An Interview with Raha Javanfar: Sympathy for the Devil

On theatre, moving hearts, and rock’n’roll

Raha Javanfar performing as part of Sympathy for the Devil at Soulpepper Theatre. Photo by Camille Ng, courtesy of the artist.

By Alexia Bréard-Anderson

I sink into a velvet-lined seat in the centre of the audience, holding my breath as the overhead lights dim at Soulpepper Theatre. The air around us is thick with anticipation as silhouetted musicians step onstage to take their place among a myriad of scattered instrument stands, a grand piano, and tangled microphone cables. We hear a whispered one-two-three and BAM! We’re hit with a thunderous explosion of power chords, a relentless jumpstart into a spectacular theatrical journey of the Devil throughout music history.

Adorned in sequined pants and a feathered jacket, Raha Javanfar embodies the rebellious spirit of rock’n’roll, slamming her guitar in the opening medley of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ alongside the striking Juno-nominated vocalist SATE and a stellar crew of bandmates whose creative synergy casts an otherworldly glow on the stage.

With intricate compositions of the Baroque era to headbanging heavy metal riffs and everything in between, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ plunges us into a realm of art and darkness, an exhilarating musical tribute to the eternal allure of the Devil.

Born in Iran and based in Toronto, the brilliant multi-instrumentalist, artist, and theatre designer takes us backstage to discuss her creative process, background, and influences.

Raha Javanfar headshot. Photo by Zahra Saleki, courtesy of the artist.

Alexia: Your creative practice is so incredibly diverse. You’re an artist, you play multiple instruments, and you’ve performed, written, and designed many theatre plays. Tell us about your journey: where did it all begin? How does it all connect?

Raha: I grew up with classical music training that taught me a lot early on in life: practice, discipline, rigor. But it wasn’t all for me during my youth, particularly my teenage years. I craved anarchy and something messier… so I gravitated towards theatre. That’s not to say that discipline and rigor don’t exist in theatre, of course they do. But my young mind perceived more ‘play’ in making plays than music at the time. I ended up pursuing a post-secondary education in theatre production, which is how I became a lighting designer. But I’ve always been restless in my art and eager to widen my horizons and extend my practice in all directions.

I brought music back into my life through playing in rock and country bands and eventually started to make a place for myself in the Toronto music scene. Because I was so connected to both music and theatre, many theatre artists began extending invitations for me to participate in their projects as a musician. Anyway, on and on it went, and I’m lucky to have collaborated with so many genius artists throughout the years, all of whom I have learned more from than I could ever quantify.

Time and time again, we witness the pressure placed on artists to be ‘coherent’ and easily ‘categorizable’… to follow a predetermined path towards success or recognition that prioritizes profit over soul. One glance at Raha’s multiple bands – from playing the fiddle in the Western Swing Band The Double Cuts to being the front-woman bassist and vocalist of Maple Blues Award nominee blues/R&B band Bad Luck Woman & Her Misfortunes – reveals a nonchalant resistance to this – and how often the antidote to this is to be in community with others, to create and witness artistic expression together.

Raha Javanfar and SATE. Sympathy for the Devil at Soulpepper Theatre, 2023. Photo by Camille Ng, courtesy of the artist.

I was absolutely blown away by ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ which you created and directed the music for. Can you talk about how it came to fruition? Did the Devil come to you in a dream?

‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is not quite your usual ‘concert’ in the traditional sense and not quite a play. We call them docu-concerts at Soulpepper, which is a format that was started by long-time Soulpepper Slaight Music Director, Mike Ross. I’ve had the honour of performing in several of these concerts and it was a thrill to create one of my own. To be honest, the idea was a seed that was planted years ago, and I barely remember how I came up with it. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Paganini being accused of having sold his soul to the devil to be the greatest violinist. And of course, there is Robert Johnson too. Those two stories, along with my love for the Devil Went Down to Georgia were enough to catapult me into the creation of this entire show.

Sympathy for the Devil at Soulpepper Theatre, 2023. Photo by Camille Ng, courtesy of the artist.

‘Sympathy for the Devil’ has a unique energy that echoes an impromptu, late-night jam session with friends. The chemistry fostered by everyone in the cast was infectious. As Music Director, what was the process of bringing these performers together, and how has it differed from past plays you’ve participated in?

If there’s one thing I did truly right on this project, it’s the people I picked to work with. The musicians in the band are extremely gifted and more importantly, generous with their art and creativity. I spent a lot of time in advance arranging the numbers. We had a workshop last summer with some of the same (but also some different) musicians during which time I had the opportunity to try out some of the arrangements and finesse them. It’s lovely to hear that it gives the energy of a late-night jam session because, to be honest, the process was anything but! Unfortunately, the rehearsal schedule for these shows leaves very little room for collaboration or ‘jamming.’ I had to arrive with a very specific plan in mind. But of course, there were many moments in which something was missing, or something didn’t feel quite right, and the band contributed their musicality to filling some of those gaps.

‘Sympathy for the Devil’ presents a stellar cast of performers including Brooke Blackburn, Rebecca Hennessy, SATE, Jenie Thai, Neil Brathwaite, Naghmeh Farahmand, Michelle Josef, and Royce Rich: whose rendition of Giuseppe Tartini’s ‘The Devil’s Trill’ was the most goosebump-inducing solo violin performance I’ve ever witnessed.

In addition to your kaleidoscope of artistic pursuits, you’re also an educator. You teach violin, piano, and music theory both privately and in different schools, as well as lighting design at Toronto Metropolitan University. What drew you to teaching, and what’s your favourite part about passing on the knowledge?

I love teaching. This year, I had to pass on the TMU teaching position because I was too busy with this show. But I feel like I always gain so much from any opportunity to educate others on the arts. Perhaps it sounds selfish, but the truth is that I learn so much from teaching that it’s always worth pursuing it for my own betterment and development. Kids, especially, are so open-minded and open-hearted. It is so fulfilling to see them absorb everything and send it forward.

Sympathy for the Devil at Soulpepper Theatre, 2023. Photo by Camille Ng, courtesy of the artist.

We’re in such a pivotal moment in time. Amidst so much destruction, rage, and despair… we’re witnessing movements for peace and justice across the globe that remind us how much everything is truly connected. For you, what role does music play within it all?

Not just music, but the arts in general, are the only way I know how to wrap my head around anything. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, and sometimes when there’s so much darkness, it’s hard knowing where to find light. For me, it’s always in books, poetry, music, and art. A single piece of art can help express all the complicated feelings that so many of us have about the world. At the same time, it can bring people together. It can remind us about the humanity that exists in each one of us. It can challenge us to think in different ways. In a world where we’re all so divided, I know it’s impossible for a piece of music or theatre to change anybody’s mind. But it’s definitely possible for it to move their hearts, and sometimes that’s enough.

What’s on your radar? What spaces, people, and projects are blowing your mind?

The incredible Toronto music scene. There are so many gems in this city… Drom Taberna and the Cameron House have lots of great stuff bubbling out of both every night of the week. So many music venues have done a great job surviving the pandemic and continuing to provide opportunities to Toronto musicians. The Drom Artists Collective is a group of extremely talented and wonderful people, who are putting out all sorts of cool stuff. And I know it sounds super biased, but I’m very excited about all that Soulpepper Theatre continues to do, particularly the docu-concert series!

What’s on the horizon for you once ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ closes?

I’ll be turning my attention back to my band, Bad Luck Woman & Her Misfortunes. I’m also performing in the next Soulpepper concert, On A Night Like This, as well as co-creating a concert called Ladies of the Canyon that will be premiering at Soulpepper this spring.

Sympathy for the Devil is showing at Soulpepper Theatre until November 26, 2023.  You can follow Raha’s projects on her website and Instagram.

Being-With, Being Known: Critical Fictions by Hannah Godfrey

Critical Fictions by Hannah Godfrey. ARP Books. Image courtesy of the author.

By Jaz Papadopoulos

“Learning changes when relational context changes.”

  • Leanne Betasamosake Simpson[1]

“[W]e could not hear a melody as melody if our immediate appreciation of the note before our ears was not accompanied by our ‘memory’ of the note just before and an expectation of the note to follow.”

  • Eva Hoffman[2]

 

Between the covers of Critical Fictions, the latest collection from poet, storyteller, and art writer Hannah Godfrey, a pulse beats: a lineage and testament of queer intimacies is alive.

The five artists discussed within its pages––Derek Dunlop, Kristin Nelson, Hagere Selam shimby Zegeye-Gebrehiwot, AO Roberts, and Logan MacDonald––Godfrey knows on personal levels. Winnipeg is a mid-sized Prairie city, full of artists and social atmospheres in which to meet them; it would be difficult not to. I have also met most of the artists in question. We’ve shared dance floors, studio visits, and the occasional diasporic lineage-seeking trip back to the home country. Herein lies the crux of the text: where formal fields of discussion and analysis traditionally prioritize distance, objectivity, and supposed lack-of-relationship, Critical Fictions knows that we must “hold things to understand them, not as a means of tactile analysis, but…as a means of being-with.”[3]

At her Winnipeg book launch, Godfrey was asked about her choice to write about the work of artists she knows. (The text goes so far as to name one of the artists as chosen family.)

Somewhat bashfully, Godfrey shared that she considers this book a “book of love,” a text about artists and artworks to whom she feels affectionately and intimately connected. Godfrey’s assertion––the right to write about those she loves rather than see it as a conflict of interest––is a transgressive act prioritizing proximity and intimate knowledge over normative analysis. This is especially poignant in a queer context: we know so little about our queer ancestors, our history, and our culture; it becomes imperative to share the queer stories that we do know well.

Beyond relationships themselves, Godfrey introduces readers to the codes of queer history and art, while role modeling curiosity and the process of meaning-making. Godfrey’s book intimately and responsibly documents queer bodies of work, ensuring they are not lost to time, spatial distance (physical artworks that only exist in specific places, if also the internet), and the erasure of hegemonic narratives. 

RELATIONSHIPS, KNOWING, AND UNDERSTANDING

Intimacy need not be complicated. It can simply be the act of knowing: pink is Derek Dunlop’s favourite colour; he rubbed this part of the painting with his fingers. Such simplicity gives a sense of purity and an ability to see things as they truly are.

Dunlop is an artist making prints and installations, many of which the book discusses in relation to queerness, cruising, and the outdoors. One piece in particular, an installation titled Garden, is composed of “found objects and mud taken from the banks of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg.”[4]

Knowing this river is key to understanding this piece. I have walked its banks innumerable times, in all seasons, save for when it’s flooded its paths. Godfrey, a Winnipeg resident for nearly a decade, has also developed a familiarity with the river, going so far as to audio-record river walks to play on her former community radio show, MonkeySparrow. Without knowing this river, one might see metal, cement, and rocks when looking at Garden. With more proximity, one would know that this river is a site for gay cruising and is one of the flows that brought colonial expansion into the Prairies. Downtown, it connects with the Red River, a site often dredged for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women.

