Mixed-media piece makes a much needed statement from the Senate building
Vancouver artist Chantal Gibson has had her mixed-media piece Who’s Who? installed in the foyer of thechamber of the Senate of Canada. Gibson’s work is joined in the area by a painting titled Stolen Identities from Winnipeg artist Yisa Akinbolaji.
The pieces are there to honour Canada’s Black artists and will be on display until the end of June 2021.
Gibson, whose collection of poems How She Read made the Griffin Poetry Prizeshort list early this year, sculpted Who’s Who? from a 1927 edition of the Canadian Who’s Who.
An e-reader is part of the installation and plays a recording of Gibson, a lecturer in SFU’s school of interactive arts and technology, as she flips through the book.
Q: It’s often a strange thing to ask an artist what their work means, but can you explain Who’s Who?
A: Who’s Who? is an installation that includes an altered book — a national directory of notable Canadians from 1927. Red cover, gold print, it looks very Canadian on the outside. Inside, the pages are filled with portraits of white men and a few white women. From those pages emerges a twisted black mass, a threaded sculpture that imagines the voices and struggles of people not included in the text — unheard, unnoticed, unworthy. The title of the book poses the same question I pose as an artist: Who’s who in Canada now? Who’s included, who’s not? If you look at the book as a representation of Canadian educational, cultural and political institutions — this is the same question we are asking now.
Q: The piece is part of a mixed-media series Historical In(ter)ventions. Can you tell us a bit about the series?
A: Since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated by old books, by the look, the feel, the heft, especially old history books, dictionaries and encyclopedias. I was fascinated by the idea that all those words and all that knowledge could fit inside a bound book. I never questioned the content of a history book. As I got older I started noticing that I did not see people like me or my mother in those books, Black people, brown people, and I started questioning who gets to decide what’s in our history books, textbooks and storybooks.
Q: How did you pick the historical texts you use in your pieces?
A: So far I’ve worked with a range of Canadian history books spanning 120 years. I picked books that looked authoritative, weighty hardcovers, embossed type, artful illustrations, lots of references and footnotes — books that hold up a bookshelf. In particular, I chose books that were meaningful to me as a student and now as a university teacher. For example, I held on to my first art history textbook, the iconic Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition, for over 20 years, since my first art history class at Langara College. That class changed my life. I fell in love with art and studied art and literature at UBC. While learning the Western traditions, I consumed colonial ideas that privileged white male artists and thinkers and excluded women and BIPOC. A few years ago, I cut my first textbook in half and created a black threaded sculpture with a thousand tiny knots, a mass representing what was missing in my education, what I didn’t see in my school books, what I didn’t learn in the classroom; as well, it reflects my learning now and my commitment to creating an inclusive classroom for my students. It’s like I’m interrupting my past in the present.
Q: The work installed in the Senate is set to honour the country’s Black artists. Who are some of those artists that have inspired you and whom you wish more people knew about?
A: Like the Senate, several art institutions are currently working to include and promote the work of Black Canadian artists, emerging and established. For example, the London Ontario Media Arts Association is currently hosting Holding Space, an online series featuring ten Black Canadian artists over 10 weeks, from Sept. 21 to Nov. 28. Artists such as visual storyteller Quentin VerCetty, filmmaker Sylvia D. Hamilton and Black Deaf visual body-movement artist Janelle Rouse demonstrate the diversity of Black experiences and art disciplines. My recent work, The Other James Baldwin Workshop, will be featured on the LOMAA website and social media from Oct. 25 to 31.
Q: Art of course can do a great job at questioning and challenging power, but what other things/actions can be done in order to ensure that Black/BIPOC lives matter is not just a slogan?
A: Many institutions, including my employer SFU, are working on implementing equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives. What I’m learning from BIPOC groups and anti-racism workshops held recently at SFU is that we need to understand what these terms mean — for example, who am I equal to and how is that measured? And what does inclusion look like in the meeting room, the classroom and the boardroom? To avoid tokenization and “sloganization,” initiatives need to be born out of critical consultation and often-uncomfortable conversations.
Q: In a statement about the Senate installation you said: “As an artist and educator, I see the Senate’s recognition of Black Canadian artists also reflecting the decolonial moment. Where Canadian political, cultural and educational institutions, like SFU, are being challenged to reflect, rethink and reform the mechanisms of power that have systemically excluded, silenced and erased the voices of Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour.”What actual changes are you seeing happening to and around these institutions? What else should be happening?
A: As a workshop facilitator focused on decolonizing educational curriculum, I’ve worked with administrators, faculty, students and staff at several Canadian institutions. I’m seeing more awareness around strategic hiring practices, more attention to BIPOC hires and to different ways of teaching and learning beyond the Western traditions. I’m seeing more educational initiatives, opportunities and tools for staff, teachers and students to question and rethink the institutions we work and learn in. What else should be happening? More. Lots more.
Q: Many Canadians see the Senate as an example of partisan political paybacks that cost a lot of money with no return. What is your view on that?
A: Good question. Honestly, when I think of the Canadian Senate, especially over the last 10 years, I think of CBC news stories, The National and scandals, and something about audits and people with power spending money that’s not theirs in ways they’re not supposed to. I think of privilege and entitlement, because that is what I see in the media. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Sen. Patricia Bovey of Manitoba. She is the first art historian appointed as a senator. She’s bringing her skill, her training, her expertise to the Senate. Isn’t that what Senators are supposed to do? The presence of Black art is not decoration, it is disruptive. This initiative goes beyond honouring Black artists. It reimagines what the Senate can be, what the Senate should be, if it actually and accurately represents the voices of Canadians. Oh, my goodness … I just realized that I circled back to my earlier theme of art history … disrupting the past in the present.
Q: Earlier this year your collection of poems How She Read was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. The collection also was awarded the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize at the recent B.C. Yukon Book Awards, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, given to Canadian women writers in recognition of their impactful work. What does this recognition mean to you?
A: I started this interview saying I didn’t see myself or my mom in my school books. My mom’s Halifax, first-grade photo is on the cover of How She Read, a decolonizing look at education and the misrepresentation of Black women in Canadian art, history and literature. In 2017 I decided to work with Vici Johnstone at Caitlin, a small press on the B.C. Sunshine Coast, because we agreed to collaborate on a cultural artifact, a resource that might provide some small solution to the larger systemic problems inside the cover. The awards and nominations have shed light on the work. Now, How She Read is being taught in classrooms across the country. I hope Black women and girls see themselves in the reading. I hope readers see the value of Black women and girls. Visibility was always the goal, and for that I am grateful.