Presence and Absence: In Conversation with Julia Rose Sutherland

Julia Rose Sutherland. Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse). 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Margaryta Golovchenko

CW: Discussion of trauma, death, police violence against Indigenous people

There is an unwavering sense of presence in the interdisciplinary practice of Julia Rose Sutherland, an artist and member of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation. Whether documenting performances and installations that have long since ended or calling for action and justice, Sutherland’s works are always a link in a conversational chain—with ancestry, with the earth, with the social and political. The living and fluctuating nature of Sutherland’s corpus-like practice is closely intertwined with the constant presence of the body in her work. Whether the body is there physically or indicated through absence, or even referred to through the traces that are left behind by the manual labour of quillwork and sugar casting, the viewer is always in the middle of an encounter—with Sutherland and with the realities of colonial and ecological violence, as well as with themselves as a witness and participant in these dynamics.

MG: I was really interested in how you are physically present in your work, especially in your performances. In a lot of other cases, the body is noted through absence. I was wondering about this relationship, these different forms of corporeality.

JRS: I’ve been attracted to the representation of the body throughout my whole artistic career and as a child. I’m a portrait artist, that’s how I started. Then I went on to my undergraduate degree and started working with the body in more abstract ways, so this duality between absence and presence. I’m so attracted by the body — I’ve always felt that I live in such a liminal space, whether it’s between races or, as a queer person, between heterosexuality and homosexuality. I think a lot of the time, especially for people who undergo trauma, the body becomes this separate thing, a separate entity.

It also ties a bit to healing. I think that is what I’m trying to do, whether it’s healing myself or healing other groups of people or having conversations about tougher subjects. In my culture—and in many cultures—our histories and stories are orally passed down, whether through dance or through the body itself. Monique Mojica coined the term “blood memory” and I think there’s something really beautiful about that, what the body holds and how we can physically manifest it. For me, the body is a site to be used as a material and drawn from. I’m interested in what the body holds, what it remembers, what it can be, what it represents. I think there’s something to be said about confronting blood memory and what that looks like, confronting the histories that are intergenerational and that travel through time. Of course, time’s not linear. And I think that’s what’s neat about using the body, is that it, too, is not linear. It’s constantly living and moving and breathing and you’re being affected all the time.

Julia Rose Sutherland, Gesipatl Iga’latl (Pain and Release). 2019. Photo documentation by Erik Sirke, Courtesy of the Artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland, Gesipatl Iga’latl (Pain and Release). 2019. Photo documentation by Erik Sirke, Courtesy of the Artist.

MG: You talked about your own identity and one of the things that I’m often curious about, especially in performance pieces, is how much of the artist is put into them. I know some artists think of performance as assuming a kind of persona like they’re stepping away and existing in a liminal state. I was wondering how you engage with this because you’ve touched upon it in a lot of your works, this kind of intergenerational trauma and focusing on the colonial history of Canada and decolonizing it.

JRS: When I was younger, a lot of my work was purely about my experience, about me and my family directly. I wasn’t talking about colonialism, but at the same time, I was, because I was talking about systems and frameworks of trauma. And then I was thinking so much about my positionality and the extreme privilege that I do have. [It’s important to] recognize that, because I’m so pale, especially in comparison to most of my family, I’ve experienced a different threshold of life.

I think in my performance work—which is newer for me because usually, my work was performative or [there was] something about it that was performative—people would be like, ‘Oh, this is interesting,’ but I’m not in it. Now, I’ve centered myself in it but I’m not talking about [myself] so much as about systems or overarching ideas. The performance is still talking directly about my body, about pain and release, about bleeding out of my body. It has a lot to do with confronting my positionality within current events and social issues that are happening, especially around Indigenous people all over North America, but especially my own family.

MG: You talked about this interest in skin-to-skin contact and how that was a big part of your MA. Is that something you think about now, during the pandemic when people are thinking about alternative forms of gathering?

JRS: The pandemic has been difficult for anyone, especially creatives who are at home by themselves [and] thinking about their work, or who have had plans canceled. Everyone I know has ‘postponed due to COVID’ or ‘canceled’ on their CV nowadays. But it has been really interesting because I’ve been working with exploring alternative healing practices and practices of Indigenous communities, especially of the Mi’kmaq, which I am. In particular, I’ve been looking at the sweat lodge, which involves people gathering together, talking, being close in an unventilated, [hot] space. I’m also working with the sun dance, thinking about powwows, people coming together, regalias, which [is] no longer happening in this physical manifestation. I had a residency at Bemis Contemporary Arts Center for this summer that got cancelled [and] postponed to next summer, which is based on this way of coming together with communities from other Indigenous groups in the Nebraska area, so the Pawnee and Ponca people.

It’s been hard because I can’t get together with people and do these things, but it’s also creating a dialogue that I’m having [online]. A lot of the time, I’m finding I’m getting these necessary conversations or growth of ideas through just talking with my family more, and I think that’s kind of [due to] the pandemic. But the skin-to-skin contact or that relation of gathering has been difficult because it’s so important to the work, a lot of [which] is participatory—it needs to either be witnessed or it needs to be participated in physically, where someone’s physically touching something or someone’s physically doing something. I don’t know how that’s going to progress over time.

I’m [currently] running a collaborative work at the Calgary Women’s Center, where I’m a resident. I’ve been asked to reformat the project so it can be run online. In a way that’s great because it’s more accessible for people at home or anyone who’s vulnerable and doesn’t want to leave the home. But it makes me wonder what the future of these kinds of community-based things [looks like]. I’ve been thinking about tea a lot, about gathering and sipping tea and being there with your family, your colleagues, your friends, strangers, and having conversations. But you can’t have them the same way, which also talks about energy, because that energy is not the same and screen fatigue is a thing.

MG: Is working within a community central to your practice? There’s still this idea of the lone artist in their workshop, going ‘I work alone, I have to do these things by myself.’ Being in a safe space like a women’s shelter—what role does that play in your work?

JRS: Well, [there are] two kinds of ways it functions. I like to produce alone. I don’t mind doing my sugar casting in my studio alone. I don’t mind doing my quillwork alone. But I’m never making work alone. That’s not a concept that makes any sense to me. Community is very important. Conversation and dialogue are very much central to my practice. Otherwise, I don’t know what you would be making or how you’d be progressing your work. I think this idea of the lone artist is a myth and I don’t think it’s productive. Myself, I gain inspiration from literature and conversations, just reading a lot of weird snippets of things. It’s about seeing things or experiencing something, like walking down the street and then drawing a correlation between this and this thing.

[F]or me, time, or the concept of time, is not linear. It’s rhizomatic in the same way that we’re learning and gaining things and being influenced. An artist is influenced by everything happening in their life. I think that’s also part of making work that is maybe heavier or harder to talk about, that is draining and exhausting, which I sometimes feel is what I do. I feel exhausted by everything I’m doing—not necessarily the physical work, but the mental and conceptual backing behind everything is so hard. Like, I made that quillwork piece Rest in Peace (2020) after my family member, Rodney Levi, was shot and killed, shot twice in the chest by an RCMP officer this summer. That work was really hard to make but it was also really important to do that, too, to be working with my hands [using] a traditional material. And that’s also based on community. That’s based on sitting there with my sister [and] doing it at the same time, or on the phone with family, not being able to go home or be around anyone because of the pandemic.

Julia Rose Sutherland, Rest in peace, Rodney Levi 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland, DEFUND THE POLICE. Rest in peace, Rodney Levi series. 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland, REFUND THE COMMUNITIES. Rest in peace, Rodney Levi series. 2020.Photo courtesy of the artist.

The quillwork pieces, especially Defund the police, are heavily influenced by Black feminist ideology stemming from the BLM movement and the actions and writings of Angela Yvonne Davis and Robyn Maynard on abolition. These two women are considerable influences to me, and of course, were not the first to push forward to the notion of abolition. I am thinking about Frances E.W Harper, Sarah Parker Redmond, Elizabeth Freeman, and Sojourner Truth.

MG: My condolences. As a response to that, do you view your art practice as a form of release and healing or is it more of a labour? The two tend to be dichotomies, in a way. Is it private and like a healing process, where you feel lighter by the end of it, but you’re so absorbed in it that you’re working on art? How do you situate yourself and your own work between these two dichotomies?

JRS: I’m an empath and I think I’ve always been one. It’s great and it’s bad. It’s an unfortunate side effect of being a child brought up in [and through] trauma because you feel like you have to solve everything or you have to be active enough in things and if you do it wrong, therefore it’s your fault. It’s hard because I make this artwork and some people are like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s like art therapy, it helps, it’s soothing.’ Maybe the physical making can function that way, like when we talked about the tactility of busy hands and working with regional craft work. A lot of times, these monotonous, slow, kind of beautiful ways of working are helpful, but my research, my writing, my lived experience, is sometimes overwhelming.

Most of the time, I find I’m absorbing so much of this content, these ideas, that maybe it’s a burden, but I [have to] look at the stuff or talk about the stuff I make work about, especially in my place of privilege as white-passing, as someone who’s gotten an education. I’ve been so fortunate to have access to education. I’m healthy, I eat, I’ve traveled around the world. I’m very privileged. I was brought up by my grandma, Noella, on my mother’s side. She really raised me. She is the most amazing, strongest, most resilient woman I’ve ever met. She’s been dealt the most insane deck of cards I could ever imagine, and she is so strong for it, so forgiving and loving. She’s always taught us to have honest dialogue. It was so important for her to talk to us about issues and to have frank conversations about [them], [to] be open and honest, and I think that’s why, for me, my work can function that way for other people. I hope that people find some of the work approachable. I know it can be antagonistic, but I want it to be approachable enough that we can have honest conversations, that it centers people and humanity with Mother Earth at the core of taking care. To me, that is the most important thing, and that can be a burden but having [that] usability of conversations and not hiding things can make things easier in different ways, like self-realization. It really help[s] to know who you are, what is happening, and to be heard. I think what anyone in the world wants, or what every sovereign nation wants, is to be heard and have their space. And if the world were more empathetic, if everyone was an empath, it would be great. I mean, we’d probably be crying all the time, but that’d be great!