Neither understanding is truer. Just as we come to know a friend better over time, so too we can better understand art by learning more about it. It’s not that you can’t or don’t know the art, but that you can always know it more.

Intimacy allows a depth of understanding. It assigns meaning to the codes embedded in queer culture and artwork alike. Godfrey’s use of association shows how one can labour to make meaning. It doesn’t try to be exclusionary, but it does not hide from the simple fact that closeness leads to understanding.

CODES AND UNDERSTANDING

Codes: an in-group language composed of symbols that communicate information, often in layered ways that require the navigation of many possible meanings.

Godfrey is aware of how her own units of meaning––words––are also encoded symbols and wields them with both precision and generosity. Just as Godfrey supports the reader in learning some of the codes in art and queer art, she makes clear the sheer quantity of choices that (can) go into creating artwork.

The outcome? There is no reason to shrug something off because “it just doesn’t make sense” or you “just don’t get it.” Take AO Roberts’ Say It Ain’t So: a series of prints where, at first glance, four words are printed on a darkly painted background. In fact, the text is hollow, “nodding at the porousness of language and context,”[5] and the “paint” is actually lampblack: smoke captured by the page, seemingly in motion around and within the outlined bodies of the words. Each set of words is from a particular era in human history––all different eras, but all pre-Industrial religious ones. Recognizing these different components as intentional communication choices leads to a much broader meaning than simply seeing four unusual words on darkly printed paper.

Finally, Godfrey supports readers in their own efforts to both perceive art and interpret her wordage. For example, she writes “The partialness (incompleteness) of Dunlop’s depictions speaks to the partialness (bias) of information and dissemination.”[6] By connecting the two distinct concepts of incompleteness and bias through a shared spelling––partialness––Godfrey offers one mode of recognizing artistic meaning through a sort of linguistic/conceptual repetition. Similarly, she identifies motifs of bondage to refer to a sexual practice, a form of kinship, and indebtedness.

In this way, discussing art––especially within the specificity of queer art––almost becomes the work of translation. Anne Carson’s translation of Catullus prompts the question, “There are so many words associated with each one; how does anything ever get translated or settled upon?”[7]

FOOTNOTES, PHOTOS, AND PARENTHETICALS

Critical Fictions’ abundant footnotes and absence of photos further assert the value of lineage and reciprocity.

The footnotes––averaging over 50 per essay––highlight both lineage and context as important modes of understanding. Though Western culture’s art writing prioritizes the individual (and the intellect of the individual), other more collectivist cultures prioritize stating where you and your family are from, from where you learned ideas, and who your mentors and teachers are. Choosing to use footnotes, rather than a less visible Endnotes section, lays it all on the table: there are citations for quotes, but also extra contextual information, tangential references, and statements of gratitude to those who directed Godfrey’s thinking and writing.

The effusiveness of Godfrey’s citation points to her valuation of lineage and interconnected webs of knowledge and offers readers a path forward should they wish to continue exploring one of the topics discussed in the book.

Often, art writing is accompanied by photos––visual aids so the reader may see what is being described in the text. Critical Fictions offers no such concession. Relationships take effort and reciprocity. The piles of words thought, written, and ordered over 219 pages show Godfrey’s efforts: years of viewing, pondering, discussing, researching. The act of opening an internet browser and searching for the works and exhibitions described is the reader’s (optional) task. To understand something is to work to understand it; you will only be led so far without reciprocity. True, I did not look up each piece discussed, but I did search for each artist’s website and exhibit––all were easily found online, Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s yaya/ayat the only one behind a paywall, and a modest one at that ($3).

This itself seems a light-handed approach to coding and withholding, demanding reciprocity. All the information is available but is not quite placed in your palms. To understand, you too must do some seeking.

Another way to interpret the lack of images might be a resistance to the impulse to mistake images for the Truth. In her section about Logan MacDonald, Godfrey quotes Daniel Francis in his discussion of the use of photography as a colonial mode of knowledge-creation: “The image-makers returned from Indian Country with their images and displayed them as actual representations of the way Indians really were.”[8] Where images assert an objective representation of photo-as-thing, a relational approach to seeking and understanding engenders a much more nuanced and subjective perspective. [9]

It must be said eventually, and here seems as fair a place as any: the structure of this book is unusual. It is composed of five sections, each concerned with a particular artist, each bisected into two smaller sections: an essay, and “Fictions.” In the Fictions, Godfrey responds to each artists’ work through creative writing: poems and short stories.

One story, “Found object (fur stretcher, elastic bands)” imagines the scene that led to the creation of Dunlop’s Device for speaking to the dead, (fur stretcher, elastic bands, 2016). Godfrey weaves together themes identified and discussed in her essay––wilderness, haunting, cruising, erotics, backtracking, colour––and builds a rather beautiful basket in which to hold the sculpture––28 coloured elastic bands tightly wrapped around a wooden fur stretcher, evoking cock rings, a door, a tombstone.

“Homage to Hannah Arendt” (within Kristin Nelson’s section) is an experimental poetry piece made entirely of punctuation. Where many would leave such a work to “speak for itself”––without regard for its (il)legibility in the eyes of a viewer––Godfrey kindly leaves a footnote explaining the piece’s meaning. In this way, she props the door open behind her, letting the reader peek through and understand. Through this generous guidance, Godfrey leaves her readers more and more ready to understand a future experimental encounter.

This approach to artwork––casting a wide net of associations and seeing what stays––is replicated in Godfrey’s fictions. It shows how creation begets creation, and though a piece of art has its own background, references, theoretical underpinnings, and meanings, there is an entirely other world of production made by simply creating something so that others may digest it and be spurred to their own thoughts and creativities. One way to perceive art is to seek to conceptually understand it; another is to be spurred into creativity.               

FIN

Make no mistake, this book is rigorous. I learned enough to sprout a prosaic collection of queer art history, no doubt. And yet, as is Godfrey’s style, it is a discourse given amongst friends, shoulder-warming on a couch surrounded by books. It is a reminder of what rigor can look like in queerness, before such political efforts were moved behind the doors of academia, hoarded by button ups and thick rims. It is the table before us, full of snacks, this one from an uncle’s olive trees in the Peloponnese, that one a recipe passed down from a beloved past friend, this bottle inherited from a lover long gone who we may still taste on our lips. The stories that live on in the quiet places, between kin.


[1] Leanne Betasamosake Simposon, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 165, quoted in Hannah Godfrey, Critical Fictions (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2023), 196.

[2] Eva Hoffman, Time (New York: Picador, 2009), 65, quoted in Critical Fictions, 79.

[3] Critical Fictions, 203. A concept shared in reference to Logan MacDonald’s artist talk.

[4] Ibid, 37-8.

[5] Ibid, 154.

[6] Ibid, 21.         

[7] Ibid, 58.

[8] Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992), quoted in Critical Fictions, 205.

[9] Similar arguments against photos-as-truth are made by Orientalist theorist Edward Said.

Taking care but letting go: A Conversation with Jagoda Dobecka

Where are the worlds that flowers long for? Local Memorial Fest, Bródno Sculpture Park, Warsaw, Kacper Szalecki and Frajda Natychmiast performing The story of two flowers growing on opposite banks of the river, photo by Wojtek Kaniewsk.

By Juliane Foronda

Pansies, friendship bracelets, karaoke, and shared meals all function as gentle tethers into the tender practice of Polish artist Jagoda Dobecka. Based in Wrocław, and a current PhD candidate at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, Dobecka’s work deals with notions surrounding loss, grief, memory, and nostalgia. With a commitment to gathering being a strong pillar in her work, she often invites the public to join her in planting a garden, sing sad songs, or come and cook nostalgic dishes together.

Jagoda’s practice has this beautiful way of making you laugh just as much as it will make you cry. I often find myself smirking through tears whenever I’m fortunate enough to experience her work in person. The courage to choose the path of vulnerability often goes unacknowledged in a world where softness isn’t always seen as a strength. Her work challenges the norms of hierarchy, patriarchy, accessibility, and most other social conventions in manners that may appear so obvious or simple, but are laced with layers of consideration, comfort, and care the more that the works unfold and let you in.

This conversation sheds light on how much we can learn from our surroundings, the importance of saving others from loneliness, and the necessity of community. Her work is a reminder that much like flowers, strings, songs, and food, we can be something more when we’re united—we are stronger together than we are apart.

Juliane: Can you explain why you make work and what your practice is about?

Jagoda: I am creating or building temporary safe spaces where people can exchange their experiences and emotions. These can be performative events such as dinners, karaoke, or meetings to make a garden together. The important factor of those events is participation and encouraging the guests to take part. Materially, I mostly work with text, food, and plants. This is the framework that I’m using to talk about and share the painful experiences that are connected with loss, grief, nostalgia, and longing. I feel that we can sometimes censor ourselves and we don’t want to share those experiences with other people for different reasons, and I thought that it could be helpful to have that kind of space to talk about stuff and feel a sense of community.

To you, what makes for a safe space?

As the host, I think a lot about the space and its arrangement. I like open spaces such as gardens and parks that often have good connotations and some significance to the project itself. I also consider what guests might expect and what they might be willing to give. I’m just building a frame, which is very easy to build again. For a performative dinner, I bring the table, chairs, and food and invite people to come together. I try to be cautious and observant and to make people who are participating feel comfortable. At some point, I think I’m also trying to be invisible and let visitors hold the space as they are. I’m just starting it, but then other people are kind of doing whatever they want with it. It’s a lot about taking care of the whole situation, but also letting go.

Roots of Community, performative dinner in collaboration with Tomek Pawłowski-Jarmołajew, sessi.space, Brno, photo by Polina Davydenko.

Do you see the guests, in a sense, like materials in your work?

Both yes and no. I started making this type of work quite recently so after almost each event, I interview the people. If I know them already, I can text them afterward and ask questions about their experience and their overall feelings. I’m also trying to be critical and see how people are interacting with the whole situation and get their feedback on it. It’s an important part of my research to listen to people and what they have to say about the whole experience. It’s usually positive stuff, but sometimes people complain or say that they didn’t feel so good when something happened. It’s priceless to have that sort of feedback and to see how I can navigate that next time and consider what to change. During the actual events, I don’t think I have ever seen them as material.

Speaking of research, what do you think the purpose of your artistic research is right now? What are you currently working on, and what has led you to this point?

