In conversation with Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart
The Wildflower, Villiblómið, was exhibited at Hafnarborg – Centre of Culture and Fine Art (Hafnarfjörður, IS) between August 29 – November 8 2020.
Artists: Arna Óttarsdóttir, Asinnajaq, Eggert Pétursson, Emily Critch, Jón Gunnar Árnason, Justine McGrath, Katrina Jane, Nína Óskarsdóttir, Leisure, Thomas Pausz, Rúna Thorkelsdóttir
Curated by Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart
By Juliane Foronda
Wildflowers can thrive without formal acknowledgement, reminding us how much effort is needed for something to appear effortless. Sprouting out of some of the toughest soils, wildflowers represent resilience and how much strength it takes to remain soft amid adversity. They can be constantly present and seemingly simple at first sight, but they’re rather innately complex and genuine.
I grew up believing that being born on Earth Day gave me a particularly special connection to nature and Mother Earth, and I still believe this to be true. My relationship with land and nature is complicated, constant, and intimate. It’s rooted in long walks, silence, and the smell of green in any climate. While I connect deeply to land and nature on an emotional level, I often struggle to connect to the cultural notions that surround it. Being a Canadian immigrant with neither Indigenous nor settler-colonial ancestry, I often struggle to speak about what anything Canadian really is —especially when speaking about land. While I don’t carry the same history, privilege, and power imbalance as those of settler-colonial descent, my family and I still immigrated to and eventually settled on stolen land, and I have lived in Tkaronto (Toronto) for the majority of my life. While I wholeheartedly recognize that my voice and the many voices like mine do not need to be at the forefront of the conversation regarding land ownership in Canada, neglecting diverse experiences entirely will only perpetuate the fact that any perspectives that exist on the margins of common convention are not valid or valued.
The multitude of connections between the Icelandic and Canadian landscapes are clear in their mutuality of large, open spaces and an abundance of dramatic nature. Both landscapes represented in this show are also personally familiar, having both been my home at some point in my life. I know nature at its core to be inclusive from my personal experiences of resting in fields or swimming in lakes, but my knowledge feels adjacent to these supposedly familiar landscapes, and my lived cultural experiences prompt me to question my permission for familiarity and sense of belonging in any conversation about land or nature.
Entering this conversation with curators Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart, I grounded myself into the ideologies of all that I have learned from wildflowers and their ability to care into being. Their recent exhibition brought together artists from Canada and Iceland whose works personally lean into the ongoing dialogue surrounding land(scape) and nature. Using the framework of The Wildflower as a seed to a much larger conversation about the climate crises, land ownership, gender, and privilege, we were guided by a shared investment into learning how to see and speak about land and nature along its entire spectrum. Our conversation was honest, contemplative, and challenging, demonstrating how radical care can prompt a ripple effect towards future and extended visions and understandings of land.
Juliane Foronda: What landscapes are you most rooted in and why? As two Canadians, what does the landscape mean to you?
Penelope Smart: The landscape that I feel rooted in is the one that I’ve (just) returned to, which is northwestern Ontario. Boreal forest, bedrock and coniferous trees, brush, lots of open space, snow, and freshwater. The Canada you see on postcards – the image that settler Canada has produced of Canada. I grew up in this region. I find myself grounded in things like pinecones and pine needles, the sound of water on a shoreline, and the first snow. These things feel very much like they’re a part of me when I’m in it again. Coming back to this landscape as a curator, in this profession, you’re always asking yourself: What moves me? And what is the meaning of it? I’m in an interesting moment of relearning my own connection to this landscape.
Becky Forsythe: I feel most rooted in the landscapes of Ontario. Fields, mossy forests and being out on the lake. I grew up in a farm-suburbia. My father is from “up north” in Muskoka, and it’s an area I feel closest to and where the lake water is familiar. But my sense of land and landscape is also influenced by the fact that I am of settler descent and come from a long line of gardeners and cultivators. Both plant nurturers and hobby food growers, the thought of settlement or transplanting interests me in these micro landscapes.
JF: Becky, do you connect with the Icelandic landscape?