Julia Rose Sutherland. P’twewi (Be’de’wey) “Tea” 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.

MG: I feel like that’s a good jump back to what you talked about with the tea bags, the tea bag quilt you made. You talked about community and I was really interested in the context of that.

JRS: I use Red Rose Tea. It’s so nostalgic and evocative for me, the smell of it. I mean, olfactory senses are just so charged. I smell it and I’m transported to Red Bank, at my great grandma’s—coffee or dinner tables, sitting there and drinking tea, talking about whatever. It reminds me so much of my grandmother, my great-grandma, all these amazing women in my life who would sit at a table, at any given time, and just have conversations over tea.

[For this reason,] I was thinking about comfort. I think a lot of people find comfort in tea or in these conversations. There’s sitting by the window on a cold day and being warmed inside by [a] body of water. It’s beautiful. I was [also] thinking a lot about blankets [and] the Hudson Bay Company, especially in my master’s degree, thinking about what a blanket means and the history of the Hudson Bay blanket, how it gave a lot of strength to Indigenous communities over time but was also exploitative in many ways. It almost allowed us to have a lot of rights, in different manners, and to be seen as a useful trade system, in a way. But then also thinking about germ warfare. We’re in a pandemic now, but I was thinking of biological warfare, of the blanket itself. [A] blanket could bring comfort. It is something that we can resonate with and see. And then [I thought] about comfort in other ways, as a conversation and dialogue. That’s what tea is for me: a symbol of dialogue and frank conversation. It’s also a symbol of something that’s weighted [and] can hug you, that could be on you.

I really like the tea piece. [T]his is what I was supposed to be doing with the Women’s Center of Calgary. It was essentially supposed to be a hooded cloak on the ground, a pleated, quilted thing. People could sit in it and be weighted down [by it]. [It would] mimic the Mi’kmaq bonnet but as an interactive tea sculpture, which would have been really beautiful, I think, the smell of black tea all over you and weighting you down like a weighted blanket, hugging you. Again, that [idea of] skin-to-skin contact. It didn’t come to fruition, but maybe one day.

MG: It sounds like a very interesting dichotomy because I’m thinking of your work with the porcupine quills and I know that when I saw your performance with the porcupine quills (Gesipatl Iga’latl (Pain and Release), 2019), I had a very visceral physical response, which was directly opposite to the comfort of the tea piece. I actually felt the smell of the tea. It seeped through the screen as I opened that piece. It’s interesting how it is like a conversation across all of your pieces.

JRS: I really feel like I’m so influenced by everything in my life and every piece must connect to the next one. I feel like, for me, everything is connected, because I’m talking about [my] perspective an[d] experience, and that’s what’s coming through. I think that everything [is] compounding together and growing. For instance, the corpse body, which was this nugget of an idea that I had because I had been working with a body and doing sugar casting previously, but in a different way. I went to the Alberta College of Art and Design—now the Alberta University of the Arts—for my undergrad and there I was making sugar sculpture with fabric. I was super saturating sugar water and cotton and then casting it over bodies. The first time I did it was because I was walking to work one day and I found a dead body, and it was such an awful time. It was Mark Mariani, 47. He was beaten to death by a group of three white supremacists. It was essentially [because of being there at the] wrong place, wrong time that this happened to him. I just happened to find him and called the police and then that escalated. Years later, I had to go to court and testify about the timeline, the body, all these different things. At the time I was taking a class with Sondra Meszaros and we were doing a memento mori piece, so I started casting then.

The reason I started thinking about that in particular—about trauma, especially the head trauma that this man went through—was indicative of something that happened to my mother when I was a child, which really strung it along. Years later, when my mom passed, it was my 21st birthday and I had to go identify her body. It was stuck in my head, [the image of] her in the gurney. I have hundreds of drawings of her body on this gurney, which are also indicative of this cast. I ended up making this cast of my body out of sugar. When my grandmother—so my mom’s mother—came to Buffalo to see my thesis show, Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse) (2019), she walked into the room and she just turned to me and said, ‘This is your mother. This is Barbie.’ These things are all connected, whether or not I think they are. A trauma that happened to me when I was seven when a head trauma was afflicted upon my mom, that was then also afflicted onto this man, who was unjustly beaten and killed by white supremacists, to my mom dying, to me going back to this, thinking about the body and how to represent it, to my grandmother seeing the sugar body; it’s all connected, and I didn’t think about it until my grandma said that. At that moment, I thought, ‘Oh, you kind of knew what this was about.’ I mean, “Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu-” is a piece directly dealing with the consumption of Indigenous women and trans people on Turtle Island. It’s talking about mortality but it’s also talking directly about my family and how that affects me, [where I’m left wondering] who will be next, whether it will be me, my sisters, my cousins, my aunts.

Julia Rose Sutherland. Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse). 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland. Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse). 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

MG: I got that very strong, hospital-like atmosphere when I looked at that piece. It had this somberness to it. What happened after, to the sugar? It made me think of this process of regeneration and how, in a lot of cultures, the body returns to earth, regardless of what you think happens to it after.

JRS: I’ve been working with sugar before and thinking about [it] in correlation to many health issues surrounding Indigenous peoples, whether it’s diabetes—which is a big thing in my family—or heart disease. [I was also] thinking about [the] separation of trauma and [different] coping mechanism[s], like eating sweets, [as well as the] loss of tradition and values. [E]ssentially [I was] making rock candy, so it’s sugar, water, and cream of tartar [boiled] to 310 degrees to burn it slightly. You get this caramelized color and a sickly-sweet smell. I did small batches and layered and layered it. I was thinking about ancestry a lot, too, because each layer [is] the slight small layer, depending on the topography of that part of the body. [In] the end, when you take it out, it’s like sedimentary rock; there’s so many different layers. I thought that was a really beautiful metaphor for thinking about ancestry and also how we communicate with our ancestors. I pray to my ancestors every day.

[I was] also thinking about that relationship to earth. I’ve done other performative work where I literally bury myself in the land. [T]he [cast] body goes back to the ground and the ants eat the sugar and the ants go crazy and they build these mounds and there’s all this productivity about it, but it also can be toxic, in a way, like we’d be overloading the environment or doing terrible things. What [really] happens is, [since] the body is made of sugar, [it] absorbs air [and] moisture. So, I’m in Buffalo, New York in the spring, when this was put up originally, and of course it’s absorbing and it’s melting. [It] was beautiful because [the sculpture’s] changing constantly. It’s organic living material [that’s] not leaving anything anywhere, it’s just changing into something else and functioning in a different way. Actually, at the end of the show, instead of being the sedimentary rock, it became glossy. It amalgamated together, became almost transparent. [It was] melting but still kind of there.

Julia Rose Sutherland. ANGO’TG “ Taking Care Of”. 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

MG: What is the relationship between the past and the present in your work? A lot of it is very much rooted in the present, as we talked about with the performance pieces, which need audience interaction or presence, or the sugar sculptures, which are very temporal and melt and make one aware of the passing of time.

JRS: Presence and the now are really important, in the sense of the viewership of the work. But I would say that the philosophy or concept behind it is all the same. It doesn’t change. And—for better or for worse—maybe that’s sad, that you look at 50 years ago and we’re still talking about the social issues. But we’re talking about it like an SOS. This is a state of emergency that can’t be ignored anymore and yet somehow, we still are. We don’t deal with these root issues. This is how lateral violence succeeds, or how colonialism succeeds because first, it breaks down the system of the people to capitalize off them. I guess I would like to say that the past and present are not different nor are they the same. They’re just there. Thinking a little bit more about the non-traditional linear space, it’s all irrelevant, but the physical actuality of the work, if you want to see it, is relevant. It is relevant because it’s happening, or it’s gone. None of my work is commercial or stagnant. None of it—other than maybe some of the [newer] quill work—is something you could have. It’s installation work that then disappears and goes up until nowhere. Then it exists in a different plane—it exists as documentation, maybe as a scene, in the function of writing. I think it’s also indicative of how historically, in my culture [and] in many [others], oral history works. But maybe it’s not as productive in terms of art history or sustainability. I’m also interested in the ephemeral. I think it’s poetic. And maybe that’s how I think about the body, too, because it is there [and] then it’s not. It’s ephemeral and only temporary. It’s a thing, but it’s so important and it’s something that we all crave.

MG: The question that instantly came to mind is do you then think of your art as being in opposition to the art market, which is very much all about ownership and creating something that you can slap a number on and take to a big art fair and create a lot of buzz so that people buy it. Where do you see yourself in opposition to these kinds of power systems?

JRS: I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I’ve recently shown work at the Toronto Art Fair, at the pop-up they had for WAAP gallery. I really love [the founder], Wil Aballe—we have a great working relationship [and] great conversations. But I don’t resonate with that community, with this capitalistic construct of buying and selling work, because, at the end of the day, I’m not buying or selling things. I’m trying to exchange ideas [and] dialogues, [to] have discussions and make people feel better or feel realized or heard. A lot of my work deals with people who don’t have the agency to have this dialogue. [T]hat’s what I’m interested in. I do feel like I’m resistant to that kind of market that, like you said, slapped a tag on it and gives you worth and says, ‘This is how much it is and someone’s going to buy it.’ [T]he artist doesn’t make as much money and the gallery makes more money, then [the work] goes to an auction and [becomes] an investment piece for someone else. I don’t find it that interesting. Actually, I find it kind of repulsive.