I was in this moment in life when I felt that everything collapsed, and I really needed some support. Then I realized that there are plenty of people like me out there. I thought that maybe I could somehow create, as I said, this frame, where we can meet and talk about things and just have nice experiences of being together. The events are open to everyone, so whoever comes is welcome to participate and become a part of this temporary community. The range of personas is wide. I know that bonds were created during these events as people got to know each other. I call it temporary, but it doesn’t have to be.

It’s not something special I’m doing. Most of these things happen anyway in life: people already meet and have dinners, sing songs, and read books together. Since I work in the arts, I was also thinking about the institutional and non-institutional context in relation to the types of events I have. Every art institution is talking about care, how they should be more open and more welcoming, and asking a lot of questions about how to do this. I wanted to see if it’s possible to build this space within an institutional context. I’ve made a lot of events myself or worked with artist-run spaces or more independent spaces, but then I also did a few events with art institutions, and I can see the difference. I think that the art institution has stiffness within its structure. It also translates into the events since people are less…open, or less free, or whatever.

Do you see a big difference in the demographic or groups of people that would come to maybe more of an ad-hoc or DIY event versus one that’s run more formally with a museum or another institution?

Yeah, one difference is that I see many more elderly people coming to institutions. I think the reason for this is that many artist-run spaces, especially in Poland, don’t have such a long lifespan. They usually exist for two or three years, and then they die, so these spaces also attract younger people who are usually the ones who are showing in, curating, and creating them.

Friendship bracelet, 2022, photo Piotr Blajerski.

I know you have a background in painting. Can you speak more about how you consider your materials and media in your current practice?

I do have a background in painting, which I think I suppress the more that I focus on other things that I’m more interested in. I can divide my practice into two parts when considering materials. One part is the participatory events. I bring food, karaoke, plants, or texts from books – the meeting is the material. Then there’s this other aspect to my practice where I like to create objects or just interdisciplinary works that could be more traditionally exhibited. For example, I made this huge friendship bracelet, which was three meters long. I wanted to recreate the friendship bracelets that many of us used to make when we were kids as a sort of statement, but also a monument for those relationships that we had when we were young. I got really invested in finding the perfect ropes.

I don’t feel that attached to any material or medium. I think that a very strong basis for my work is text. Making notes or writing things that happened to me. I was recently introduced to automatic writing, which is great. After you experience something, you just write for 10 minutes – whatever comes to your head. It’s like a nice source of raw material that you can use.

Where are the worlds that flowers long for? Local Memorial Fest, Bródno Sculpture Park, Warsaw, Wake Karaoke, photo by Wojtek Kaniewski.

It appears the concept tends to inform the material(s). I also wanted to talk about how a lot of your work deals with grief and the themes that surround it. Do you see grief as inspiration, or what’s your relationship with grief in relation to your work?

I think it’s similar to what you asked about the people who are participating in my events, I see grief as both a material and an inspiration.

I experienced grief, and I’m still experiencing it. And I know that every person who is dealing with this topic also has their own experience as well. I know that each experience is very different; it’s not the same for everyone. It really is both the material and inspiration in one since my own experience of it acts as a material in a sense, but I am also inspired by seeing grief in a broader context where I can just see that it is a loss in a more general sense. What’s the difference between grief and longing? I’m just thinking about those things and how it all binds together. I think grief is a material inspiration.

I think one thing I’ve always found quite special about your practice is how you don’t shy away from heavier topics (such as grief), but, at least from my experience of your work – it doesn’t consume it. You pull in quite nostalgic things to offer a different perspective.

Yeah, I feel like this wasn’t a fully conscious decision to use these nostalgic elements, I think it was just purely subconscious.

Then is it a bit of your personal way of coping?

Probably. The thing with nostalgia is that it is also a sort of loss. And I’m very heavy into nostalgia. I’m nostalgic about all the things and it’s sometimes embarrassing, but I’m really that person who remembers things like games and snacks from when we were younger with a deep fondness. Nostalgia is a loss of sorts, but it’s maybe a bit lighter, or at least within a broader recognition of loss. Nostalgia is emotionally lighter than grief so maybe it’s just preparation for the heavier topics. We can first face the nostalgia to see the comfort in loss. As I said, it’s not something that was really intentional, but it might work as this sort of blanket that you’re wearing to feel safer as you see that things are going away.

It could also be about accessibility. I think this sort of juxtaposition of karaoke, for example, which is a really fun activity that we do with friends to have a good time, but then we’re doing grieving karaoke which is all sad songs about dying, loss, and grief. So, we kind of have both because we settle into the party activity, but with those popular songs that are extremely sad and heavy (because I usually use well-known pop songs), so everything feels kind of like a party.

Thinking about accessibility, maybe it also helps to make it a less scary topic than some people could perceive. I interviewed some of the guests taking part in the grieving karaoke and they said that at some point they felt extremely good and safe being surrounded, and they had this desire to do something festive. After they started singing Viva Forever by Spice Girls, they began to cry as they thought about all kinds of teenage memories and other thoughts came back, like losing their first love. They said that it was so strong emotionally, but at the same time, they felt good because they were with people.

For a recent project, I wrote a script for a performance, which is based on a legend with a dragon, witch, and magic potion. It has the framework of a school theater play, which is not too serious. However, it also talks about more difficult things like a tragic death, grief, being stuck in a cluster of cultural expectations, and being in a toxic relationship. I guess I use nostalgia to open up these bigger conversations.

I also see time as a strong thread in your work, both in terms of concept and literal duration.

More recently, my works have become ephemeral. I don’t really care if some of the things that I create will survive over the years. I’m more focused on the process and being with the people right here right now. I guess a good example could be the Grieving Garden, which is a garden with plants that symbolically refer to death, but also to rebirth, grieving, and many elements that could relate to death, like memory. I’ve planted a few of these grieving gardens since, and they were all made in public spaces, so everyone who feels like visiting can spend some time there. So, they exist, but for a limited period of time because eventually, the plants begin to die. Firstly, because some of them are very seasonal plants, and they live only for one season. Sometimes the weather conditions are also quite hard, and some plants might need more water, or more wet surface, or ground, while others don’t.

It’s also very intuitive. I wasn’t thinking about it in a way that part of the installation is that it has to die. It just happened when I did it the first time and then I thought that maybe there’s some sort of beauty in that as well, that it’s something temporary. If people who I planted the garden with want to continue to take care of it, then it’s great, but if not, I’m okay with that. The garden is also a reflection of life because something dies and then something is reborn out of it, like this circle of life.

Grieving Garden, 2021, view from the MeetFactory studio, photo by Richard Hodonicky.

There’s a constant connection to nature in your work. It seems like something that’s also used a lot to talk about life or time spans as well.

I spent my childhood outside because I was raised in a small village, so I was always deeply connected to nature. It was just part of my everyday life, like running around the hills, being in the forest, or swimming in the river. But then I moved to the city, and I forgot about it. When my brother died and I was experiencing that kind of grief for the first time, I felt that I really needed some grounding. I needed some connection with the planet, and I needed to know that I was here for a reason and like this soil was happy to have me here. I found this in nature; it was like an explosion. It was soothing, but then also gave me a lot of energy to go through these very difficult times. I’m grateful for this and that it stayed with me.

I’m also thinking about going back to my roots, where I came from, and why I love it so much. I just started to use that kind of relationship that I have with nature in my artworks and that just became a starting point for considering many important issues for me. I’m interested in my relationship with nature, but also the relationship of nature, humans, and non-human actors that do not project anthropocentric perception. Is it even possible to do or get closer to that state? I think a lot about how we can use some wisdom from nature and apply it to our everyday life.

You can find more of Jagoda Dobecka’s work on her website and Instagram.

Part Two: Adam Barbu and Natalie Bruvels in Conversation

Maximalism and the Postmaternal

Cat Attack Collective, Walk in the Park, 2023, Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery. Image: David Barbour.

In this two-part dialogue, spanning contemporary feminist theory to modernist art criticism, independent curator Adam Barbu and interdisciplinary artist Natalie Bruvels reflect on the relationship between maternal caregiving and collaborative authorship. Specifically, they discuss the recent exhibition Walk in the Park (2023) created by Cat Attack Collective, an artist duo consisting of Bruvels and her 11-year-old son Tomson. Walk in the Park transforms the white cube Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery into an expansive environment that blurs the line between the surreal and the everyday. Building from the prior exhibition Abound (2022), presented at the Ottawa Art Gallery, the installation incorporates co-created paintings and sculptures of recycled, accessible materials that intersect and overspill. In the exchanges that follow, through considerations of accumulation, refiguration, and immersion, Barbu and Bruvels propose readings of ethics and aesthetics that foreground the inherited context of the work of art.

Adam Barbu: Perhaps we can turn to the various symbols that appear and reappear throughout Walk in the Park. It is an unusual environment that strays from anything we commonly associated with “the natural.” First, my mind travels to the paintings of Roblox gameplay.

Natalie Bruvels: Something I continue to grapple with is the all-at-once feeling being a mother. Recently, I started using Roblox imagery in my work. I used to paint solely from screenshots—these scenes seemed too cool and distant. Eventually, I found pleasure in adding traces, stencils, and layers from the so-called real world. The process simply felt more tactile. Some might assume that I’m addressing the effects of video game culture in the work. In a way, I’m engaging in this discourse, however it isn’t a negative commentary. Roblox was how I could see our family during COVID. These works are family portraits. It is as if the camera, the screenshot, acts as an additional family member. These scenes are tender-hearted, although Roblox doesn’t necessarily look that way.

AB: On representing nature, we should also describe the walls, covered with layers of colourful plastic tablecloths.

NB: Some viewers have a strong reaction to the use of plastic based on environmental ethics. Working with my kid, I find it a useful, workable medium. From a practical standpoint, it is reusable. And I don’t need to clean up after. I can put the sheets in a bag and store them away. Over time, they develop their own character. The more I return to them, the more I might shred them. Sometimes they look like tentacles and sometimes they look like the sky—you never quite know. Too often, we turn to artists with an angst that is rooted in our collective inability to solve environmental problems. In fact, throughout the installation, I’m strategically eliciting judgments. Because you cannot be a mother and walk through this world without judgements.

“You need to be able to provide, you need to be able to think on the fly and problem-solve, you need to be a warm presence they can turn to when they are sick…”

Finally, I’m interested in the reasons why we feel compelled to use these materials in the first place. We might see them at a birthday party, for example. The function of these colourful spaces is simply to say: “I love you.” They have power to communicate the message: “I care you’re here—let’s find a way through this together.” From these different considerations, the plastic allows me to think through the complex processes of mothering. You need to be able to provide, you need to be able to think on the fly and problem-solve, you need to be a warm presence they can turn to when they are sick—all these things are true simultaneously.

