminism, centering only her own stakes in the conversation.

Wieland’s social democratic eco artwork draws upon Romantic ideals that mean to oppose neoliberal paradigms, to heal what the excesses of instrumental reason and private property have damaged, or will soon damage: her personal/national relationship to the “Canadian” environment. Wieland’s work does not engage is the Northern sovereignty of the Cree, Dene, and Inuit. Her environmental approach in this 1971 nationalist work, like the celebration Canada 150, and Spur’s climate change panel, discursively produces and maintains a national commons that is supposedly –for now—“sustainable” for property owners in the South. So, so much remains outside of this frame.

The Spur panel “Art Investment and Risk” reiterated some of these themes and fell a bit short on the politics of representation. One panelist, funny, eloquent, and charming, described a Modigliani painting of a post-coital nude woman as the most expensive artwork ever sold to date. He found this humorous, and in some ways this is a fun topic: what people will spend their money on! But, I was frustrated that this example didn’t question gendered imbalances of power (where are the Guerilla Girls when you need them).

I asked one of the panelists whether he thought a Group of Seven painting was a good investment, or if it would ever be seen as an embarrassing cultural object. I asked this question because of my growing awareness of the harms of settler colonialism, in view of how Group of Seven paintings were mobilized by the Canadian state during the 20th century, to reproduce a “terra nullius” romanticism/modernism in approaching the land.[2] The awkwardness of that conversation reflects the work we all need to do in producing better frames for national art histories into the future.

All of the points in this essay are well known to many Spur-goers. As a white settler and uninvited guest in Winnipeg, Treaty One territory and the heart of the Métis homeland, I am reminded of my 11-year-old daughter’s elementary school spring concert this year. The children sang Ca-na-da!, or The Centennial Song, composed by Bobby Gimby for Expo ’67 ( a song which, in its refrain “one little two little three little Canadians” echoes the racist rhyme “Ten Little Indians”). The song celebrates identity, nation, and belonging, as though to express a continuous Canadian nationalism across generational and other differences, referencing settler colonial violence as though it were a cute nursery rhyme. I know from relationships in my community that the supposed uniformity of perspective suggested by the song is far from reality. This uncomfortably limited –even violent—framework for identification, and our neighbourhood and school community’s everyday difference from it, resonated with my sense of the tensions at Spur and attendees’ reflections on Canada 150. Attendees’ reflections suggested both growing awareness of how Canada 150 celebrates longstanding colonial perspectives on Canadian identity in relation to the citizenship, policy, and culture, as well as how it is an occasion for processes of dis-identification and new emergence.

 

Works Cited

Crosby, Marcia. “Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” In Stan Douglas (ed.), Vancouver           Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991, pp. 267-291.

 

Goodden, Sky. “A Rebuttal, Not a Conversation: Discussing Ombaasin’s AGO Intervention,       “Land Rights Now”.” Momus: A Return to Art Criticism. June 23, 2015.

 

McKay, Ian. “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian      History.” The Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 81, No. 4, December 2000. 616-645.

 

Sloan, Johanne. “Joyce Wieland Life & Work by Johanne Sloan.” Art Canada Institute:    Canadian Art History Research, Education, and Promotion. Web. 2013.

 

 

[1] See especially Marcia Crosby, whose seminal argument “Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” focused on the paintings of Emily Carr, launched this unfolding line of inquiry on the coloniality of Canadian “landscape” art.

[2] For more on this, see Wanda Nanibush’s interview with Sky Goodden, “A Rebuttal, Not a Conversation: Discussing Ombaasin’s AGO Intervention, “Land Rights Now”” in Momus: A Return to Art Criticism, June 23, 2015.


Dr. Jessica Jacobson-Konefall is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies, University of Manitoba. Since 2010 she has taught undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Winnipeg. She begins a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship at University of Toronto this fall, in the Department of History of Art, focusing on eco art and ecological citizenship in Canada (2017-19).

Dr Jacobson -Konefall is one of two Canada 150 Scholars-in-Residence at the 2017 Spur Winnipeg Festival.

This initiative is made possible by the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, a collaboration between The Spur Festival, the Government of Canada, and extraordinary leaders from coast to coast to coast.

Cette initiative est rendue possible grâce au Fonds communautaire pour le 150e anniversaire du Canada, qui est une collaboration entre <<community foundation>>, les fondations communautaires canadiennes, le gouvernement du Canada et des leaders extraordinaires de l’Atlantique au Pacifique à l’Arctique.

 

 

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