But I also understand that you want to have money [so that you can] pay rent. It’s this idea of having artists laboring away for free or the starving artist. I think it’s outdated and I also think it’s unfortunate. I personally would rather be engaged in academia and teaching, thinking of my work with other people in greater dialogue [and] having a discussion of social frameworks. This capitalist system, is it bestowed upon us? How do we resist that as a group? It exists—you could look at artist-run centers and government programs, which are amazing. In Canada we have some amazing artist-run centers. We look at CARFAC fees [for] paying artists. I love that system. But then, what’s the recognition? What does that look like? I guess it also depends on what you want. I personally don’t care about selling a lot of work and making a lot of money, but I also want to live my life, and I live in a capitalist society, so I guess I have to play the game, to some degree. But I think maybe I do resist that by making work that is not sellable or long lasting or has longevity.

MG: We’ve talked a lot about systems of power and oppression, and I was wondering—and this is a bit of a utopian question—what are your hopes or what lessons do you hope are learned, to put it in a kind of cheesy way? Where do you hope we go from here, whether socially, culturally, [in] the art world?

JRS: I think that my greatest thing would be for people to have a self-realization, to think about the systems in place in their lives that they may not have control over but which they are very much playing into it and allowing to run their lives. It would be great if we could look at that and have frank discussions about that and ask: could there be a better way? Could we not look at other places in the world that don’t do what we’re doing? You’re playing into [a] system that’s hurting you by saying you can’t have things that you need, that society can’t take care of you. So, questioning capitalism and recognizing that we’re together as a collective and we’re better together as a society. All these things are expansive and big, so you could say, ‘I wish capitalism was gone,’ but what does that mean? What does that look like in the real world? I’m a socialist at heart and that’s how I feel. I think that we should just take care of each other. My thesis show was literally called “Ango’tg” (2019), which means ‘to take care of.’ I feel like we need to take more care of each other; it would be much better. I just wonder why we divide each other so much instead of supporting one another.

You can find more of Julia Rose Sutherland’s work on her website and Instagram.

Nameless: Exploring Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac.Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.


By Anna Maria Sordjan

CW: Sexual Assault, Rape, Suicide

Bezimena (Serbian): Nameless

Nina Bunjevac is a Canadian-born artist, who was primarily raised in the former Yugoslavia but returned to Canada at the start of the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s. Her second comic, ​Fatherland​ (2014), propelled her into the spotlight and earned her a spot on the ​New York Times ​best-seller lists. Bezimena is her third publication and won the Artemisia prize in the category of best drawing at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2019.                     

In her comics, Bunjevac explores contentious and harrowing topics and brings them out from under the shadows and into the public.Thematically, Bezimena is more akin to ​Heartless,​ her collection of comics dealing largely with female sexuality and sexual assault, in comparison to ​Fatherland’s f​ocus on complex family histories. Visually, however, Bezimena’s style echoes its direct predecessor ​Fatherland​, with a strikingly haunting and realistic stippled technique that “resembles woodcuts or intaglio . . . [that] creates a stagey tableau . . . [with] frozen pictures that suggest carefully posed selfies”.[1] 

Bezimena i​s a complex story to digest, both on the narrative and visual level. What does it mean to be nameless? T​o be without a name is, in large part, to exist without identity, agency, or power. The process of naming is a political one, bound by power dynamics and structures. In the author’s afterword, Bunjevac dedicates the graphic narrative “to all forgotten and nameless victims of sexual violence.” This situates the comic as one directly confronting the violence of sexual trauma and a traumatic past—one of the nameless victims at the center of the story is Bunjevac herself. In the Afterword, Bunjevac recalls her own experiences with sexual assault as a young teenager in Serbia, positioning the comic as semi-autobiographical. 

Bezimena ​is a graphic narrative that refuses to abide by the conventions of narrative or genre. Told through the perspective of the perpetrator, Bunjevac’s graphic text​ ​explores the psyche and mind of a sexual predator. The text details a story of a man named Benny who begins losing his grip on reality as he pursues an obsession with a former classmate. Many reviews of the comic highlighted the controversial and unsettling manner in which Bunjevac chose to tell a story of sexual violence. ​Bezimena ​is by no means an easy read, as Bunjevac explicitly confronts the morally grotesque both through narrative and visual tactics. It is this hybrid form of storytelling that positions the graphic narrative as unique and especially vital in our understanding of trauma.

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac. Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.

           The story opens with a mystical encounter between a young Priestess and an elderly witch-figure— Bezimena. The Priestess has come to the old lady for help following the desecration of her temple and idols. Despite the distress of the Priestess, Bezimena remains “calm, and seemingly undisturbed” which causes the Priestess to proclaim “how can you just lie there, so indifferent to my pain? Don’t you care, have you no heart?” Bezimena then takes the Priestess and plunges her into a body of water, akin to an aggressive baptism. This is where the comic takes its surreal turn. 

Readers are taken on a visual journey of reincarnation that culminates in the Priestess’ rebirth as a young boy. The story of Bezimena and the Priestess offers direct parallels to the Greek myth of Artemis and Siproites in which Siproites, after seeing Artemis naked, is punished and turned into a girl. However, in ​Bezimena​ this myth is inverted, and it is the victim rather than the predator who undergoes a transformation and is turned into a boy by the name of Benny. The comic follows Benny from his birth as a miracle child to parents who thought they would never get pregnant; his adolescence where “he was a funny child, always leering at his classmate ‘White Becky,’ with his hand down his pants”; and finally, to a young man who was “always lurking in the shadows, for the infliction of his childhood had never fully taken its leave—it had merely learned to hide.” Benny becomes an isolated and troubled young man struggling with his sexual obsessions. One day, he runs into Becky from his past and steals her sketchbook. This mysterious book contains sexually explicit instructions prophesying future sexual encounters between Benny, Becky’s maid and friend, and finally Becky herself. For Benny, “it was clear that the encounter had not been purely accidental, and that the sketchbook had been purposely left there for him to find, perhaps as an invitation to fulfill these fantasies.” This encounter propels the text into depictions of Benny’s sexual encounters with these women, told through a dark surrealist lens that allows Bunjevac to explore the unexplorable. By the end of the graphic narrative, Bunjevac subverts the expectations of readers by revealing that Benny has been delusional all along and that the reality of what was going on is much more sinister. It is revealed that the sexual encounters Benny has been partaking in were actually him raping and murdering young girls. This sinister revelation comes to readers as a gruesome shock, problematizing the content of the text as a whole, and leading us to ask: what is the purpose of exploring the psyche of a predator and acts of evil?

Bunjevac challenges culturally dominant portrayals of trauma most evidently by upending the assumption that these stories can only be told through the lens of the victim. She moves beyond this assumption by telling her story through the eyes of the predator. She then takes it one step further by blurring the lines between victim and predator, forcing readers to wrestle with taxing and complex questions about morality, violence, and the darkness that may linger deep within all of us.  Bezimena captures what comic scholar Hillary Chute’s calls the “risk of representation” which refers to the, “complex visualizing it takes [in order to] rethink the dominant tropes of unspeakability, invisibility, and inaudibility that have tended to characterize trauma theory as well as current censorship-driven culture.”[2] The “it” that Chute refers to encompasses the delicate and intricate work undertaken by the cartoonist who creates and constructs a series of visual images that challenge the status quo. 

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac. Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.

Throughout the text, Bunjevac blends the genres of dark surrealism and hyperrealism to explore the troubled psyche of a sexual predator. The surrealist style is seen through Bunjevac’s emphasis on the unconscious, dreams, and the uncanny, while the hyperrealism is evident in the way in which she draws her characters with extensive detail, almost as if they were being reproduced from photographs. Bunjevac alternates between the use of hyper-realistic visual images and more mystical, and surreal symbolism and metaphors. Bunjevac dedicates a lot of time to detailing the human body in very authentic and graphic forms. The drawing of Benny demonstrates this hyperrealism. On one page, Benny occupies the center of the page and is surrounded by a background of leaves. “In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes that “backgrounds can be another valuable tool for indicating invisible ideas [… ] particularly the world of emotions”. He expands on this, highlighting the fact that “even when there is little or no distortion of the actual characters in a given scene, a distorted or expressionistic background will usually affect our “reading” of characters’ inner states.”[3] In this case, the leaves help submerge Benny within the shadows. The background that serves as a veil for Benny simultaneously serves as an instrument of clarity for readers, revealing his unseen, and troublesome nature.

Hyperrealism is also evident in Bunjevac’s depictions of sexual encounters. Bunjevac depicts bodies in their utmost raw and uninhibited state, her depiction of the female body being especially graphic. This can be seen, for example, in a lengthy eight-page spread dedicated to Benny’s first sexual encounter with Becky’s nameless friend. The first two pages depict the woman masturbating to the contents of a book. She is seen touching her breasts in one panel and in the next, she is stimulating her genitals. Her genitals are drawn with detail, down to the minute details of her pubic hair. The graphic and hyperreal depictions of sex force readers to engage with the abject as they depict visceral bodily interactions, BDSM, ejaculation, and blood. Bodily fluids are especially abject as they are both a part of the body, and outside of it. The visualization of ejaculation and blood both expose bodily vulnerabilities while simultaneously breaking the taboo of publicizing and visualizing sex, something often restricted to the private realm. Another element that is important to consider in these sexual encounters is the fact that the woman’s face emphasizes the eroticism of the act, and gestures toward her enjoyment and gratification.

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac. Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.

     This tension between titillation and disgust is one that Bunjevac explores through the visually visceral and hyper-realistic sexual encounters between Benny and the women. The depiction of these sexual encounters is complicated by the fact that by the end of the narrative, it is revealed that they have been a fabrication of Benny’s perverse and delusional mind. ​ Peggy Orenstein writes that “the most explicit images threaten to implicate the reader, transforming a sympathetic eye into a voyeuristic one.”[4] This implication is important as it forces the reader to confront the uncomfortable. It makes the reader grapple with the fact that the graphic scenes they have been witnessing have been the result of a man’s delusions, and that they have actually been witnessing rape. The fact that Bunjevac chooses to depict this through a lens of hyper-realism reinforces this unsettling reality.       