Still, I find that I have this fantastic chip on my shoulder. It wasn’t until I attended Andrea O’Reilly’s seminar that I gave myself permission to think about motherhood in a feminist way. Forming that connection, you don’t feel so alone. You don’t feel like a deficient mother. This is what writers like Adrienne Rich were concerned with in the 1970s, namely the everyday experience of mothering coupled with the classist, patriarchal, racist institution of motherhood.

AB: As a poet, Rich also interrogated how this institution is inherited and thus recreated from one generation to the next. I’m thinking of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), where she writes about invisible domestic labour and cyclical gendered violence. For Rich, it is violence that belongs to a culture of silence. Your work contends with the contemporary cultural resonance of this silence. Having this conversation, then, we seem most interested in the words unsaid by the Madonna of the “Madonna and Child.” Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna (c. 1504-05), for example, offers the viewer legibility. A certain visual transmissibility is at stake. Alternatively, with Walk in the Park,the landscape is rendered abstract. That landscape is unsettled as we move into opacity. A park is supposed to be a shared space. We read books, we watch birds, we visit friends—all in the company of perfect strangers. I think this feeling of community is fictional, though.

Cat Attack Collective, Walk in the Park, 2023, Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery. Image: David Barbour.

NB: Let’s say that our experience of the park is not all the same. A mother is providing care and working to keep it all together on her own.

AB: To the passer-by, the depth of her experience, the context of her arrival, is easily overlooked. A park setting is fundamentally a public setting that is structured according to some contract of social acceptability. Yet Walk in the Park makes visible what has been rendered invisible. That is, we see the physical and emotional labour of maternal caregiving. This is not a walk in the forest. It is a walk in a park, which is itself a constructed environment. In this rethinking of that constructed environment, there is an expansion and contraction between private and public worlds. Here, an aesthetic reinvention occurs. The park is no longer a seamless, smooth surface of leisure activity. It is a texture—an inherited context. The work is doing more with less. And that feminist sense of maximalism offers us the chance to rethink the canon of Western art history. Many would argue that minimalism represents the height of modernism, where the painted surface and sculptural form become indistinguishable through the absolute reduction of the image. Highlighting the maximalism of Cat Attack Collective, we are not simply asking: What is painting? What is sculpture? What is art? But instead: Who is an artist? What is a studio? What is the relationship between maternal caregiving and artistic production?

NB: It makes people upset when you show them this side of art.

AB: According to that inherited myth of modernist art, the studio is a private space where the genius closes his door to the world and goes to work on a masterpiece. I think about Brancusi’s recently recreated studio at the Centre Pompidou and the ways in which this privileged space becomes fetishized. A copy of a copy of a room filled with nearly priceless phallic objects—there is perhaps no greater metaphor for the historical durability of these relations.

Cat Attack Collective, Rough Around the Edges, 2020, University of Ottawa MFA Final Critique. Image: Cara Tierney.

NB: Our work is maximalist with a Dollar Store budget. The artist Jenny McMaster called it “messimalism.” I think about the notion of spilling over from a feminist theoretical perspective. The emphasis on plastic originated from practical considerations leading up to an MFA critique. I was grouping my paintings together into one expansive blob. Tomson’s work was on the other side of the room in a smaller formation. The two bodies were approaching each other, almost touching. But the surface underneath looked like a studio wall—it became distracting. I needed color quickly. And it needed to be inexpensive.

AB: The plastic tablecloths are readymade. They also behave as a connective tissue, a second skin for the gallery walls. In this sense, Walk in the Park rejects the visual logic of the white cube gallery. What the white cube shares with the park setting is the myth of neutrality—the fiction of a common ground. In the installation, the ground of meaning emerges from a place of visual and material excess that is, paradoxically, tied to a series of constraints. It is, as you suggest, a context that spills over. It is a textured surface of meaning that begins, first and foremost, with the question of feminist worldmaking.

NB: Returning to the question of legibility, I don’t think children are viewing the installation as an aesthetic reinvention of the park or an interrogation of modernist neutrality. In the busyness of creating the work, you don’t have time to sit and enjoy it until much, much later. For me, that much, much later, came the day before the show closed. I could feel the space. It made me emotional because I saw it as beautiful. I was proud of what we were able to do. I was having a heartfelt introspective moment when several children came in running, laughing, and screaming. And that is how they view this space. So, legibility varies.


AB: Walk in the Park offers a feminist critique of maternal erasure that is born from sensorial pleasure. For any viewer of any age, that visual excess is the pull inward. But what is made visible only scratches the surface of an inherited context, in art and life.

Read part one of Barbu and Bruvels’s discussion here.

Adam Barbu is a writer, curator, and researcher who holds an M.A. in Art History from the University of Toronto. A recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators, they have produced numerous group exhibitions foregrounding the limits of reparative visibility, including Words Unsaid: Autobiography and Knowing at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Visual Arts (2023). Their recent writings have appeared in publications such as OnCuratingPeripheral Review, and Esse art + opinions. Barbu lectures on queer theory and trans studies locally, nationally, and internationally.

Cat Attack Collective consists of Natalie Bruvels and her son Tomson. They are a multidisciplinary collective working primarily in painting and large-scale installations. Established in 2020, Cat Attack Collective has exhibited at the University of Ottawa, Art Mûr, the Ottawa Art Gallery, and along the Greenboro Pathway as part of Microcosm, the City of Ottawa Public Art Program’s COVID-19 pilot initiative.

Natalie Bruvels holds a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Arts in Contemporary Art Theory, both from the University of Ottawa. She is currently enrolled in the Feminist and Gender Studies PhD program at the University of Ottawa. Bruvels is researching maternal subjectivity in art and visual culture, while advocating for caregiving supports in a university setting. Bruvels has presented the work of Cat Attack Collective at various academic conferences, including the Museum of Motherhood in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has subsequently published writing in The Journal of Mother Studies.

Tomson is in grade six and is happy to be back at school in person to spend more time with his friends. He loves dodgeball and has a special affinity for zip-ties as an artistic material. He is the youngest artist to have his work exhibited at the Ottawa Art Gallery.  

The Queer World of Relationships: In Conversation with Francesco Esposito


Francesco Esposito self-portrait, 2023, Courtesy of the artist.

By Irene Bernardi

The photos taken by Francesco Esposito tell more than meets the eye. They are visual poems that narrate what new generations are experiencing in an increasingly complex world. Through the lens, the Italian artist tells the delicate relational entanglements of a polyamorous couple that he follows step by step in their personal growth. 

Born in Naples in 1997, Francesco Esposito moved to Bologna where he started his artistic career. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna and received his BA in Graphic Arts and MA in Photography. Esposito’s works have been exhibited in major art events such as Open Tour and Art City promoted by the Academy of Fine Arts of Bologna, IBRIDA Festival of Multimedia Arts, and BASE Milano.

Irene Bernardi: In your early work, you expressed yourself through graphic signs and engraving, then later you switched to photography, using a completely different medium. Did you ever find a meeting point between the two?

Francesco Esposito: Absolutely. I have been taking photographs since childhood. Later, I started combining these two disciplines and making photogravures. My approach to etching was born from the desire to learn about a new medium of expression and the extreme similarity between these two techniques. Both mediums involve the use of external agents to create an image. In the case of etching, the agent is acid that etches the material, while in photography it is light that impresses a photosensitive surface.

IB: The themes you deal with in your photographs are relevant to today’s society, which tends to suffocate us more and more and homogenize us as a function of productivity: we need to be perfect and neither feel nor demonstrate our emotions. What drives you to confront these major issues characteristic of Generation Z?

FE: Being born between two generations has exposed me to changing ideals and perspectives on life. This [has] had a significant impact on my perception of the world and my artistic expression. Becoming aware of the major issues that have come up in our society at the level of mental health and sexuality, I decided to make them central themes in my poetry. I am talking and taking pictures about these issues to contribute more information and awareness for part of the public.

Understanding and acceptance of sexuality can have a direct impact on people’s mental health, while mental health can influence self-perception and one’s relationship with sexuality.

Worry, 2022, Courtesy of the artist.

IB: Looking at your portfolio, I was very impressed by the Worry series where you discuss when anxiety becomes pathological and the sufferer dissociates from reality, losing control of it.
What technique did you use to make these shots? How did you conclude that it was the best method to render that feeling of loss and dissociation?

FE: When I decided to start this project, I was going through a period in my life fully involved with this theme.
The choice of this technique came from the idea of “glow,” something that blinds you, distances you, and alienates you from reality. I wanted to reproduce these “glows” by using flash on smooth, reflective surfaces; however, the result did not satisfy me. However, I continued to think about the idea of reflection, something that we cannot eliminate, something that often attracts and obsesses us.

The solution came when I visited an Anish Kapoor exhibition in Venice: the Indian artist used distorting mirrors, which made me realize that the distortion effect could best represent my state of mind. So, I began taking photographs of my everyday life using the bottom of a bottle as a distorting filter.

Installation view, QueerPandèmia. Artistic contaminations of other kinds, 2023, Base Milano, Courtesy of Riccardo Ferranti

IB: Your latest project, People’s House, has been selected to be part of QueerPandèmia. Artistic contaminations of other kinds, an exhibition hosted at Base Milano as part of Milano Pride in July 2023. This show by ULTRAQUEER, a project of TWM Factory, aims to give space, voice, and representation back to the Queer community, centering the discourse on how it is perceived by the outside world. Reflections take place on queer identity and its relationships, going through tools, struggles, and new practices with which to invade spaces and gain a place in the world.

The People’s House series includes very complex and delicate shots that run through the lives and relationships of Enea and Luna, a polyamorous couple living in Bologna. How did this collaboration come about?

FE: After becoming interested in the topic of polyamory, having never had this kind of relational experience, I realized that I could only know more about this topic by getting to know people living in that kind of relationship. Conversing with some friends, I met Luna and Enea who gave me the possibility to collaborate with them, making me [closer to] this world.

IB: Photographs of their daily lives are accompanied by shots of natural elements that dialogue with forms and compositions that the bodies create. Flowers, stems, shoots, but also water and light, reflect the relationship of mutual love and trust that polyamory creates, as in the relationships between plants and natural elements.

Nature is wonderfully homosexual, non-monogamous and queer, which is the basis of Queer Ecology(1) theories. This scientific theory aims to unite queer theories and ecology to shift paradigms from binary, rigid, and heteronormative ways of understanding nature toward interdependence and fluidity. How does this theory relate to your shots?

People’s House, 2022, Courtesy of the artist.


 FE: These shots representing nature, aim at an analogy with polyamorous relationships. They don’t have a scientific basis, they are only metaphors for this. Often, we are wrongly pointed out to how the queer, polyamorous world is “against nature.” I tried to metaphorically counter this word with these shots.

People’s House, 2022, Courtesy of the artist.

