Canada Day 1984: Barbara Spohr
Everyone loves a parade — all that colour, that noise, that energy and flow. A parade is a mobile celebration, like a river or brook flowing festively past the burbling lines of spectators along its banks.
On Canada Day 1984, Barbara Spohr photographed a marching band as it trooped past in Nelson, B.C., where the Vancouver-born artist, who died in 1987 at the age of 32, had lived for several years. One can almost hear the band, as if it is marching out of a childhood memory — the street symphony of drums and horns approaching gradually, then suddenly at their loudest, then quickly fading again into the distance. The marchers are splendid in their red-and-white uniforms, as they stride past MacLeods Hardware, one of those locally owned stores once indispensable to small towns, but mostly gone today. The image is surrounded by a colour border matching the photograph and, as was her practice at the time, inscribed with text, often taken from journal entries.
“Barbara Spohr’s most beloved subjects were her immediate domestic surroundings and the city of Nelson,” says Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Canada. “She had a celebratory view of the world, often surrounding her photographs with festive colours and designs. She was devoted in her efforts to record daily life and called this project an 'open-minded portrait of the quality of life in the town of Nelson'.”
Spohr’s Canada Day photo certainly is a celebration of festive colour and design – although how an image is seen and interpreted changes over time, as the world, in which it is being seen and interpreted, changes. Perhaps there is a subtle metaphor that resonates with a clarity more urgent than it may have done in 1984. Consider the text she has written around her image – not of the parade but of watching how a stunt plane (not included in the photograph) “arched straight up like a rocket until stalling” and how, for a brief, thrilling moment, it “just hung there,” up in the warm, glorious July sky. It is a moment of utter freedom and joy, and, contrastingly, perhaps a metaphor for a nation that today may once again be at a turning point.
Parades are pomp and ceremony that provide relief and respite from daily reality. Today, more Canadians are consciously aware that intolerance, inequity and racism – whether systemic or otherwise – are the daily reality for Black people, Indigenous people and for other Canadians of colour. Perhaps Canada is that stunt plane, hanging there, tenuously, with the freedom and opportunity to rise to the challenge of making tolerance and opportunity the daily reality for all. That is worth celebrating.
For a listing of works by Barbara Spohr in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.