This sexually explicit and graphic scene is an example of how Bunjevac pushes back against invisibility and is taking what Chute calls the “risk of representation.” Bunjevac pushes the boundary of how the female body and sexuality can be talked about in a public and cultural space. Her graphic images can be labelled excessive, pornographic even. These types of images are powerful because they emphasize a deconstruction of tropes of unspeakability. They actively challenge what women are ​allowed​ to talk about.   

Bezimena ​ends with Benny’s suicide in jail, instigating a parallel to the beginning of the comic in which the Priestess is transformed into Benny, except this time, Benny is transformed back into the Priestess. Bezimena, the old mystical lady, pulls the Priestess out from the water. “Who were you crying for?” she asks, not once, but twice. [5]This emphasis suggests a controversial claim: that one may cry for the predator, as well as the victim. Through her visual style of both hyperrealism and surrealism and exploring her own sexual assault through the eyes of a predator, Bunjevac challenges the ethics of visualizing trauma and sexual violence. She demonstrates how emotional survival following sexual violence doesn’t always fit into a prescribed and correct box that society seems to impose upon victims. The ending is radical in that it explores what it means to go beyond sanitized and accepted forms of healing. It is within this radical reimagining that Bunjevac creates space for how we can begin to rethink and break free of what society has deemed an appropriate way to experience and heal from trauma. 

[1] Lehoczky, Etelka. NPR Review: ‘Bezimena’ by Nina Bunjevac., May 2019. 

[2] Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia University Press, 2010. 

[3] McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

[4] Orenstein, Peggy. A Graphic Life. The New York Times, August 5 2001. 

[5] Bunjevac, Nina. Bezimena. Fantagraphics, August 2018.

Trap Crop: Discussing Money and Art with Kimberly Edgar

Kimberly Edgar, fruit/soil, 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist.

By EA Douglas

Making a living as an artist is a well-known challenge but living with chronic illness compounds the issue. Kimberly Edgar is one of the coolest artists working in Canada today and through cavernous illustrations and comics, they explore the landscapes of chronic illness and mental health. Their comic The Purpose won Best Comic from the Broken Pencil Zine Awards in 2019. To support themselves, Edgar also runs The Forager’s Club, an accessories and home goods shop selling designs with plants they have personally encountered. With their latest work fruit/soil being published by Moniker Press, I was fortunate to talk to Edgar about the connection between making work and getting paid last month.

EA Douglas: One of my favourite quotes is, “Nobody needs debt less than an artist” and I also know that being sick is expensive AF. What’s your experience been like pursuing a career as an artist while living with chronic illness?

Kimberly Edgar: It’s been interesting! Especially since a lot of my chronic illnesses were only diagnosed recently, I didn’t realize how much certain things were affecting me. Generally, I always had side jobs, which is a common thing for a lot of artists. Many successful and famous artists have had day jobs and that’s totally respectable. Not everyone wants to make money or make a living off of being a full-time artist. A lot of people find that changes the way they create art and that’s totally fine. 

The problem is, [that] I only have one real skill and that is making things. I mean, I have other skills but I’m not able to do them consistently because of a lot of chronic illness things. [For example,] I used to do [the] cleaning at hotels which I quite liked because it felt like honest work. I felt like I was doing something physical but then my body stopped being able to do it. Between my autism and my ADHD and the brain fog, I started forgetting what I was doing [and] my memory [caused] issues with having a day job. I became bad at the job and would forget important things, so I stopped being able to [work at that job.]

Outside of a capitalist construct of money, if I didn’t have to work to live or have money to live, I would be using my time to make art anyway. Not necessarily to make money but to use my resources to create art, to create connections. But I don’t have resources if I don’t have money in this world. There is a stress to make a living so I can continue to do the things that I love, which is making art.

The chronic illness thing has made it so I can’t have a side job. That has definitely been an issue because of my issues around work, I have gone into a lot of debt as well. On the flip side when I couldn’t find a job to save my life the silver lining [was it] pushed me to start making money off of my art. 

I started a business doing commissions and pet portraits for people. I was desperate and I was taking anything that I could monetize but it did give me a certain amount of business sense and helped me survive. It helped me learn the avenues that I could make money off of with art. Not that that’s the main thing but how do I make this practice sustainable? And sustainability does mean being able to support myself.

The Purpose by Kimberly Edgar Cover. Photo courtesy of the artist.

EAD: A lot of your comics are available for free on the Internet, which seems counterintuitive as a wanting-to-support-myself-as-an-artist’s-move. What’s driving that decision? 

KE: On the one hand I want to support myself and on the other hand I believe in accessibility. I realize that the goal of my comics currently is less about making money and more about the spreading of ideas and sharing stories. 

If my goal [were] to make money with the comics, I wouldn’t necessarily put them out for free. However, if people read them and they like them, sometimes they buy a physical copy. On top of that, my long-term goal with comics is to get a publishing deal, [in order] to get a publishing deal people have to have read your stuff. There is a sense of [a long-term goal.] If I’m selling comics for $20, with the amount of money it takes to make them, I’m barely breaking even on that. Selling physical books is not going to get me anywhere.

EAD: You want to stay relevant and accessible.

KE: Exactly. What I realized is that by making this sort of comics and putting them out I’m not making that much money off of them, it’s very much a labour of love. However, if I get good enough, I’m hoping that people will give me a publishing deal for my graphic novel.

EAD: If there are any publishers out there reading this interview…

KE: Yes! Wink, wink. Even with big publishers, nobody is making a killing off of graphic novels, but there are advances, which I could live off of for a little bit which [would be similar to] a grant. [From] what I have seen with people who are artists, it seems the way people make money [through] book deals [is by gaining] notoriety. [With] that, you get jobs, or you get opportunities to do art shows. [It’s] getting known that eventually yields jobs.

I’ve been finding this in a small way in the past year. I’ve been working at being an artist for 7 years and I feel this year it’s paid off, in 2020. 

[While] My practice has changed a lot, eventually, the momentum builds and there’s an upward thrust. Right now, I’m finding in small ways now that once you get one thing you start getting other things. 

fruit/soil risograph publication by Kimberly Edgar. Courtesy of Moniker Press.

EAD: How do you manage the precarity of an inconsistent income as a chronically ill artist?

KE: Up until about a year ago it was “not well.” I think there’s some intergenerational trauma around poverty in my family lineage, there’s been a lot of poverty-related issues. 

I grew up with a lot of unintentional financial stress which moulded my ability to handle financial stress. I’ve gone to therapy for it. I didn’t realize until this year when I got out of that stress how much it affected me, and how much it affected my mental health which is another part of disability and chronic illness. The fact that I couldn’t hold onto a job because of my disabilities added to that. [It felt like] “I’m never going to be able to make a living because I’m autistic and have chronic pain and ADHD. But I also obsessively make art and managed to create something that is now finally afforded a bit of stability. I’ve been able to get grants to help to smooth out the times between contracts and freelancing. 

When I finished art school, I made the specific commitment to myself that I would not apply for unpaid work unless it was specifically beneficial to me as a foot in a door, or if it was a project I really believed in. 

EAD: If it was in-line with your values in a way that would engage an audience? I have a similar mentality. 

KE: I also go into opportunities assuming I’m going to get paid and asking for payment.

EAD: Good for you! I’m okay with free labour when it’s explicitly an organization that has significant overlap with what I’m already doing, there’s a community-building aspect to the unpaid work thing.

KE: I have to remember that sometimes unpaid work is community building, as long as you choose to do it. No one should be forced to do unpaid work or feel like they have to do it. But, if you’re choosing to do it as a donation, “I’m gifting this work to you” can be a beautiful thing.

For example, I do hate design contests because it just makes everyone do free labour and the company gets to choose your favourite design. It’s exploitative. 

What I like to do is look at the career of the people who have what I want, or that are interesting, and try to trace back how they [got] there. Was it because they won a competition? Did they win an award? I try to see [the] avenues. I find people whose careers I am interested in, to my knowledge, I don’t think they got where they did from winning a competition.

EAD: Let’s talk about The Forager’s Club, an accessories and home goods shop that sells your custom designs. I remember one time you said something like, “These pins aren’t my art.” How do you separate, mentally and creatively, the designs you make for The Forager’s Club and the work you do as an artist? 

Kimberly Edgar. An assortment of Forager’s Club pins. Photo by Mel Naef courtesy of the artist.

KE: They overlap quite a bit obviously. I see the Forager’s Club as a project in design. I am thinking specifically of the aesthetic of the thing I am making and I am making something beautiful. There is meaning behind it in terms of the plants I represent, I do feel a spiritual connection to these plants and it’s a way of giving thanks to the specific species I am interested in. However, it is also about teaching myself design. Through that, I’ve been able to get design contracts. 

I do illustration but more than that I do design work. I’ve become the person who designs pins in the Yukon. People who want custom pins for their business or organization [come] to me. [The Forager’s Club] sells things and it acts as a portfolio of the things I can design.

Design is making something that has a very specific purpose. The Forager’s Club in that sense isn’t my visual art, it is my design work. I don’t have a conceptual basis for it in the same way. It’s a commercial practice, I’m thinking very differently [about] it in terms of marketing, commercial viability. They’re objects [so] I charge the price that they’re meant to be. It’s not like books where I’m selling an idea. It’s a pin, everyone pays retail price. 

EAD: Do you ever find that the marketability of The Forager’s Club bleeds into your artistic process?

KE: It’s like a trap crop for the pests. The Forager’s Club is my trap crop for stress about money. Then I don’t really think about it in my personal work. You have a crop that attracts all the pests [in this case financial worries], so they don’t go to your prize crop [my artistic practice]. Any worries I have about finances or what people would like all go into The Forager’s Club and not into my personal work.