“Today, polyamory is often misunderstood as strictly sexual behaviour or an open relationship. In reality, this kind of relationship implies much more: it implies bonding, involvement, freedom, and shared growth with multiple individuals, just as it happens spontaneously in nature.”

IB: I think this quote from your project is very important for today’s society to revisit the concept of a “natural relationship” by stepping out of heteronormative dynamics—the queerness of nature has long been ignored, suppressed, and dismissed to reflect society’s underlying prejudice against non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities.

What reflections arise from this project of yours and your personal experiences?

FE: People’s House is not exclusively about polyamory, but also about freedom and spontaneity. Realizing this project, meeting people, and talking to the people who were part of it, I realized how there is no difference between a polyamorous relationship and a monogamous one. It is often considered a happy little bubble, but what makes it true and equal to monogamy are precisely the same issues that are faced.

Spending time with people who collaborated on the project, I also decided not to focus on the sexual and carnal dimension of this type of relationship more than necessary, but more on their sentimental reality, on the understanding that is normally created in any type of polyamorous or non- polyamorous relationship. This is precisely to depart the idea of polyamory from the concept of an “open” or exclusively sexual relationship, something which it is often confused with.

People’s House, 2022, Courtesy of the artist.

IB: Your photographs give a very strong and pleasing intimacy and delicacy. Is there a shot (or more than one) that is particularly meaningful to you?

FE: It’s hard to find one shot that I consider more meaningful than the others, precisely because from a personal point of view, each shot tells the story of the path that I took with the people I portrayed. Therefore, they all have great meaning for me, even the discarded images.

If I had to choose the most emblematic ones, I think they would be the one depicting hands crossing and the one in which two guys lying in bed, naked and conversing with each other. The first is because I think it is also the one that best summarizes the entire work, the second shot chosen I find is perfect for explaining how much intimacy and freedom there is between each individual member in that relational situation.

IB: As the last question, can you share some visual and non-visual artists who have accompanied you in your personal artistic process?

FE:In this last period I was very inspired by the shots of photographer Ute Klein (2).She is young but with her photography she creates bonds between people by intertwining their anonymous, unidentifiable bodies.
These bodies have souls, feelings and just like the bodies of Enea, Luna and their partners: intertwining they tell us the beauty and fragility not only of their story but of the stories of all.

You can find more of Francesco Esposito’s work on his Instagram @serafjno. You can find out more about Base Milano on their website and Instagram. Check out Ultraqueer on their website and Instagram.

You can find the QUEER PANDÈMIA book here.

1 Ingrid Bååth, Queer Ecology, Explained, https://www.climateculture.earth/

2 Ute Klein, https://cargocollective.com/uteklein


Part One: Adam Barbu and Natalie Bruvels in Conversation

Maximalism and the Postmaternal

Cat Attack Collective, Walk in the Park, 2023, Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery. Image: David Barbour.

In this two-part dialogue, spanning contemporary feminist theory to modernist art criticism, independent curator Adam Barbu and interdisciplinary artist Natalie Bruvels reflect on the relationship between maternal caregiving and collaborative authorship. Specifically, they discuss the recent exhibition Walk in the Park (2023) created by Cat Attack Collective, an artist duo consisting of Bruvels and her 11-year-old son Tomson. Walk in the Park transforms the white cube Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery into an expansive environment that blurs the line between the surreal and the everyday. Building from the prior exhibition Abound (2022), presented at the Ottawa Art Gallery, the installation incorporates co-created paintings and sculptures of recycled, accessible materials that intersect and overspill. In the exchanges that follow, through considerations of accumulation, refiguration, and immersion, Barbu and Bruvels propose readings of ethics and aesthetics that foreground the inherited context of the work of art.

Adam Barbu: I often think about research as a parallel life process in which we grant ourselves the freedom to move beyond the limits of the merely possible. Having recently completed the first year of your doctoral studies, how does your academic work reflect your experience as a mother?

Natalie Bruvels: I’m drawn to the concept of the postmaternal, coined and developed by theorist Julie Stephens. This term offers a useful framework to address how caregiving, maternal subjectivities, and maternal epistemologies are erased in university spaces. It is also a framework that allows us to examine how the catastrophic effects of this erasure are objectified in visual culture. During this period of research as a PhD student, I have immersed myself in different concerns about maternal theory. The layered experiences of mothers are incredibly diverse and need to be taught. And they need to be taught in a feminist way. After all, caregiving is a component of reproductive justice. For the time being, I’m exploring questions of pedagogy rooted in a post-structuralist analysis of words that don’t yet exist—words that we need to make sense of our experiences. In the previous year, completing my MA during the pandemic, I don’t think I saw anyone. Researching and homeschooling was difficult. But I had the opportunity to take Andrea O’Reilly’s maternal theory course at York University, which saved my sanity. To be clear, it saved my life as a researcher. It was the first time I saw someone get up in front of a class and unapologetically create space for this discussion.

AB: In academia, sometimes we wander into what feels like an empty landscape. It can be intimidating to create space for yourself lacking the comforts of disciplinary foundations. At the same time, it is a sign there is more to be done there. What we need is more, not less disruption. How do these theoretical interventions on the postmaternal figure in your artistic practice?

NB: A few years prior, during my time in the MFA program, I began thinking about caregiving through alternative forms of collaboration. I always liked the idea of Tomson and I coming to the Visual Arts Building on weekends. As a parent, you try to give your child experiences that will stay with them. I decided we should go ahead and create something new. It was a learning experience, as I had to rethink the meanings we traditionally assign to authorship.

To begin, I assumed that the work would be prescriptive—that we would follow my idea. I quickly realized, though, that I couldn’t be in control. Yes, I’m responsible for this individual’s safety and well-being. But he is going to do exactly what he wants to do, for as long as he wants to do it. What I want to say, though, is that the work is freeing. Completing an MFA, you’re often probed and expected to have the answers. To say that I can’t anticipate where this work will lead in the future might seem like a deficit. Yet it is the only truthful answer. Right now, I’m taking the studio back into our home. We aren’t collaborating much as I try to put the space back in order.

Cat Attack Collective, Walk in the Park, 2023, Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery. Image: David Barbour.

AB: What about the feedback this work has received? A mother and child working together in the spirit of spontaneous production—this is far from conventional artistic research methodology. I sense you have faced gatekeeping regarding the so-called sanctity of art, both institutionally and interpersonally.

NB: There is the question of artistic merit. I have heard people say: “Why should I be looking at this?” While others might bring up the topic of exploitation, which enrages me and sometimes makes me cry. If there is anyone in the room who genuinely cares about this child, if there is anyone who will suffer the consequences of a lack of love, it is me. And if you’re not feeling protected, if you’re overworked, if you’re exhausted, if it is the wrong time in your menstrual cycle—all these things can add up to the point where you lose your equilibrium. Let’s say it can make it hurt more. In another context, I face gatekeeping from simply saying the word “mom” in an academic setting. There is also gatekeeping concerning the acceptable structure of the nuclear heteronormative family. Further, I have seen critics borrow from emancipatory feminist discourses in ways that deviate from their original intent. In the end, we are speaking about a single mother living below the poverty line, trying to raise her kid during a pandemic with no help. Having this conversation today, I feel the need to foreground that sense of judgment.

AB: I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Cat Attack Collective’s exhibition Walk in the Park at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery. From this collaborative, immersive installation, I see two subjects in dialogue, learning and unlearning from one another through artistic experimentation. I can’t help but think that the question of exploitation acts as a form of silencing.

NB: It serves to erase maternal subjectivities from the public forum of art spectatorship. As an MFA student, I immediately knew that the limitations brought on by COVID would interfere with my ability to complete the coursework and develop my studio practice. So, whenever the question of ethics is raised, I wonder why we refuse to consider the opposite point of view? How is this mother going to make new work? She must simultaneously provide care and find an activity that is engaging for her child. Therefore, they are now a collective. If that collective doesn’t exist, she is not making art—that studio practice is erased. What does it mean that we are ignoring this inherited social context of artistic production?

Cat Attack Collective, SS Same Boat, 2022, Ottawa Art Gallery. Image: Justin Wonacott.

AB: Walk in the Park troubles neutral, apolitical readings of maternal caregiving. Through a variety of display strategies, you directly engage the context of your arrival to the gallery space as a mother. To this extent, the exhibition is concerned with means as opposed to ends.

NB: Prior to this exhibition, in 2022 we created an ambitious mixed media work for the final MFA exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery titled Abound. In the middle of the gallery sat a towering floor-to-ceiling boat wrapped, draped, and tied in colourful reusable plastics. We called it SS Same Boat. Completing the degree, everyone kept telling me: “Oh, Natalie, you’re fine—we’re all in the same boat.” I often use titles to play against the aesthetic. They allow me to express the inner workings of my discontent, particularly in an acerbic, humorous way. For our current exhibition at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery, we wanted to reuse the materials from SS Same Boat. Tomson said he wanted to make trees—it wasn’t a long brainstorming session. The title Walk in the Park is beautifully straightforward and utterly facetious. And I would like both things to remain true. One does not erase the other. Instead, the premise and the critique are always already held in tension. Representing the complex relationship between a mother and child through an accumulation of art objects—it is a fantastic puzzle.

Today, many mothers are making challenging feminist work about the maternal—we don’t hear about it. 

AB: How might we situate this complexity, art historically speaking?

NB: In Western art history, these interactions have been romanticized by individuals who are not mothers. One concern is the curatorial siloing that occurs. We have been led to back into the corner and be a niche. To call motherhood a niche—this itself is an important piece of evidence that demonstrates how we have internalized such restrictive ideals. Today, many mothers are making challenging feminist work about the maternal—we don’t hear about it. I’m not even sure that we have the eyes for it. I include myself in this category. This observation is partly based on philosopher Julia Kristeva’s essay Stabat Mater (1977). She uses psychoanalytic theory to describe what happens when we look at the artistic motif of the “Madonna and Child,” or any idealized representation of motherhood. For Kristeva, it hardly matters if the viewer is a mother or not—they will identify with the image of the child. And this identification with the child involves a primary narcissism. It is that transportation to a place where I’m nourished, where my needs are met, where I receive care before I had a care in the world. Looking at the “Madonna and Child” is like taking an aesthetic drug. Therefore, when we encounter something like a feminist rendering of the maternal, there is room for profound disappointment, affectively or psychologically. With Walk in the Park, the viewer happens upon a scene that seems ultimately unfulfilling. It is an unsettling landscape of entangled contexts. Here, something rendered historically invisible contends with the problem of what it means to be seen.

You can read Part two of Barbu and Bruvels’ discussion here.