BF: In my first experience of it, I was driving through fjords in the West and they were coloured purple by the lupins, and there were literally whales jumping in the fjords—all of these symbols were happening, and I just did not know it yet. Ten years in, I’m realizing that the sea and the change of weather is more influential than I thought – the way that you sense the change of time, the air, the smells. The forests are still more familiar though.
JF: I want to speak a bit about the problems and possibilities in land and land ownership, in Canada specifically. How did you approach these notions in The Wildflower?
BF: This is a problem that is so much greater than we are, and of course something pressing and current, and its deadline passed a long time ago. In our responsibility as curators, we can’t walk into an exhibition like this, with the artists that we’re working with, without letting the space for this dialogue to come up and happen. For myself, I’m currently in the process of learning a lot about this and trying to open myself up to the other stories that are happening in the land, and have always been happening in the land, hoping that in that way, my scope and lens as a curator can be more of a spectrum rather than based on my sole experience. Of course, in The Wildflower, some of the works are directly about this, both in Iceland and in Canada. In Eggert’s works, for example, he’s speaking very directly to the environmental consciousness, or lack of consciousness, in Iceland and how that relates to the landscape that he’s witnessed from childhood. This theme is recurring in many other works as well, like Emily’s, Justine’s and Asinnajaq’s. What was most important to both of us is that the artists’ stories are put at the forefront and that it’s presented in a way that the integrity of their work and storytelling is present and accessible. One of the ways that we meditated this was directly through their own words, so we used exhibition labels to build off of dialogue with them.
PS: In the show, there is a desire to think about the landscape as something that’s changing and alive, and unknowable for humankind wherever your history— whichever land or landscape you’re coming from, attached to, and belong to. There is this definite anthropogenic or urgent moment of change that we’re living in and were interested in thinking about in The Wildflower. The artists, their work, histories, and their own visions of the future were reflected throughout the show.
The orientation of the show is a horizon, or we used the horizon as a motif. This helped us think about what works are looking towards, or where they’re coming from, where the artists are in their minds, and what they’re thinking about landscape and a relationship to the land.
BF: At one point, we discussed a young woman’s bedroom, imaging the voices of the time we are in, but that morphed into a space where thinking about gender needed to be more fluid. It got too locked into its role of thinking of gender in nature as a female experience. It’s problematic, and we could have opened that up further. When you think about what Thomas is presenting, this research with insects, flowers, and the language around that scientifically is very gendered. Words happen to be around sex, or the act of reproduction, so there’s a lot of interesting words connected to female anatomy and thought on gender fluidity. There’s a lot present here that we have yet to fully reflect on or work through.
PS: We were making the show at the time where the voices of young women like Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Inuk MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, and Vanessa Nakate were the voices of climate change. There was a young female voice as this eco-warrior or archetype leading the language around climate and voicing up concern. There was something that fed into this feminine energy in works such as Leisure’s or Justine’s, which was stained glass body armour, and was worn by young women in her video.
JF: I think it’s important to acknowledge that the fight for land and climate justice is deeply rooted in social justice, such as issues of race, gender and class. Did you see this exhibition or your collaboration as a means of, or platform for political activism regarding the ongoing land and climate crises?
PS: There was very conscious research into artists whose work related to nature and wildflowers, which connected us to other projects doing work in the area of food security and land rights. There was a curatorial intent to have Indigenous voices in the show because this is what’s going on in Canada and it would be irresponsible to not include Indigenous voices in conversations around land. I think the idea of land being shown through one’s own perspective is there in everyone’s work, but it is especially important to see and hear Indigenous views of their current relationships to land, ideas of ancestral connection to the land, restoring land and power, and reclaiming land and histories.
I think it’s also important to say that some artists, like Justine, who is of mixed ancestry, are still figuring out their relationships to Indigeneity and this is also part of the conversation about land and identity in Canada. This can be true for non-Indigenous people as well, for anybody. It’s nuanced, people are different, and there’s many layers to it. The show is also operating at a level of subtlety rather than overt politics in the terms of the subject matter itself: flowers and floral material. I think of Runa, or Arna’s works, made with flowers she’s gathered from where she and her family go walking. Eggert does talk about his work having a political message. There is an interesting place where flowers and politics meet.