EAD: That’s a fascinating way to handle the money/art problem.

KE: There’s also the fact that I’m starting to make money off of my work via grants and approaching my work honestly and authentically is [better]. I’m trying to lean into that and not let [financial worries] stress me out.

EAD: I think it’s better to do your own thing and when it fits within a theme, submit. If not, keep rolling.

KE: I’ll apply [for grants] if the theme is aligned with something that I’m already doing. Sometimes if the theme is a little off-center it can be an interesting way to push your way in a different direction, but again if I’m not getting paid to make work different from my art, I’m not going to do it. That being said, there are times when I’ll break my own rules.

Kimberly Edgar’s latest work fruit/soil is available for pre-order through Moniker Press. For more information on The Forager’s Club visit their shop.

History is Full of Fiction

“History is Full of Fiction:” In conversation with Nadia Kaabi-Linke and Timo Kaabi-Linke

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Das Kapital – Epilogue: The Fable of the End of an Era, 2020. Installation with found monument, video and sound; variable dimensions, 12’07” © Photo: TiKL 2020 courtesy of the artist and Darat Al Funun the Khaled Shoman Foundation.

By Jess Chen

Writing about the collapse of the bourgeoisie, Walter Benjamin remarked that material residue preserves a kind of dream-world, an image of the future. “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams about the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.”[1] Nadia Kaabi-Linke is a collector and archaeologist of such residue, the traces of what has been and what could be. She excavates the everyday by retrieving detritus; coffee grounds, scrap metal, paint chips, and even dust become source material for her work. That which has been overlooked, or deemed waste, constitute the means through which Kaabi-Linke dismantles the clean narrative arc. Capitalism, war, colonialism, domestic abuse—these are her subjects, storylines defined by their destruction, tragic irony, and ultimately, regret. Kaabi-Linke composes extended metaphors of longing and deferred hope from these ruins.

Kaabi-Linke’s own trajectory began in Tunisia, where she studied painting at the University of Fine Arts, Tunis, before moving to Paris to complete a Ph.D. in Art Theory at the Sorbonne. Kaabi-Linke now lives and works in Berlin with her partner and collaborator Timo, a sociologist. They also spend time in Kyiv, Ukraine, her mother’s hometown. It comes as no surprise that Kaabi-Linke is a keen observer of how history and geography color personal experience. She probes the miasma of fear and greed that marks history in her latest work, Das Kapital—Epilogue: The Fable of the End of An Era, a scathing critique of our economic system.

Das Kapital, on view at Darat al Funun, is a video installation with several found objects: a metal gate propped upright by a pile of tawny, unpolished stones and a weathered electric cable. The objects come from Amman, Jordan, where Nadia and Timo noticed a plot of land between two townhouses, empty except for the gate, stones, and cable. After conducting interviews with nearby residents, which became part of the installation, they learned that there used to be a house on the land. Its owner had a dream in which her father said there was treasure buried underneath the house. She went to work accordingly, evicting the tenants and destroying the building, but she found nothing.

Das Kapital is a potent metaphor for the corrosive desires of capitalism. The work is more relevant than ever today when the COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted hundreds of thousands of people into financial precarity, even as large corporations continue to profit. In my interview with Nadia and Timo, we discuss the implications of Das Kapital, their approach to revealing history’s fictions, and how we might imagine a post-capitalist society.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Das Kapital – Epilogue: The Fable of the End of an Era, 2020. Installation with found monument, video and sound; variable dimensions, 12’07” © Photo: TiKL 2020 photo courtesy of the artist and Darat Al Funun the Khaled Shoman Foundation.

Jess Chen (JC): I was captivated by the way in which mythology or fiction figures in the work: first in the backstory, in which the landlord follows a dream, and in your subtitle, Fable of the End of an Era. But these fictions have had concrete consequences on real people, places, and things, and these consequences can turn into historical fact. How do you interpret this relationship between fiction and history?

Nadia Kaabi-Linke (NKL): Actually, I always thought there is little place for fiction in the way we [her and Timo] deal with history. But history is full of fiction, that being said, because there is always narrative. There is no historical fact. Historians work with theories and histories of books, which give us narratives. Depending upon which regime you live in, which time you live in, I learned to understand that fiction is really part of history.

But our approach as artists tries to avoid that. We work with prints, we work with direct contact with people and take pieces and bits of life. [We] compose objects and create a grammar of things. In the case of “Das Kapital,” we say it is an urban legend. You can say a dream is fiction, but it’s a concrete dream she has had.

It depends on the culture where you live also. For some people, dreams are communications with the spirits or the universe. This [Das Kapital] is an example of a lady who took the dream as reality, so she believed it completely.

Timo Kaabi-Linke (TKL): Your question is very sociological, as I understand it. In sociology, you have two histories: the history that is operated within and followed by a rationalist regime, which is relating facts and archives and documents, and doing a reflection of your own interpretation of these documents. Through source analysis, you try to get objectivity in your research.

On the other hand, as you try to be objective, you must consider yourself as a subject in this history—as something that was created and made by this process. You need to question all your methods, so this objectivity resides in the fact that you need to look at history that has an effect on people and social life. I’m not talking about the history created from the archives, I’m talking about the lived history and the oral histories, like urban legends. We must say that the subjective part of history, which is composed of many, many individual stories is much more effective than anything you can prove on paper.

JC: There are always those gaps in the archive you can never fully fill.

TKL: When we come to Das Kapital, the fact that they changed the law to rebuild and reconstruct the city was less important to the woman than the dream she had, and she relied on this dream more than the printed law sent by the government.

NKL: When you listen to the video, to all the interviews we made, there is always the same story with deviations. I see it as a kind of aural sculpture because it’s as if through the voice of the people you are turning around the situation and it becomes three-dimensional. Some of them say it is a woman, but several say it’s not a woman. They are an extremely rich family, and this is one of the houses they have in Amman. Most of them live in foreign countries, and some say the dream came to a sister [who didn’t live in Amman], and she consulted with all of her family members and decided that they would do this [find the treasure]. Because they are a rich family, they blocked the street from one end to the other. The army was involved to protect the whole process.

TKL: The government involved itself in order to avoid public upheaval, because they feared that people would all claim the fortune.

NKL: It makes total sense why the army and government would be so much involved. This neighborhood was not very rich, but it was in the most historical part of Amman. The treasures are not their [the landlord’s] ancestors.’ [It’s] something maybe 800 years old, or more, so they don’t have the right to it. If there was something, it doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to Jordan.

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Das Kapital – Epilogue: The Fable of the End of an Era, 2020. Installation with found monument, video and sound; variable dimensions, 12’07” © Photo: TiKL 2020 courtesy of the artist and Darat Al Funun the Khaled Shoman Foundation.

JC: Going back to taking these bits and pieces of reality for your work, how do you avoid reproducing those fictions or myths?

TKL: We work a lot with reproductions, but when you reproduce, when Nadia takes prints from walls, she’s in direct contact. Not reproduction but a transfer of a texture. The print cannot exist without the original and is not identical to the original, because it is a pattern, while the original is an object. This is a critical approach to the idea of reproduction.

When you put the different stories with slight deviations together, you realize how this is constructed, and you see that there is a common myth that everyone makes something out of.

In this work, we reproduced the gate and took original elements from the site to rearrange them in the exhibition space. This was not a transfer—it was a transposition. We wanted to cut it out of the original environment and put it in the clinical environment of the exhibition venue, a kind of petri dish. When you put it in a different place, where it doesn’t belong, then it becomes visible.

We did the same thing with the recordings. When you put the different stories with slight deviations together, you realize how this is constructed, and you see that there is a common myth that everyone makes something out of. When you align these stories, you become aware that this is all construction.

NKL: I would say that we don’t try to avoid reproduction—we work with it. We work with prints and imprints, and in this case, we didn’t want to touch the gate. We made a re-enactment and reproduced the whole thing. When you asked your question, it made me think of Urinal by Duchamp, although it’s not my favorite work. You take an object and reproduce it as it is. No one looked at it before. But when you take it out of its context and you put it within the white cube, you look at it with new eyes.

JC: I was going to ask about the Duchamp, actually. The found object.

NKL: Yeah, Duchamp is not the best example because there are very strong theories…it’s very possible the first readymade was produced by a woman. Another patriarchal myth.

TKL: Still, once you do something with pre-existing elements, you don’t try to ignore or invisibilize or overlook the fact that you work with reproductions. Put it on the table. Think about it and ask the questions: How can I make this reproducibility visible? How can I work with it in a way that the reproduction is so strong that nobody would dare to think, “Wow, this is original.” That kind of originality in art is a big myth of modern art.

JC: I’m interested specifically in the reproduction of narrative. You mentioned those recordings in the video installation of different people retelling the urban legend. How do you avoid one master narrative coming out? Is that a concern of yours?

NKL: There is one story, so the only variations are slight. Some say it’s only the woman, some others say it’s her and especially her brothers and sisters who took over and she [the woman] doesn’t even live in Amman. There was a big question about the gate. Who built it? Is it the gate from the house? Some say yes, some say no. There was a homeless man who came and collected it. Some said he cared for it, some said he was crazy or had a mental illness.

But the line is clearly the dream, the gold, the treasure, destruction, and losing everything.

The core idea, why we called it Capital and Epilogue, is because the gate should separate the outer and inner space and protect the inner space. But it’s not holding itself. It’s being held by stones, by an electric cable, and by a branch, so everything is super precarious. We saw in this gate the metaphor for the post-capitalist era.

I have a feeling that the coronavirus has pushed us toward something. And nevertheless, all the governments in the world, instead of questioning everything and asking how to save us, hold onto a system that is built on blood and destroying the planet. Total nonsense—the gate is nonsense [too]. It’s not holding itself, it’s the cable and some stones holding it. That’s why the narrative, the story is important. It’s like a skeleton.

