What we are and what we can become: Art in Ottawa-Gatineau

Franklin Brownell, Street Fair, Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club, 1918, oil on canvas, 65 x 78 x 5 cm. Collection of Library and Archives Canada, C-010583


Imagine creating a large-scale, thematic overview exhibition encompassing 6,500 years of work and bringing together 193 historical and contemporary artworks by 181 artists - 11 new commissions, 140 works on loan and 42 permanent collection pieces. For its opening exhibition after an extensive renovation, the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) has done just this with Àdisòkàmagan / Nous connaître un peu nous-mêmes / We’ll all become stories, which traces the rich history of art making in Ottawa-Gatineau from pre-contact to the present day.

 “The exhibition shines a light on the multiple histories and voices that have helped to shape the region,” comments curator Michelle Gewurtz, who co-organized the exhibition with fellow OAG curators Rebecca Basciano, Catherine Sinclair and guest curator Jim Burant. “It celebrates artists who were born here, those who have passed through and others who remain. It features emerging, mid-career and senior artists, as well as historic artists who have been marginalized and contemporary artists whose work we haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore.”

Barry Pottle, I,U,A (from the Syllabics Series), 2015, digital photographs, 40.6 × 50.8 cm (each). Courtesy of the artist


As demonstrated in the multi-lingual title, the exhibition seeks to bring numerous artistic perspectives into view by intertwining English, French and Anishnābemowin (Algonquin) narratives. The English title, We’ll all become stories, references a Margaret Atwood quote suggesting stories are all that remain of us when we die. The French title, Nous connaître un peu nous-mêmes, comes from French Canadian author Gabrielle Roy and considers how art plays a role in helping us to know ourselves. Àdisòkàmagan is an Anishnābe concept that every object is animate and tells a story of its own. Taken as a whole, these titles also offer insight into the themes that link together the artworks on view.

The artwork themselves are grouped according to four major themes — “Bodies,” “Bridging,” “Technologies” and “Mapping.” This approach allows visitors to absorb the content of each artwork without focusing too intently on their chronological place in time. “We consciously wanted to move away from a canonical presentation to allow for rich conversations to occur,” says Gewurtz.

Max Dean, Waiting for the Tooth Fairy, 2009, mixed media, 213.3 × 274.3 × 548.6 cm. Collection of the Ottawa Art Gallery: Gift of the artist, 2016. Photo: Max Dean


“Bodies” encompasses portraiture, clothing, politicized figures, world conflict, parent/child relationships and much more. Among the impressive works is a 2009 mixed media piece by Max Dean titled Waiting on the Tooth Fairy, acquired by the OAG in 2016. The artist found inspiration for the work — including a fully-grown felled tree — while driving through a bad storm in Ottawa. “It’s a multi-layered work that addresses mortality and provides a meditation on loss,” says Gewurtz. “The tree itself was sourced locally and references Ottawa’s epic ice storm of 1998.”

“Bridging” presents artists who mix art history with the contemporary and the real with the imagined. “We wanted this theme to divulge the complexities of hybrid practices and feature artists who straddle varying materials and unexpected pairings,” says Gewurtz. Artists featured in this group include Gunter Nolte, Martin Golland, Alma Duncan, Mattiusi Iyaituk and Jinny Yu.

Meredith Snider, Mind Map Ottawa: Five Cardinal Points, 2013, graphite and ink on paper, six sheets of Stonehenge paper hand-sewn together with thread, 279 × 249 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Meredith Snider


In “Technologies,” artists explore unique approaches to new media while in “Mapping,” they apply creative approaches to recording the geography of the Ottawa-Gatineau region. Meredith Snider’s Mind Map Ottawa: Five Cardinal Points (2013), for example, is a graphite and ink-on-paper aerial view created from the artist’s memory of her travels through the region. “This work presents place-making as a subjective process while also highlighting the converging waterways that have grounded this region as a natural meeting point for centuries,” explains Rebecca Basciano.

The exhibition features eleven newly commissioned pieces by local artists such as Shelley Niro, Stefan St-Laurent, Bear Witness and Eric Walker, as well as loans from private collections and a large number of institutions, including the National Gallery of Canada. “The OAG’s collection is much younger than the NGC’s and doesn’t contain as many historical works by regional artists,” says Catherine Sinclair, “so we were very fortunate to have access to these loans.”

Henry Pooley, Entrance of the Rideau Canal, Ottawa River, Canada, 1833, watercolour over graphite on wove paper, mounted on wove paper, 34.9 x 44.7 cm. Purchased 1982, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC 


Among the NGC’s loans are works by Ernest Fosbery, Thomas Davies, Jean Dallaire, Charles E. Moss and Goodridge William Roberts. Henry Pooley’s 1833 watercolour Entrance of the Rideau Canal, Ottawa River, Canada prompted rich discussions in the exhibition’s planning stage — as part of the preparation, the curators worked closely with elders from Kitigàn Zìbì First Nation, Quebec and cultural workers from Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, Ontario. When the group discussed Pooley’s piece, some participants raised concerns over the accuracy of such nineteenth-century watercolours. “Some said that the depiction of Anishnābe peoples in the image could not be accurate due to the artist’s choice of a teepee rather than the more commonly used wigwams in the area,” says Basciano. “Others felt that due to a lack of record, there is no way to verify that teepees were not being used in the region’s summer camps.” Sinclair notes the rendering is further complicated by the fact that British artists such as Pooley were engineers trained in the direct recording of scenes for documentary purposes at this time. To help address these concerns and to spark further conversation, Pooley’s piece is paired with a work by contemporary Kitigàn Zìbì artist Dean Ottawa that presents the same scene at Parliament Hill, but with a wigwam instead.


Florence Helena McGillivray, Gatineau Covered Bridge, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 83.8 x 109.2 cm. Courtesy of Andrew & Margaret-Elizabeth Schell. Photo: Justin Wonnacott


In its entirety, the OAG’s exhibition covers an immense spectrum, bringing together diverse media and styles — including painting, sculpture, printmaking, performance, video, photography and textile arts — from artists like Elizabeth Harrison, Franklin Brownell, Henry Kudluk, Annie Pootoogook, David Milne, Meryl McMaster, Jinny Yu and many more. “The Ottawa-Gatineau region is a gathering place for an incredibly rich, dense, culturally diverse and creative society,” concludes Jim Burant. “Each of us has a story, and our stories are reflected in the art that we make. I sincerely hope that this exhibition will open people’s eyes to what we are and what we can become.”


Àdisòkàmagan: Mazinadisigewin Ottawang Ashidj Tenagadonj Gatineau / Nous connaître un peu nous-mêmes: Un panorama de l’art de la région d’Ottawa-Gatineau / We’ll all become stories: A Survey of Art in the Ottawa-Gatineau Region at the Ottawa Art Gallery opens April 28, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.


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