Adam Barbu is a writer, curator, and researcher who holds an M.A. in Art History from the University of Toronto. A recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators, they have produced numerous group exhibitions foregrounding the limits of reparative visibility, including Words Unsaid: Autobiography and Knowing at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Visual Arts (2023). Their recent writings have appeared in publications such as OnCuratingPeripheral Review, and Esse art + opinions. Barbu lectures on queer theory and trans studies locally, nationally, and internationally.

Cat Attack Collective consists of Natalie Bruvels and her son Tomson. They are a multidisciplinary collective working primarily in painting and large-scale installations. Established in 2020, Cat Attack Collective has exhibited at the University of Ottawa, Art Mûr, the Ottawa Art Gallery, and along the Greenboro Pathway as part of Microcosm, the City of Ottawa Public Art Program’s COVID-19 pilot initiative.

Natalie Bruvels holds a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Arts in Contemporary Art Theory, both from the University of Ottawa. She is currently enrolled in the Feminist and Gender Studies PhD program at the University of Ottawa. Bruvels is researching maternal subjectivity in art and visual culture, while advocating for caregiving supports in a university setting. Bruvels has presented the work of Cat Attack Collective at various academic conferences, including the Museum of Motherhood in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has subsequently published writing in The Journal of Mother Studies.

Tomson is in grade six and is happy to be back at school in person to spend more time with his friends. He loves dodgeball and has a special affinity for zip-ties as an artistic material. He is the youngest artist to have his work exhibited at the Ottawa Art Gallery.  

“The Professor’s Desk” by Zinnia Naqvi: Mayworks Festival

Zinnia Naqvi. Before the Settlement – Professor Chun’s Desk, Inkjet Print, 2023.

Interview by Aysia Tse

“The Professor’s Desk” series by lens-based artist and educator Zinnia Naqvi features archival materials from four specific cases of racial discrimination in or about Canadian universities. Naqvi uses her own student/professor’s desk to frame these cases of systemic racism and considers the impact and legacies of each case, reflecting on the ongoing struggle for racial equity and justice in academic institutions.

As a selected artist for the 2022 Mayworks Labour Arts Catalyst, Zinnia Naqvi worked with the Asian Canadian Labor Alliance (ACLA) with support from OPIRG Toronto to create the photo-based series “The Professor’s Desk.” The series was co-presented with CONTACT Photography Festival at the Whippersnapper Gallery from May 4-31st for the 2023 Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts. Mayworks’ Labour Arts Catalyst is a program that helps to facilitate the collaboration between local labour organizations and artists. As Naqvi describes, her creative and research processes for this project came together organically. After connecting with the two ACLA chapters based in B.C. and Ontario, Naqvi accessed an online archive of digitized materials from ACLA’s 20 years of activism which was her jumping-off point for her research.

I spoke in depth with Naqvi about her process, creative and political considerations for each of the six images in the series, and what she has learned from research into Professor Kin-Yip Chun’s case.

Aysia Tse: Can you discuss your deeply collaborative and multi-focus research process for this series?

Zinnia Naqvi: ACLA hired filmmaker Lokchi Lam to make a video for their 20th anniversary. Lokchi spoke to members and gathered many materials from past events they supported and organized them into five Google Drive folders. One of the folders they made was about instances of anti-Asian racism on Canadian campuses was called “White Fear on Campus.” Lokchi Lam put three events together; Professor Chun’s case, Maclean’s Magazine “Too Asian” article from 2010, and the W5 CTV News segment from 1979, which is what I [made] the project about.

Professor Chun was exploited and wrongfully denied a tenure track position four times at the University of Toronto in a span of 10 years. In 1998, Professor Chun launched a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission for unjust dismissal. His case soon attracted national and international attention.

On the panel, Chris Ramsaroop was one of the founding members of ACLA Ontario, and a student at the time of Professor Chun’s case. He was very actively involved in supporting Professor Chun’s case and there were a lot of student organizers, so he was able to give me insight on the significance of the case from a student perspective. I teach part-time at the University of Toronto and was able to access historical newspaper databases by having institutional access. I found all the Toronto Star articles written about his case specifically and visited their picture collection at the reference library to access images. It was through my own digging that I then found out about OPIRG and the Dr. Chun Resource Library of feminist and critical race theory. Professor Chun donated funds to support the library during his case and it was later renamed after him.

Zinnia Naqvi. After the Settlement – Professor Chun’s Desk, Inkjet Print, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Aysia T: It’s great to hear how bits and pieces of the research came through. OPIRG sounds like a cool grassroots organization whose work relates to what you’re doing. So that was a great collaboration opportunity.

Zinnia Naqvi: Yes, I reached out to them while I was making the project and they generously agreed to support the panel and partner with Mayworks. As a result, we [could] fly Professor Chun to Toronto for the panel. It was interesting looking at this case 20 years after it happened because it isn’t part of the collective memory of the current students.

When I came across this research that Lokchi did, what stuck out to me about Professor Chun’s case was that someone was able to speak out against such a big institution as the University of Toronto and take them to court for racial discrimination. As someone who teaches sessionally in universities and has recently been a student, I have dealt with instances of racism or prejudice in the institutional space. However, to prove that in a court of law and in front of the Ontario Human Rights Commission is significant. There’s a report called the Chun Report that’s a very comprehensive study of the case and all the events that unfolded. It illustrated how toxic the environment was and how blatant the racism was that he faced. I realized that it got to a point in which he had no choice but to take legal action from the school because his treatment was damaging his life and career.

After he reached an initial settlement, he received significantly more discrimination or hostility from other people in the department. Journalists like Margaret Wente wrote very damaging articles in the Globe and Mail, saying that Professor Chun was just trying to get attention. Still today, Professor Chun takes care to not call the University of Toronto racist or any specific person racist, but rather he was talking about systemic racism at a time in which people were not used to hearing that term. That’s another reason why his case felt so significant because it started to change the discourse and language around these issues.

In the Chun report, there is an account stating that at one point Professor Chun was put in an office that had sewage, cockroaches, and mice in it. That’s when the report started to paint a visual picture for me. I started to imagine how experiencing that might look or feel. So that’s the approach I decided to take with this project, to frame it within the space of the office. I’m placing myself in his shoes in a way, but it’s a flex space that’s my imagination of what his desk would be like.

Zinnia Naqvi.What’s Behind the Diversity Numbers?, Inkjet Print, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Aysia T: Your desk compositions feature small details including those cockroaches that allude to these important aspects of Professor Chun’s case. What are some of the symbolic considerations you had when curating these pieces? Can you walk me through your thinking about the details you included?

Zinnia Naqvi: With “Before the Settlement,” I wanted it to be this space that’s in between balancing his career as a seismologist, who studies earthquakes and teaches physics. He talked about the personal significance of what this case caused him. He is also a father and there’s a family photo on the desk. He’s an incredible scientist – he received a lot of national funding for his extraordinary research. A lot of that got sidestepped because of the case and the toll that the case took on his life and his career.

The second image is called “After the Settlement.” That’s when I’m imagining the case taking over even more of his life. Things start to get messy and unravel even further.

Then there are also the other images that address different instances from ACLA’s archive. With the images of the controversial 2010 Maclean magazine “Too Asian,” I wanted to show the article and then there was also a book that I have placed on top of it, which was made directly in the aftermath of the article in which many scholars address Anti-Asian racism in universities.

The other image shows the cover of the same Maclean’s magazine, and it was interesting to me to see this image of two students with the Chinese flag that was taken, from what I understand, without their permission. However, the cover image of the magazine is of this very happy-go-lucky white student and the contrast of that was interesting to me.

It also started to make me think about diversity images and when images of diverse people are used for profit. Those images are used to attract students to apply to schools, but then a lot of people who are working or studying within those spaces are not actually supported. This also relates to the other image of the posters; those are current posters that I took from both University of Toronto and Toronto Metropolitan University where I work. It was interesting that I would see a lot of the same posters in both schools. There are a lot of posters about mental health studies, tutoring, and scholarships. It just shows the precarious financial situations of students, especially international students who are brought to these schools and don’t have citizenship status and are not able to work or are limited to how much they can work.

The last image I made is about the W5 CTV News segment from 1979. CTV aired a special that was [essentially] saying that international students were taking the place of Canadian students, especially in medicine and dentistry programs. Then there was a rebuttal by the Chinese Canadian Council, saying how that was factually incorrect and very racist, and there were a lot of protests about that. I have included excerpts from that news segment, articles about the protests, and then again, my school materials and other props to situate these issues in physical space. With these three cases from the past, it was significant to see how the rhetoric was so similar from 1979 to 2010 and continues today.

Zinnia Naqvi. What’s Behind the Diversity Numbers?, Inkjet Print, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Aysia T: As a part of the Mayworks Festival programming, you had a public talk with Migrant rights organizer Chris Ramsaroop, moderator Furqan Mohamed and of course Professor Chun about his story and wider conversations about Indigenous, Black, and racialized workers in academic institutions. Can you share more about this discussion or any highlights that came out of that conversation?

Zinnia Naqvi: All the materials I took about Professor Chun’s case were from public archives. But it also felt like at the end of when I read his report, I wasn’t sure where he lived or if he would be interested in the project, but it felt important to me to reach out to him. He originally had said that he would like to be part of a Zoom panel and then later, he said he wanted to come in person. This was significant because it has been 20 years since his case closed and he hadn’t spoken publicly about it for a long time.

What I was interested in with research on Professor Chun’s case is that I wanted to pay homage to his struggle because now, especially in the arts, we’re seeing the flip side of what he had to go through. We’re seeing now that institutions are aware of their lack of diversity and are trying to rectify that by holding targeted BIPOC hires. We’re aware that there’s a problem that’s trying to be resolved. There are still a lot of flaws in that process too as it can be tokenizing. A lot of times people are again invited into the institution, but they’re not supported once they’re there.

But we are at least in a moment where people are openly recognizing that there’s a problem and I do think, we [must] thank people like Professor Chun for making that part of the discourse. He sacrificed a lot to shift the public conscience and I wanted to pay homage to him in this project. Now that we’re in a different moment that still needs a lot of work, but we are trying to make change. We discussed that he wasn’t the only person who had public legal battles with universities in Canada. Many other racialized scholars are still in legal disputes with schools for not being supported or for speaking out against discrimination.

…You’re expected to keep your head down and be grateful that you’ve been given any place at all, even if it’s a precarious one.

Aysia T: I imagine you’ve been thinking about your own role or your own experiences within the institution and with your students. How has that informed your thinking about this project?

Zinnia Naqvi: I was thinking a lot about my own experience, but also about my students. Although I was and am a minority student and faculty, especially in the arts programs that I was in, I was also born here, and I wasn’t an international student. That was one thing I wanted to also be aware of as I was making the work.