TKL: I was thinking about the guy who lives in this area. He created some kind of a poetic plot because he’s actually at the other end of the social scale. He’s homeless, he has nothing, but he got a place where he could be at night, where he could leave his things during the day. This is huge for someone who has nothing. So there was a treasure in the ground.

The funny thing is that he decorated this place in the typical capitalist fashion. “This is mine—here’s a fence—don’t go further—this is now my place.” He appropriated it. He should be the guy explaining to us why capitalism isn’t working.

JC: That reminds me of salvage capitalism. Being on the edges of capitalism and making a place for yourself.

TKL: Yes. As Nadia said, the beginning of capitalism was always bloody, in all societies, and it was not so long ago. Especially if you look at the United States, you can go a few generations back and find the guy who draws the fence.

In Europe, it’s a bit more complicated. We have the feudal system that intervenes, but it’s the same logic, all about property. The point is capitalism is something like a dead-born child. It could never live, it could never really work. This is how it can deal with problems and crises. People are saying this is late capitalism and the end of the capitalism. I think that crisis is all capitalism needs.

JC: Thinking about Das Kapital, the first thing that came to my mind was that quote attributed to Fredric Jameson, that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

TKL: In my sense, this has become so outdated. This is something you would think of with Francis Fukuyama, the end of history.

JC: And yet so many people still have this mindset.

NKL: Some take it as a system like weather, or conditions like water or air. No, it’s not that. It’s not vital.

JC: I have one last question. We’re talking about the destruction of capitalism and how coronavirus is pushing capitalism even faster so that systems are at the brink. If we get to the point where we decide we have to build a new system, what are you imagining and what kind of structuring principle(s) are you imagining for the future?

TKL: It’s quite difficult to fathom the possibilities of the future so I won’t do that. But what I could do and what triggers my interest is what already exists. It’s incredible how reflective people have become about money. Modern Money Theory (MMT) creates public awareness that money doesn’t exist. It’s not a substantive medium. When you take money from a bank, it’s not that there’s less money when you take it. No, they give the debt that the bank has for you to someone else to deal with it. Everything that we exchange is not money. It is not like gold that is sold and someone else is now the new owner. It’s a program of behavior. These discourses would bring so much awareness to this. If people start thinking this way, society would totally change the idea of property and come to a culture of sharing and caring.

NKL: This is for me also. Sharing and caring, that’s for me a dream, and I think we can reach it. People think it is in the nature of humans to be greedy, to accumulate. It is as much in human nature, when someone smiles at you, to feel a second of incredible happiness, and we need that. That’s why all the films and songs are always about love, because this what we need and that’s what anchors us. I don’t want to be romantic here. Love for me is something very concrete, very real, tangible, that I experience every day. Even when I’m angry, there is a part of love in it also.

It is as Timo said, sharing and caring. It is the opposite of capitalism.


 Das Kapital is a timely exploration of the consequences of capitalism. The work’s strength, however, lies in how it beckons to the future using the ruin as artistic strategy. Ruins are evidence of both fragility and destruction, of human life and of marginalized histories. My conversation with Nadia and Timo shows how they can also serve as a starting point for imagining a more equitable system. Nadia’s work is on view at Aicon Gallery, New York, from March 3—April 17.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press), 13.

Making Attachments: In Discussion with Barbara Weissberger

Barbara Weissberger. Alter-hand, 2019. Photo documentation by Ivette Spradlin. Photo courtesy of the artist.

By Anna Mirzayan

Barbara Weissberger’s mixed-media creations feature a complex interplay between soft sculpture and photography. Her playfully staged images invite viewers to consider the nature of meaning, embodiment, and attachment. Recently, she has been delving more into sewing and other art forms traditionally labelled as ‘craft work,’ placing herself in the rich history of women in craft arts.

In 2019, Weissberger visited the Whitney’s ongoing exhibition Making and Knowing: Craft in Art (2019), which showcases a diversity of so-called craft art over seven decades, bringing together a historical litany of artists who use a wide array of materials and techniques from glass to sewing, pottery, and mosaic. Some artists at the Whitney make explicit connections between so-called women’s work and craft; Liza Lou’s Kitchen (1996) is a painstakingly crafted bead mosaic based on the 1950s American kitchens and a particular role that women’s labor, both material and emotional, played during that period of American industrialization. The resurgence of interest in art that references craft, coupled with Weissberger’s recent work with sewing and quilting, prompted this conversation. We discuss her ongoing interest in assemblage and embodiment, as well as the evolution of her work and the relationship between craft arts and feminist ideologies.

Anna: As a woman artist working in sculpture, collage and photography, do you feel that you fit in the lineage of artists and techniques represented by this exhibition? If so, how? And were you influenced directly by any of the artists from the show?

Barbara: I would say that my work has been inching toward craft over a very long time. I started as a sculptor and at a certain point I felt like I had hit a wall with objects, and I made a somewhat abrupt turn to making drawings, works on paper and collage, and, through a long circuitous route, arrived at making the photo-based work that I’ve been making for several years. I use a lot of cardboard and discarded material, so there was already this inkling of craft, DIY ‘low materials.’ But I think it was still rooted very much in ‘fine art’ traditions, as opposed to craft traditions. Now I’m making these photo quilts, so it’s very explicitly connected to craft forms.

Barbara Weissberger. More Fragile but More Enduring. 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

You mentioned that you started in sculpture, and there’s often also a dimension of photography in your work. But you print the photography, often on these non-traditional, softer substances, even if they’re mounted on the wall, some of them are more free-flowing. How do you see the relationship between photography, sculpture and the soft materials in your work?

Photography and sculpture have a long and intertwined relationship. After many years of making sculpture, I moved to drawing and collage using my own photographs. Eventually I started printing those, and then I started making installations with the photo fragments that I was using in the collages. And in documenting one such installation, something turned for me. I realized that I was quite interested in making such installations in my studio and making photographs of those. It was never quite exactly documentation, but the camera and photographs were a way of framing, organizing and keeping an artifact of what were temporary installations in the studio.

            For a long time, my photographs were printed on paper, and then I often would treat the frame in some way, to make it part of the photographic image. I might have an image printed on paper and also on fabric, then wrap the frame with the fabric. And in that way, that photographic image would expand out from the print. I was always trying to bring the photograph back into this realm of objects, which is where it came from, right? It came from this physical arrangement of things in space and I wanted to return it to that.

            Printing on fabric came out of an installation called GENERAL DELIVERY 59631 (2016) that I did at Incident Report in Hudson, NY, which was the first time that I had photographs printed on fabric. I quickly realized that printing the digital image on fabric made a very ephemeral image incredibly physical, and it would move in the wind with suppleness and fluidity. It was yet another way to make the image have this kind of physical embodiment.

Barbara Weissberger. Slash and Burn, 2020.

You say that you’ve now more fully embraced sewing and you have these quilts. It seems like you’ve been inching, as you said, more towards, for something that we would firmly call “craft.” What’s at stake for you in that move towards more craft objects and how does that fit with or change the overall themes of your work?

I thought about sewing and its relation to art-making [for a while]. I resisted it for a couple of reasons, partly because of learning to sew as a kid and feeling that it was connected to domesticity and femininity, in ways that I was not interested in attaching myself to. I also felt that there were lots of feminist artists who had made work in the generation before me who had beautifully mined those traditions. I just put it out of my mind, because it felt linked to craft and women’s work in a way that I did not want to embrace. So naturally, here I am embracing it!

I would say that my interest in bodies has always driven the work. It’s a discourse associated with female bodies and feminist perspectives (at least in Western art traditions), which has to do with boundaries, with fluidity, with anxieties about female bodies, with an idea of bodies as unruly things, tensions between control and unruliness. Sometimes it’s difficult to parse the space in my images. Even that instability has to do with boundaries and containment, and, ultimately, links back to some of those notions of bodies as container versus spills or unruliness. And then sometimes explicitly, there are body parts, fragmentary body parts, often mostly hands and feet, which are, arguably, not gendered (or able to move around gender).

Barbara Weissberger. Navel, 2019. Photo documentation by Ivette Spradlin, courtesy of the artist.

I think of bodies and attachment, and about how a viewer’s body might feel in relation to the work—intimacy and separation is the relationship between artwork and viewer.

Freud has this word unheimlich, which means ‘not at home,’ but in English it’s ‘uncanny,’ and its etymology fits with what you’re talking about, about not being in the domestic space, not being at home, in the body, all of these sorts of things. I saw your show, Mother (2019) at The Silver Eye Center for Photography, and your collaborative show with Eleanor Aldrich, The Soft State of Custodia (2020), at Bunker Projects, and I noticed many of these themes in both of the shows. What are the most impactful and memorable exhibitions that you’ve done, and how did it evolve your relationship to your practice?

The exhibition Mother was a key one for me. A lot of that show was about separation. I think of bodies and attachment, and about how a viewer’s body might feel in relation to the work—intimacy and separation is the relationship between artwork and viewer.  To make some of the photographs, I cut a hole in a piece of paper that I’ve painted – or cut a hole in a photographic print or a piece of cardboard – and hold that right in front of the camera lens when I make the image.  So, then a blurry aperture is in the foreground of the resulting image and that aperture acts as a frame within the picture, framing whatever so-called subject is in there.

 When I look at those images, it heightens my sense of looking out of my own body. The image becomes this kind of opening in a screen, like looking out of your eye and then into another opening. I think it heightens the sense of embodiment for the viewer.

For the fabric photographs I am making now, for the quilts, I’ve been sticking a knee-high pantyhose on my arm. And putting objects, like I have one of a banana in the stocking…so in the image, it’s my arm and hand enclosed in a stocking with some kind of object in there. And I’ve been thinking of those as attachments—a kind of hybrid—a body and a thing as one, and a way of attaching a thing to a body. And I do think it’s funny that I did a show titled Mother and was thinking about separation. I even had a piece in Mother titled Hold Me in which people were invited to pick up and hold these blobby large limb-like soft sculptures. And I thought, oh, funny, I made a transitional object for everyone! And so just to stick with the Freudian early childhood theme, I thought, oh, and now I’m making attachments.

