Land, Humanity and Threat
A selection of works, currently on view in the contemporary art galleries of the National Gallery of Canada, addresses threats both to human bodies and to the bodies of land around us. A paper suit implies a shield to protect a person from unseen external danger and cancer-fighting T-cells wage a silent interior battle, while images of volcanic smoke and glaciers create an icy landscape that evokes a state of peril. Environmental health is called into question through works addressing oil-sands extraction in northern Alberta, mining practices in Nunavut and accelerated ice melt in the far North. Collectively, these works serve as poignant meditations on the human, political and environmental challenges that face us all.
Visual artist Alexa Hatanaka works mainly in printmaking, paper and textile, using processes connected to her Japanese heritage. She is primarily concerned with community-building, the environment and honouring evolving cultural practices, as seen throughout her body of work.
Following the 9.0 earthquake in Japan in 2011, she created a suit from her artist-proof prints on starch-strengthened washi (Japanese paper), using traditional Japanese processes for sewing paper clothing. The images include depictions of snowy landscapes and workers in hazmat suits. In referencing this natural disaster, the artist poignantly connects to the present, where we increasingly rely on these delicate but essential barriers to shield us against unseen forces such as viruses and environmental hazards.
Inuit artist Jutai Toonoo, who passed away in 2015, was known for works that defied conventional standards for art in Kinngait (formerly known as Cape Dorset). In both style and subject matter, he went against the grain of what has historically been most popular in this region of Nunavut. In his striking 2012 painting The Arsenal, he translated a personal traumatic experience – his mother’s cancer treatment – into oil stick, using the medium as a conduit for his emotions.
Despite its dark subject, the drawing inspires hope and courage: the cancer-fighting T cells have been magnified and float luminously within this meticulously rendered cellular composition. The work is part of a series of three drawings that Toonoo made in response to his mother’s cancer treatments at the time. In a 2013 interview with NGC Curator Christine Lalonde, he said, “I got mad at the cancer, I decided to look it up on the Internet, and I saw these T-cells. They fight cancer. They looked so beautiful … these blue cells. And I was thinking of my mother … thinking one day cancer will be like polio and there will be a cure.”
Born in Brooklyn, where she continues to live and work, Lorna Simpson has established herself as one of the most important contemporary American artists today, working first as a conceptual photographer, and changing later to explorations in painting, collage and sculpture. Although much of Simpson’s work over the past three decades has been focused on the figure – and more specifically, the Black female figure – she has looked to other subjects to reflect on lived experience and the human condition. The presence of natural elements is a theme in recent work such as Ice 4. Silkscreened press photos of volcanic smoke, glaciers and clippings from Ebony and Jet magazines of the 1950s through to the 1970s have been covered with hazy washes of inks and paint to create what Simpson describes as a “foreboding landscape … and maybe a psychological state.” She goes on to explain: “That dark, foreboding landscape is a background to the work, and also maybe a psychological state as well, in terms of what it’s like to live in America right now.” She continues: “Ice is a temporary state – a suspended state of water. So there’s a sense of preservation but also destruction.” The title is, in part, a reference to the 1968 book Soul on Ice by former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver – a personal account of imprisonment, identity and race in America.
Alex Janvier is one of Canada’s most important and influential artists. Of Denesuline and Saulteaux descent, he has been painting for more than 65 years and has developed a unique style, informed by his rich cultural and spiritual heritage. In 2013, at the age of 78, Janvier created the circular work Oil Patch Heart Beat – a representation of the cycle of life – at the peak of oil-sands extraction near his home in northern Alberta. As a black mass looms at the edges of the canvas, a red line snakes through the centre. The work is a warning, the broken red line suggesting the dwindling heartbeat of nature in the face of destruction wreaked by the dangerous extraction of resources. Janvier stated about the work: “I made that one for an oil company. When they saw it, they changed their mind … I’m really just a troublemaker. But it’s good trouble, I think." Concerns about the environmental integrity of the area have grown among Cold lake Indigenous members, as the spills have a serious effect on their activities on the land. Curator Lee-Ann Martin describes this painting in relation to the oil extraction activities : “… in Oil Patch Heartbeat … the artist twists the heartline (or lifeline), symbolizing the disconnection of the customary use of land. Found in much Indigenous art in the Americas, the heartline represents the breath as the life force pointing to the soul, or spirit, where faith and inner strength preside."
The youngest son of renowned Inuit artist Jessie Oonark, William Noah, who passed away in 2020, led a full life as an artist and a politician in Nunavut. His work reflects a changing North, the impact of urbanization and the reality of contemporary Inuit life. In a 2010 interview, Noah relayed: “The main pollution is the pollution contaminant that travels from other countries through the clouds and sky. The next is our own garbage, raw sewage, airplanes that fly every day way up in the sky. Plus our own commercial flights that come and go everyday, the mining companies that leave smoke behind, dirty snow, and acid rains in the Southern places are scary now.”
A strong attachment to the land has led to Noah's growing concern over the effects of climate change and other environmental issues. His unique, 4 m-tall drawing Mining and Char Fishing, completed in 2006, depicts two independent activities on the same picture plane: a truck being loaded with materials at a mine and a man fishing for char. By showing different moments in time at different geographical regions together, the artist has created a connection and, perhaps, provided a more accurate representation of everyday life in Nunavut.
Viewing the works of these five diverse artists together in one space, it becomes evident that the themes addressed in their work affect everyone in today’s world. The protection of oneself and the natural world around us becomes an ever-greater priority as wars continue to rage and the environment remains threatened. Perhaps, by taking the time to reflect on what these works are addressing, we can come together collectively and make positive changes for future generations.
We Are the Land, The Land is Us is on view in Room B104 at the National Gallery of Canada. 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.