We don’t always think of professors as workers because there’s a certain prestige that comes with the academy. That was another thing that stood out about this case. To me it felt like Professor Chun did everything right, he went to these Ivy League schools, and he did everything that you’re supposed to do on paper. Yet you’re expected to keep your head down and be grateful that you’ve been given any place at all, even if it’s a precarious one.

I was thinking about the way that my students, especially the ones who are international students, manage work, worry about grades, and all the pressure that the school puts on them. I’ve had a lot of support from the institutions that I’ve worked at but again, I feel that has come at the expense of others who have come before me.

Aysia T: I think some people dislike when people ask, “What do you dream of?” or “What would be an ideal change?” but I’ve learned to ask it anyway because it’s important. Do you see this work as a call to action for better support for BIPOC artists, students, workers, and staff within academic spaces? What do you hope to see in the future regarding these topics?

Zinnia Naqvi: I’m teaching a digital photography class at U of T right now, and I brought my students to the [Professor’s Desk] exhibition on the first day. It’s funny because it’s a photography class, and I’m making this very political work.

It’s always an awkward space because sometimes as professors, we don’t want to push our own work or our own research too hard. But I would hope that showing this work makes students feel like they can talk about these issues within the space of the school. It’s interesting with Chris Ramsaroop and some of the other student organizers who helped Professor Chun’s case, many of them are working in universities now.

I’m not sure if students today would do a one-week sit-in at the president’s office where they slept there for a week in support of Professor Chun. I just don’t think that we protest in the same way as they did in the nineties. But I think it just shows the impact that students have in these cases. I’m not sure if young people feel like they can make that change [through the idea of collective action]. I think this can be an example that they can. It takes a lot of resources and a lot of confidence to be able to do it. I think it’s also amazing and important to remember. They were able to create collective action and Professor Chun really got the most support from his students. I think talking about these issues and feeling like we can also be peers with our students is important.

You can view all of the images from “The Professor’s Desk” series online on the Mayworks Festival website and read more about OPIRG Toronto’s work on their website.

You can find out more about Professor Chun’s case through the Chun Inquiry.

Check out more of Zinnia Naqvi’s work on her website.

From Women to Everyone: In Conversation with Mulieris Magazine

Muleiris team. From left to right, Greta Langlianni, Chiara Cognigni and Sara Lorusso. Photo by Arianna Angelini.

Interview by Irene Bernardi

Mulieris Magazine was born in 2019 in Italy as an online platform. Greta Langianni and Sara Lorusso, the founder and co-founder, with the collaboration of Chiara Cognigni as graphic designer & Art Director, wanted to create a space for women and non-binary artists who usually find themselves on the margins of the art scene. Mulieris is a Latin word that means ‘of woman’: the magazine started online and has a printed issue in which the team asks women and non-binary artists to work on a specific theme.

This year Mulieris celebrates its fifth birthday—In addition to the print magazine with the fifth open call that has just ended, the opening of Mulieris Studio marked another big step for the community.

Irene Bernardi: I want to start at the beginning: I remember your first print issue Shapes. After all this work and success, what would you like to tell yourself about the past looking back now?

Sara Lorusso: After all the hard work of these years, I would try to motivate us! The project managed to grow and become more important and concrete; for all the times we thought of giving up or did not know where to start, I would like to tell ourselves that with calmness, perseverance, and determination, we came out much more mature and enriched.

Mulieris Magazine. Photo by Sara Lorusso.

How important is having an online platform and a print issue? What strengths and weaknesses have you found in using these two different media?

SL: The online platform made it possible to attract a part of the public that would never have bought a printed magazine. The audience of a print magazine is very specific, and we have always thought that Mulieris is purchased first for the topics and then for the design. In the end, we created two different communities and now they coexist together.

Talking about connection is very important for us, especially since today’s society wants us to be more individualistic: creating connections with others is the last chance to save us.

The Degrees Between Us is the name of the publications’s latest issue about the power of connections, and how far we are from each other. Every person on the planet can be connected to every other person through a five-degree chain: many times, I wonder how healthy these connections are and how important they are for everyday life. How important do you think it is to talk about connections in today’s society?

SL: Talking about connection is very important for us, especially since today’s society wants us to be more individualistic: creating connections with others is the last chance to save us. Mulieris for us was just that, in fact, this issue is about us. We were completely lost at the end of university, it seemed impossible for us to enter the creative world and so we tried to create a space for ourselves and for all creative women who were trying to make their work visible.

Installation view of the exhibition DREAMTIGERS.The Rooom 2023. Photo by Alexa Sganzeria

On the occasion of ArtCity 2023 in Bologna, Mulieris opened the exhibition DREAMTIGERS curated by Laura Rositani in collaboration with the concept studio The Rooom. Six international female artists, Lula Broglio, Alejandra Hernández, Joanne Leah, Sara Lorusso, Sara Scanderebech, Ayomide Tejuoso (Plantation), and The Mosshelter by Marco Cesari, lead the visitors in a sort of “dream world” where plants, humans, and animals mutate and dance together in the secret gardens of unconscious. What do you want to tell with this exhibition?

SL: The works in the exhibition are choreographies of bodies with blurred faces and are stills of animalistic details. They are the tigers mentioned by Jorge Luis Borges in his book Dreamtigers[1], those animals so admired in childhood and only to be encountered in dreams. Dreamtigers is talking about us, we are “tigers” to know. I quote an excerpt from the critical text written by exhibition curator Laura Rositani:

“The works create a succession of visions that immerse us in a fusion of animal, plant, and human worlds. They are a network of cracks to rejoin a sphere of memories. They are ever-changing, vegetal extensions, they are curtains ready to open. Through photography and painting, they look like snapshots of a past event that does not want to give up. They are dreams from which we no longer want to wake up. The surfaces of the works acquire volume and tactility, becoming unreachable to our senses.”

I have a question for Laura Rositani, the curator of DREAMTIGERS. I visited the exhibition twice and it reminds me of some passages from the book The Promises of Monsters by Donna Haraway, a book that is undoubtedly complex, but reasons about the relationship between human and nature. Haraway cites Spivak[2] and explains how nature is “one of those impossible objects that we cannot desire, that we cannot do without and that we cannot in any way possess”[3]: once we wake up from the ‘“dreamtigers” where everything coexists and mutates together, what awaits us in the real world?

Laura Rositani: I’m very interested in your association between the exhibition, this publication, and with Donna Haraway’s studies in general. “Dreamtigers” was meant to be a safe space, unreal at times and suspended in space and time. The nature portrayed is a changing nature, a hybrid one.

The awakening, the return to the real world is probably very disappointing. In reference to what you were quoting: we cannot be without nature, but neither can we possess it. Nature is not an essence, a treasure, a resource, a womb, a tabula rasa. Nature cannot be grasped in its totality, nor can its boundaries be established. Let’s consider what it is currently happening in Italy with continuous climate emergencies.

Perhaps the only way is precisely what Haraway points us to: to think of ourselves as virtual, that is, able to do things together.

Orchid Flowers. Artwork by Sara Lorusso.Installation view of the exhibition DREAMTIGERS.The Rooom 2023. Courtesy of Alexa Sganzeria and the artist.

In DREAMTIGERS, a few of your photos are also included in your first photo book As a Flower published by Witty Books. Specifically, the picture of the orchid, a beautiful flower that is usually fragile. In the image, the flower definitely refers to a vulva, but with an almost punk and rebellious hint, with these piercings hanging from the petals. Could the main picture represent the mission of Mulieris and the studio?

SL: I usually say that this photograph is a self-portrait of me in 2017 when I took it. When I took that photo, I did not yet know that I suffered from chronic pelvic pain and I had not yet come out as a queer person; this made me smile a lot because I knew practically nothing about myself but now, looking back at that photograph, things appear clear and simple to me. I like to find new significance to my photographs and associating this picture in particular with Mulieris and our mission as a project could be very powerful.

The last question is about the future of Mulieris: do you have any new projects on the horizon?

SL: There are many projects planned, the most imminent of which is the release of the new issue and the Launch Party on 23th of June in Milan. We are also organizing a new exhibition in collaboration with an art gallery in 2024!


You can find more about Mulieris Magazine and Studio Mulieris on their website and you can pre-order the new issue on Frabs Magazines.

View more of Sara Lorusso’s work on her website and Instagram, and her book As a Flower.


[1] Borges L. Jorge, Dreamtigers, translation by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland, illustrated by Antonio Frasconi, Texas Pan American Series, 1964.

[2] Theory by Gayatri Spivak, american philosopher of Bengali origin. Active in the fields of postcolonialism, feminism, literary theory and gender studies.

[3] Haraway D., The promise of monsters: a Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others, Routledge, 1992, pg 37.

Clayworx: Fostering Art Education in the Community

The updated exterior of Clayworx: Ceramic Arts Learning Centre in Old East Village.

By Adi Berardini

Clayworx: Ceramic Arts Learning Centre, formerly known as the London Clay Art Centre, is setting a new precedent for clay education in Old East Village, London ON. The charitable arts organization was founded in 1981 to provide a shared studio for members of The London Potters Guild, to host more classes, and foster an appreciation for clay in London and the Southwestern Ontario region. Currently, Clayworx has around 40 active volunteers and runs approximately 70 classes a year, every day of the week, for 300 days of the year.

Volunteers from The London Potters Guild started a capital fundraising campaign in 2003 and purchased 664 Dundas St. in March 2008. Thus began the enormous task of iteratively raising additional capital funds and renovating the Victorian-era building in Old East Village over five years. Clayworx has always had devoted members and volunteers to help build a sense of artistic community thriving in the two-level space, with a retail shop and artist studios on the ground level and a workshop space on the second floor. Clayworx has also been at the forefront of conceiving, financially supporting, and facilitating the large-scale, community-engaged mosaics in Old East Village, led by ceramic artists Beth Turnbull Morrish and Susan Day, making it a landmark neighbourhood for public art in London.

Clayworx Executive Director Bep Schippers and Board of Director John White at the new brand unveiling on March 31st, 2023.

In March 2023, the London Clay Art Centre and The London Potters Guild consolidated the two brands under the name Clayworx: Ceramic Arts Learning Centre. The initiative began under Clayworx’s former executive director, Darlene Pratt. She says, “We felt strongly that we needed to adopt an entirely new name that embodies the wonderful people and the inspiring place that brings them together. We wanted a name that is easy to understand, feels welcoming to everyone, and reflects our standing as the premier location for ceramic arts education in London and the region.” As Clayworx’s current executive director, Bep Schippers, explains, “Our new goal and vision is to provide everyone access to exceptional educational, artistic, and community building experiences with clay.” Schippers explains that the new brand is both playful and approachable featuring bright colours and the fundamental shapes used in all art forms, including ceramics.