And the quilts—I can’t help but think about a security blanket, particularly in our age of great anxiety; a blanket that covers, that comforts, that keeps warm, that sustains… which is not unrelated to mothers. It’s been amusing me thinking about making those quilts because they are the first body of work that I’m making after Mother.

Barbara Weissberger. Elephant, 2019.

That’s all very intimate, and I think that feels very vulnerable to do in a public place. It is almost opposed to the attitude that a lot of people have going into a museum space, or a formal gallery space because it’s so formalized and public. Even though a lot of artworks lend themselves to these really strong feelings, people are very private and individualized in museums. That’s sort of the antithesis of what you’re doing with dissolving boundaries and reforming attachments and inviting these different kinds of attachments. Quilts are meant for bodies, to enclose them, they’re meant to be warm, they’re meant to be comforting… so in a lot of ways they don’t lend themselves to this world of the virtual that we find ourselves in with COVID. Many artists have responded with new ways of making art, but I would call your quilts ‘anti-Zoom’ in a certain sense. Why is it important for you to keep making these tangible works during COVID?

Perhaps there is something to the physicality of the object. This is what I think is missing; I love that we can go to talks that are being held in cities far flung from where we are, and we can hear music and go to readings, and we can do all these things. And we can see pictures, we can see digital images, we can see screen images. But what we don’t have is being in physical proximity with artwork and having not only a visual but a physical relationship to it, with temperature and sound and smell and scale and material.

I have been posting images of the quilts but when I do that, I think of it as a placeholder. In reality, looking at a photograph always involves a physical dimension.

Barbara Weissberger. Adoration, 2019.Photo courtesy of the artist.

Part of what I was referring to with the experience of the museum space is, particularly with experiencing something like photography or painting, and even sculpture and installation, can really put you into this almost purely perceptive hypnosis, where you’re just this solipsistic, Cartesian cogito, and that’s how you’re looking at the art. I think that that’s very pernicious.

At Olafur Eliasson’s 2019 show at The Tate, Olafur Eliasson: In real life, there was an older piece that wasn’t accessible, but the Tate decided to just leave the piece as-is, and that it wouldn’t be accessible to anyone other than an able-bodied person. Eliasson’s wall text said something about how when you go to a museum or a gallery, and you’re looking at art, you ‘move as if [you] don’t have a body.’ And I read that, in response to this Ciara O’Connor who writes for the Irish Sunday Independent, and who’s not able-bodied, said ‘I am always, ALWAYS aware of my body.’  Looking at art is disarming, vulnerable, and intimate, which may be part of why museum spaces have an unspoken protocol of privacy and discretion.

Yes, and there are so many protocols against tactility— these taboos of not touching the art, and in some cases that makes sense; some pieces are fragile objects, and the materials lend themselves to corroding and eroding over time. And somehow that’s not acceptable. The temporality is not part of the work in a certain sense. Yet you have these works that are asking to be touched. It seems like that connects with your use of discarded or cheap or easily accessible objects and, which fights against the high/low art dichotomy. Can you talk a bit about that aspect of your work?

I use cheap materials, I use scraps, I recycle things a lot. Things cycle through the work; I might have a photograph printed on a fabric more than once, for various reasons. And then that means that certain bits of imagery appear in multiple pieces. I think using scraps is connected to an ethos of working that considers waste. Using what’s at hand also has to do with improvisation and making do with what you have. In addition to that, particularly with fabric, it’s very connected to the tradition in quilt making of using the fabric scraps, of not throwing them out, which is something about making the quilts that really suits me. It’s like I already have what I need in this stack of things that I haven’t yet looked at in quite the right way. And in that way, a photograph also becomes raw material.

Your work brings the material to the fore, which makes me consider the relationship to waste and trash in different ways. You’re using ready-to-hand materials. And to me, it strikes me as so different from ready-mades, which were considered art largely due to the critical discourse around them. What about your relationship to the things you make, and their status as art vs. object?

Apropos to what you’re saying about this teasing feeling between the functional object and the art object, how you decipher and determine or designate really goes back to the actual object and its application, and perhaps the uncomfortable way that it might slip between those. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and it’s a somewhat new thought for me, has to do with the quilts and this idea of use and function. When I’m sitting in the studio and my studio gets really cold in the winter, and I think, “well, I have all these quilts…” They’re funny shapes, and I finish them with grommets, so they hang on the wall. But still, they are quilted and I’m putting batting in them, so they give warmth. They have this other aspect to them where they are not far from how they would function or be used as the thing that they are, and yet they’re not that thing; they are also the thing on the wall, pictorial, collage-like. Quilts are collages, they are fragments joined together.

Barbara Weissberger. Punchline (diptych), 2019. Photo Documentation by Ivette Spradlin, courtesy of the artist.

One thing that jumped out at me in Mother was that there were no object labels or titles or attributions, which made the viewer work hard and also resisted fixed interpretation. That was a fecund aspect of the show for me, yet I also found it anxiety-producing as a person who goes to museums a lot and sees a lot of object labels. Having that support structure suddenly removed was very jarring, and then I sort of embraced it. It really opened me up to a feeling that I’m not very open to when I go to museums, which is humor—art can be so serious. There’s a lot of slapstick and funny stuff in your work. What do you think is the role of humor in artwork and in the works that you’re making?

I find joking irresistible, and it’s irrepressible. It’s like a language. Humor is a language that I like to speak or feel comfortable speaking. But also, I think that humor in artworks can somehow poke at that tension between high and low art.

Since you are concerned with bodies, one aspect of the body is age. Earlier you mentioned coming up in a certain world and resisting traditional feminized roles. I’m interested in how your age has factored in, if at all, to your art and you as an artist and whether or not your work has changed as you’ve grown?

You were talking about how in the museum it’s about preservation and not decay. With the presence of bodies, you’re speaking about mortality, living and dying bodies. I think as you age, you think about mortality differently, and that changing relationship to mortality is something that I feel in the work. I think I felt that with Mother; I would not have made an exhibition and a body of work that was titled ‘Mother’ when I was younger. I don’t even think I would have looked at that kind of vulnerability around attachment and separation in quite the same way.

I think one of the things for me with the collaboration with Eleanor [Aldrich], who’s of a generation younger than mine, is the delightful co-existence of our differences and connections, it really brings to life what we’re doing. There’s something hopeful about it. We often say there’s what each of us is doing, and then when we come together it’s like another life for the objects that we’re making—it’s a third thing.

Barbara Weissberger was recently part of Modicum, a group exhibition at Artspace New Haven. She is currently working on a series of photo quilts. In addition to being a Guggenheim Fellow and a past participant in the Drawing Center Open Sessions program, she is also on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in Studio Arts. You can see more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

The Power is in the Black Gaze: Out of Many

Out of Many, Jorian Charlton – Curated by Emilie Croning 

Online Exhibit Launched February 6, 2021

Wedge Curatorial Projects 

Jorian Charlton, Untitled (Georgia), 2020. © 2021 Jorian Charlton.

By Nya Lewis 

Outside of my grandmother, whose matriarch status reigned supreme, the second most important member of my family puzzle was the uncle with the camera. He showed up at family picnics, at weddings, on front stoops. He captured us in our most intimate and vital times and held an ever-present commitment to capturing us in our truth. The keeper of this title changed from generation to generation, but never the importance. The see-er, the documenter, every Black family deserves an archivist. Author bell hooks describes the snapshot as the launch point of the visual in Black life, and I immediately consider the Caribbean proverb “We are the stories we are allowed to see.” The power of the snapshot is that it exists in opposition to the imposed imagery of Blackness. It is self-preservation. It is a representation of self-love and understanding. The Black family snapshot is a declaration of worthiness and authority, returning a sense of presence, too often lost in the white imagination. 

In collaboration with Gallery TPW, Wedge Curatorial Projects presents Out of Many. Curated by Emilie Croning, the exhibition pairs vintage 35mm slides loaned from photographer Jorian Charlton‘s family archive from the 1970s and 80s in Jamaica, Toronto, and New York, with Charlton’s photographic practice exploring contemporary visuals of Black aesthetics and Jamaican-Canadian identity. Both the exhibition and archive explore the inter-relations of the immigration story, new ways of thinking about Caribbean-Canadian culture, and rediscover the family album through a contemporary lens.

Jorian Charlton, Untitled (Ayo & Georgia), 2019. © 2021 Jorian Charlton

Out of Many, the exhibit’s title is a nod to Jamaica’s national motto, ‘Out of Many One People,’ created in 1962 to celebrate the unity of the country’s multiracial roots. The motto is represented on the Coat of Arms. Like many of its neighboring Caribbean populations, the stain of British colonization is imprinted on the makeup of its people: Indigenous, African, Chinese, South Asian- all brought to the island as enslaved people, or indentured laborers now contribute to this quilt of Jamaican identities. Large waves of forced and independent migration shifted the quilt’s makeup as early as 1960 as Great Britain and Canada called for British colonized Caribbean countries to send their best and brightest overseas. 

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians of Jamaican origin make up one of Canada’s largest non-European ethnic groups. Ontario is home to 85% of the total Jamaican Canadian population. It is here that the impact of Jamaican culture and its people permeate North America. The landing pad for the travel and spread of their intergenerational stories and the dialogue surrounding the preservation of Afro-diasporic identities and imagery become prevalent. 

At the center of this conversation, a Toronto-based, Black, Caribbean-Canadian powered organization: Wedge Curatorial Projects, “a non-profit organization with a focus on Black identity in contemporary art.” Under director and founder Kenneth Montague, Wedge explores Diasporic narratives, identity, and representation issues through exhibitions and lectures. Established in 1997, Wedge Curatorial Projects was initially conceived as a private and public art experience. Since then, it has evolved into a curatorial organization, representing national and international artists, creating a much-needed shift in Toronto’s art community, “wedging” Black artists into a mainstream market from which they are too often excluded.