BF: It was really exciting for us to be able to present different voices from Canada here in Iceland, because it’s not something that we see daily in the local galleries, or at least not that I’ve ever seen. The hope was to invite new conversation in a place where consciousness of the history of Canadian land is less present. But I’m not sure about whether or not we were successful in doing that because we weren’t able to mediate the exhibition in the way we had imagined for practical reasons and were not able to engage in dialogue to address this history with the public.
JF: What does it mean for you to work together as women in a leadership position or space of power, using your voice to speak about land and nature?
PS: It’s amazing to have a close friendship where you can also work together. Speaking for myself, as a white curator who comes from a culture of settler colonialism in Canada, I am learning how to acknowledge that the history that I come from is one that has caused harm in terms of land and landscape. I’m finding this place of acknowledgement is uncomfortable and scary, but also generative because there’s no way to do it perfectly. There was an Instagram post circulating this spring about how you never “arrive” as an ally. This really resonated and made me more aware of how I use or don’t use my own position and power to amplify experiences different than my own. I want to be a part of creating new common ground for diverse experiences of land and landscape.
BF: This idea of being a part of our own time and contributing to how things are represented, knowing that history has to be multi-voiced and that for the most part, we’re really only seeing a very small sliver of it now. Being able to challenge ourselves in and amongst that, as Penelope said, in curating, is a really inspiring place to be. I think that what is clear in our approaches to working with others in the field, is this sensitivity and desired awareness, and a need to see many sides of the sphere. This is an extremely exciting time, and one that I know means sitting back and listening a lot more than reaching out and shouting.
PS: As soon as you start to generalize or use what somebody represents at first sight as the only way to interact with them, that’s a problem. I’m always being reminded of that and want to be a person who is taking everything one step at a time – person to person. For some, I represent a history of power imbalance, and I’m learning how to stand in this reality in a field where things are changing. It can feel uncomfortable claiming my privilege because it’s not something that I’ve had to do before. I’m trying to learn for myself and from others what it means to do that, to understand it. This takes time. The humanity there is letting the fear of not doing it right and vulnerability be part of it for everybody.
I have always had a fondness for flowers. While simply weeds to some, I know the wildflowers scattered along the meadows, fields and pathways that I often walk along like old friends. Their familiar, deep and profound silences continuously offer me lessons without needing to say a word, reminding me of the wonder of my own inherent capabilities. I can’t look at a wildflower without reflecting on hidden labour and the urgency of maintaining constant care. They prove that power requires delicacy as much as it needs force. Consistently working to give themselves to the world without asking for much in return, I find wildflowers to be the epitome of compassion and generosity, and I remain invested in their philosophy as they keep me mindful of how much there is to learn as long as we’re willing to take the time to see it.
This conversation exists in two parts, with the other being on Artzine.
Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart met at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity in 2017. Their shared work is based in new and meaningful conversations about nature, materials and the feminine. The Wildflower is their first collaborative project.
Becky Forsythe is a curator, writer, and organizer in Reykjavík, Iceland. Penelope Smart is curator at Thunder Bay Art Gallery and writer based in Ontario, Canada.
Writer’s note of Land Acknowledgement:
For thousands of years, Tkaronto (Toronto) has been the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat, and it is still home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis from across Turtle Island (North America). Tkaronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. I have lived on this land for the majority of my life, and it continues to significantly shape and impact my trajectory. I acknowledge and recognize the many privileges that I have because of immigrating to and having grown up on stolen land. I conducted this interview from Glasgow, Scotland, where I am currently based.
Penelope spoke to me from Thunder Bay, Ontario, located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, which is covered by the Robinson-Superior Treaty. She is grateful to live and work on the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation. Becky spoke to me from Reykjavík, Iceland. She acknowledges traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabeg, specifically Ojibway/Chippewa, the Odawa and Wahta Mohawk peoples whose presence on the land continues to this day, and where her time and experiences lived on this land continue to influence her person and practice.
Femme Art Review is based out of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lūnaapéewak, and Attawandaron peoples (London, Ontario). Artzine is based out of Reykjavík, Iceland.