Clayworx offers classes and workshops to support beginners working with clay and training and professional development specifically for emerging artists and artists of all levels. As Schippers further explains, “There are some people that just want to come here and make a couple of things and then go home and that’s fantastic. Then we also have artists who want to build their skills and maybe eventually open their own studios and become exhibitors elsewhere in Ontario or [across] Canada.”

Our new goal and vision is to provide everyone access to exceptional educational, artistic, and community building experiences with clay.

The organization aims to provide an accessible space for anyone interested in learning to work with clay and practicing the ceramic art form. Schippers details how Clayworx has been supported by instructors who have devoted countless hours to teaching ceramics to their students. Clayworx also engages BealArt students and alumni who have explored ceramics in their education nearby at H.B. Beal Secondary School.

The Indwell Mosaics project located at Embassy Commons (740 Dundas St).

Clayworx has also established itself as a leader in public art creation in London, placing Old East Village on the map with their many large-scale mosaics. The most recent mosaic project was installed on the new Indwell Embassy Commons building, by lead artist Beth Turnbull Morrish and assistant artists Taryn Imrie and Cassandra Robinson. This massive project includes three large-scale panels that surround the exterior of the building.

Lead Artist Beth Turnbill Morrish hard at work on the Indwell Mosaics panel.

The mosaic panels comprise over 10,000 handmade tiles, created in workshops by artists and members of the community. As Turnbull Morrish details, “Early on in the design process, I had the opportunity to meet with some of the residents and staff of Indwell, as well as tour one of their other buildings. I asked them to express what is the true essence of Indwell, and the intention for its residents. Hope, belonging, and safety came up again and again, as well as the cycles in life that we all go through.”

The process of creating the large-scale mosaic panels was both a collaborative and labour-intensive one. The design and tile creation took 8 months and installation took 8 weeks. As Beth explains, “panel one depicts the dawn, a symbol of new beginnings, the centre panel shows a mid-day sun, a flowing river and blooming flowers, representing a thriving, love-filled life, and finally, in panel 3 we see birds in the sunset.” She also explains the symbolism behind the elements such as the “native Ontario flowers depicted, the shape of the Thames or Antler River, and the birds that represent peace and freedom, as well as being part of a flock and the ability to fly alone.”

Detail of one of the Indwell mosaics panels.

For Clayworx’s next public art project, look down— mosaics will be inlaid in the sidewalks along the commercial corridor of the Old East Village. The sidewalk tiles were created by different community groups and organizations in the neighbourhood. Inspired by a tree with decorated leaves or “dyad” shapes, reminiscent of the London, Ontario logo, the project will bring a sense of storytelling and colour to Old East Village.

Local pottery and ceramics at the Clayworx retail shop.

Clayworx has expanded its reach in London and beyond by offering accessible clay education while sticking close to its roots. The thread that brings it all together is the passion for arts education and community building. If you’re interested in taking ceramic classes or workshops, check out their upcoming classes and available programming. Make sure to also visit their on-site ceramics shop to view the creations of local artists who use Clayworx as their studio.

To learn more, visit Clayworxs website and social media. This article is published in partnership with the Old East Village BIA.

Soft Bodies: Marianne Burlew and Brianna Gluszak

Marianne Burlew and Brianna Gluszak. Soft Bodies installation Shot. Wall Space Gallery. Photo credit: Ava Margueritte.

By Moira Hayes

Vulnerability of the self is created in how we choose to take up space. How do we present ourselves to others? What choices are we making to allow space for others? And more presently, what space are we holding for ourselves?

Soft Bodies was exhibited from March 11th through to April 4th at Wall Space Gallery in Ottawa. Marianne Burlew and Brianna Gluszak were paired together by the gallery’s curator, Tiffany April, to deliver an exhibition hinged on the idea of vulnerability.

Burlew is based in Ottawa. She draws from a background of video and sculpture to create her current work; emotionally driven pieces in a 3D modelling software. While her work is direct, the colourful imagery offers multiple interpretations for the viewer; striking questions about seriousness versus sarcasm. Burlew received her MFA from the University of Waterloo.

Gluszak is Ohio-based. They work in sculpture to create glasswork and textile rug hooking, addressing ideas of gender and body. Gluszak draws inspiration from cartoons and how viewing one another can become gendered. The varying scale of their work between the textile pieces and the glass work impose different connotations for the viewer. Gluszak has an MFA from The Ohio State University.

Marianne Burlew, Folly, Ed: 1/100, archival print on Hot Press paper, 16 x 20 in. Framed by Wall Space.

Marianne, you work with digital 3D modelling software, and working digitally makes things accessible. The feelings you point at in your work, patheticness or being a fool, are universal emotions. Can you speak to using digital software to express human emotions?

MB: My background is in sculpture and video. One of the biggest obstacles I was having was getting my work into a space due to budget, facilities, distance, and accessibility. In my current job at an engineering company, I weaseled my way into learning this modelling software.

I just fell in love with the software, and I saw it as an opportunity to make things that could reach a lot more people. You can make a print, put it on a screen, or put it on social media or different places a lot more easily.

I do feel hesitant in some ways to share work online publicly, just because it is easy to have your work taken. I’d love to have it on screens and more readily available on social media if I had a little bit more protection in that area.

I’ve also fallen in love with the print aspect of it. When it gets printed, there’s another transformation that’s amazing for me. That bright, vibrant, densely saturated paper with the colour, and how different parts of the work will be flat, and others will be three-dimensional is interesting to me.

Brianna Gluszak, Please don’t forget me, Blown glass, 19.5 x 12 x 7.5 in.

Brianna, can you explain the process of composing the positions of your glass pieces? They kind of look like people playing Twister.

BG: I love that read. First off, I think one thing I do with the glass works, in particular, is that I’ll make a bunch of them. I don’t know which ones are going to go with which ones. So, it ends up being a process of almost creating a library of glass objects. I’ll have a period of making in the studio where I’ll be doing drawings, and then I’ll be going into the glass shop trying to make that original drawn form.

But the glass is like, “No, I don’t wanna be that form.” I’ll go back to drawing, I’ll draw the form it did become, and through that translation, we’ll build up a variety of different shapes and colours and textures and objects. And then I play with them in my studio, and I just see which ones fit together and which ones I like together.

And maybe I’m too much of an object oncologist where I’m like, okay, so this one wants to be with this one today, and this one wants to be with that one. They’ve sort of become personified in a lot of ways for me. I do see them as being a representation of gender and body.

Marianne Burlew, Pathetic, archival print on Hot Press paper, 28 3/4 x 36 in, framed by Wall Space Gallery.

Marianne, you face the unavoidable, uncanny imagery of worship in your pieces. But you derail that with a practiced absurdity. Can you discuss the process of choosing the keywords in your pieces?

MB: You’re right about worship. My family is Christian, but I didn’t grow up going to church. I’ve never read the Bible.

There’s a lot of Western influence in what I make and so I just try to play with it. I’m not necessarily trying to cite any kind of religion, but for this series, I was very interested in shrines or putting together devotional pieces where it’s almost more of a spiritual devotion where the piece sits as an architectural niche.

Sometimes there are other objects. Sometimes it’s just the glass itself creating these moments where you can sit with these things and meditate on them. 

And for me, the word [aspect] of it seems essential. And choosing is hard to describe. It’s trying to capture things that are succinct and hard-hitting but don’t lean completely in one direction.

When I was making “pathetic,” I felt like it was harsh and I [thought] this might be too mean to just put pathetic in a window like that. You’re going to reflect that criticism of yourself. I feel like the colours were so nice then making it like that’s the twist, taking something so devastating and then trying to make it beautiful and fun.

I am interested in active looking and when a look becomes ingrained in gender.

Brianna Gluszak, I kissed a girl and I liked it…, tufted rug, 52 x 26 1/2 x 1/2 in. 

Brianna, your rug work possesses an unavoidable gaze disguised as fun and playful. The sheer size of the work denotes power over the viewer, especially up close. Are you proposing a struggle between the work and the viewer? What did you aim to convey with the choice of scale? It feels like a staring contest between the viewer and this work.

BG: I think the scale has become kind of like a natural choice for that work. The rugs started during COVID when I got locked out of the studio, and was like, okay, let’s figure out a way to make things at home.

This particular series of rugs is about research that I’ve been doing on Tex Avery’s character Wolfy, from “Red Hot Riding Hood,” which is the first instance in cartooning where the eyes come out of a character’s head at the sight of a woman.

The version available on YouTube ends as Wolfy pulls Little Red Riding Hood off a stage after his eyes have shot out at her. But that’s not where the cartoon actually ends. From going into the cartoon archives, I found the other half of the cartoon.

Wolfy goes to grandma’s house and grandma oogle’s him back with AWOOGA eyes, and the wolf runs away. But what I thought was so interesting about the archive version versus the version that was available on YouTube is that role switch.

We always constantly think of the wolf’s eyes shooting out at Little Red Riding Hood, but we don’t really think about grandma. You know, how she sort of gets him back because she’s like, “oh, you’re sexy wolfI’m gonna look at you that way.” 

I am interested in active looking and when a look becomes ingrained in genderWhen a look is perceived to be the male gaze or the female gaze and what things we like to note between that.

Marianne Burlew and Brianna Gluszak. Soft Bodies installation Shot. Wall Space Gallery. Photo credit: Ava Margueritte.

There is a conversation between the works about depth. Marianne’s work draws the viewer inward, holding space inside the pieces. Whereas Brianna’s work pushes into the viewer’s space, demanding room from the viewer. How do you find this lends to the overall idea of vulnerability in Soft Bodies?

BG: Some of the work stems from things that could be seen as vulnerable, but I am more interested in the opposite end of that word, and it being more explorative in an empowering way. Or in a way to have the viewer understand a different identity than they came in understanding.

For me, that kind of pushing out, and enveloping of the viewer, is about how to involve them in the work or have them gain a connection to it. The allowance of the viewer is to take as much or as little as they want of what I’m trying to get across.

And I do think that one of the interesting things about Marianne’s work is that you’re almost sucked into another world versus being present in this space.

MB: Brianna’s work is a lot more present in the space. Each piece is like its own body. And then mine is much more about an internal space or having space within them. But I think that push and pull can be great. I mean, vulnerability is just about rethinking or allowing yourself to be open to rethinking. I think Brianna’s talking about reaching into space being confrontational with the gaze and that engagement, whereas a lot of my inclination is to go smaller and deeper internally. I think the show has a good balance and a good variety to it because there are many different ways that you’re being reached out to, or you have to reach into.

And I don’t necessarily think we have to have done the same thing or have the same method to accomplish that. Vulnerability would just be like that shift of a boundary, right? Or that invitation to change your mind.

You can find more of Marianne Burlew and Brianna Gluszak‘s work on their Instagram.