Vintage 35mm slide (Ja Maica No Problem), photographed by Clayton Charlton, c.1979. Collection of Jorian Charlton, reprinted 2020. © 2021 Jorian Charlton.

Charlton’s father’s archive presents an opportunity for intergenerational dialogue on lineage, culture, and land. In an intimate welcome into the so-called “living room” of the contemporary Black experience through the Charlton family, we are given familiar representations of home, freedom, agency. Displayed in conjunction with the slides, Jorian Charlton uses analog and digital photography to visualize new storytelling methods. As Croning describes, together these images create a tangible remembrance of “what was, what is, and what will become.” Autonomy captured -the ultimate snapshot, Charlton’s work, influenced by fashion photography, centers Black bodies and reflects self-awareness and acceptance. Confident and direct, yet delicate and playful, the audience is all at once given and denied access to inter-communal recognitions of beauty and existence. In a country where the Black community encounters displacement, transformation, and mending, mitigated by site, the subjects actively communicate the complexities of agency simply by existing in contrast to their surroundings. Their “Home.”   

Jorian Charlton, Untitled (Jem & Mikki), 2020. © 2021 Jorian Charlton.

The beautiful, light-filled, colorful photos, oozing melanin, capturing piercing gazes, embody a sense of joy and freedom that is truly a relief. They are relatable; they are humanizing. Acknowledging the power of the Black gaze, the exhibit calls the audience making the invitation clear, an opportunity for the Black Caribbean community to see themselves. To discuss the importance of capturing images of the Black experience is to discuss civil rights, equity, and access. In full participation, the photography positions itself as a powerful reclamation, a visual resistance. To Black families, cameras give access to critical intervention, a disruption, shifting from being seen to seeing. Out of Many emotionally contextualizes immigrant Canadians’ experiences and the interconnectedness of their impact on first-generation Canadians. The exhibit homes in on the joy of photo taking, which is as important as displaying them when capturing marginalized groups. There is magic in documenting an existence that is consistently challenged. Through Black portraiture, Out of Many carves out an empowering show of record and representation on their terms.

Mes Beaux Enfants et Autres Anomalies

Montserrat Duran Muntadas, Mes Beaux Enfants et Autres Anomalies

Centre d’exposition Lethbridge

January 28 – March 21 2021

Montserrat Duran Muntadas. ©Centre d’exposition Lethbridge, 2021.

By Vania Djelani

Diagnosed with a uterine malformation in early adolescence, Montserrat Duran Muntadas’ solo Exhibition Mes beaux enfants et autres anomalies addresses a seamless blend between fragility and comfort through her material conscious practice. As a way of coping with a condition that causes infertility, Muntadas begins to negotiate concepts of femininity and motherhood. In displaying her own intimate experience within a public setting, the show aims to normalize conversation between the two terms that are often expected to be mutually exclusive in our society.

Montserrat Duran Muntadas. ©Centre d’exposition Lethbridge, 2021.

Following a series of wall hangings, visitors are faced with a rusted crib located in a sectioned-off area in the gallery. In exposing an empty frame with the mattress spring made entirely out of blown glass, the display embodies a material tension. Glistening in the dimly lit room and seen with an ultrasound projected on the wall, the heaviness of the installation is heightened through the apparent brittleness of each interlacing glass piece. There is an anxiousness inhabited by both works as it materializes the anticipation of a new life. In exposing the fragile stages of development, the significance of the crib is strengthened through the apparent absence that allows the structure to hold itself up. The installation acts as a painfully beautiful reminder of the gentle nature of life.

Montserrat Duran Muntadas. ©Centre d’exposition Lethbridge, 2021.

The rest of the exhibition leads to an array of blown glass sculptures embedded with multiple textiles. In making organic shapes with elements that extend, Muntadas’ pieces are reminiscent of cells and microorganisms. While anomalies are commonly associated with irregularity and error, the deliberateness of her installation demands the space for her condition to exist unapologetically. Her use of lush fabrics and vibrant colours that are incorporated within the glass adds sweetness to the internal landscape of struggle. The play between the ornaments mounted on the walls, cushion-like forms on pedestals, and bubbly orbs hanging from the ceiling transforms the sombre topic into an enlightening environment. The smoothness of the glass and the softness of the textiles alludes to a weightlessness that is no longer burdened by loss. As a coping mechanism created to take over and inhabit a place, Muntadas’ anomalies are uplifted.

Displayed at the Centre d’exposition Lethbridge in Saint Laurent, Québec, the gallery’s further position within the Library du Boisé adds to the transformative aspect of her show. As many of the visitors happen to be students and families passing by, this specific location enables the opportunity for conversation and liveliness that Muntadas intended. As an attempt in addressing the resilience of life, Muntadas creates these intricate, gut-wrenching, and humorous pieces. The exhibition invites us to engage with her experience, play within her installation, and incorporate art and healing in our daily lives.

Centering Play: In Discussion with Semillites

Semillites. trans self-portrait #13. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Originally from Central México, Semillites Hernández Velasco is a Brown and trans non-binary visual artist based in Vancouver on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam Nations. With a playful approach, their bright illustrations explore queerness through erotic imagery. Whether it’s a self-portrait with devil horns or a steamy threesome depicted in coloured pencils, Semillites’ work unabashedly depicts sexual intimacy, often with a touch of humour.

Additionally, Semillites has recently begun teaching self-portraiture workshops that prioritize LGBTQ2+ Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. In the following interview, they speak more of their inspiration from trans musicians and getting in touch with one’s younger self to express creativity.

Could you talk more about your influence of “looking for your path through your art practice” and how your practice is tied to immigrating from México to Canada?

I think there is a connection between the two but I’m still trying to find out what that connection is. I come from a family that has migrated over generations and so migration was always a necessity and a solution to survive. For me, when I decided to migrate to so-called Canada and Vancouver, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I was looking for some answers. When I arrived here, I realized that the answers weren’t outwards but inwards, so the way I started to get all these answers was through my artwork. Through drawing and painting, I felt like I was drawing with my ancestors and through that process, I began to know myself better. It’s a path that I feel is no longer linear, it’s more of an inward, healing process.

For me, it’s about taking the gaze out of the equation and saying, I am my own eyes and I see myself through my own eyes.

You explore self-portraiture in a variety of iterations through your art practice. Can you speak further about what self-portraiture means to you and the use of archetypes to explore sides of yourself through art?

I think self-portraits are a way to create representations in comparison to portraits in Western art that have been used to create representations of women, of racialized folks, of queer people, or the “others.” For me, it’s about taking the gaze out of the equation and saying, I am my own eyes and I see myself through my own eyes. And growing up and now, I feel like I still struggle to see representations of Brown and trans people. [For this reason], I consciously started to create representations of what I wanted my body and my skin to look like and doing it in a celebratory way and also an honest way. I think some of my self-portraits are wittier and funny and some are darker and [explore] a range of emotions. I think self-portraiture allows you to create your own representation and to see how much you grow and change throughout the years. It’s a very beautiful experience to see all of [your] progress and not just in a linear way.

Semillites. 24: can i get some f*cking privacy? Image courtesy of the Artist.

You explore queerness, gender, and sexuality playfully through your illustrations. Can you expand further about your use of playfulness and the erotic? In what ways do you find playfulness can create an avenue to talk about difficult topics?

I take a lot of inspiration from my cousin who draws and she’s now thirteen years old. When she was younger, we used to draw together, and the way she saw the world mesmerized me. The lack of perception and the lack of constructs she had really inspired me. When I went back to my drawings it was the same things, traces everywhere and colours everywhere. I started to think of the beauty in imperfections and creating art that was closer to that, towards what we did as kids. I think as adults we don’t play enough. We don’t let ourselves do the things that we did as kids, use curiosity, use the colours, and draw on the walls. I think the world would be a better place if we played more often. For me, the solution to unlearn these things is the same way we learn through school-like exercises, through drawing, and stuff like that. I think it’s going back to when we were younger before ideas were glued into our minds. I think it’s a tactic I’m trying to use—I don’t know if it’s working or not but at least I know it works for me because it brings me back to who I was when I was a kid. Especially in the art world where we see art on canvas, art on paper, art in a very specific form I think that when we create outside of that, the possibilities are endless.

Semillites. protect trans lives. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Do you think that art can play a role in social change? How do you find your illustrations intersect with social change and empowering the community around you? 

I believe in my responsibility towards the community of the place that I live right now. I think I have a responsibility towards everything that surrounds me, the people that surround me, the trees, plants, and the land. I also feel like I have a responsibility to respond to the trans community and towards people in México also. I always struggle with thinking [about] who am I talking to and which community am I molding and changing. I think that as artists we have a huge pressure to think that our art can change the world on a global scale, but I think that the most change that [I can create] is when someone who has an experience closer to mine comes to me and says, “Hey I saw something of my myself in that drawing that you did,” or “That drawing made me smile.” Something as small as that to me is so beautiful.

Because I’m an introvert I don’t seek community with that much enthusiasm, I mostly do it online. Although lately, I have been trying to take more direct action. A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to do a self-portrait workshop [which] I said yes to. She got the funding for it and I’ve been doing that over the last two weeks. This is a way I can directly share the tools that I have learned and that I have acquired thanks to the privileges that I also have. I think it’s also about that, debunking the art scene and sharing all the tools that we can for the people that went to art school, that had access to education, who speak two languages, and who have more privileges. I think it’s about sharing and also uplifting the people that we have around us.

It has been a good experience for me to relearn some of the things that I thought I knew but also to connect with people while drawing because I usually do it by myself at my desk with my music. Having other people witness what you’re doing is a different dynamic but a very beautiful dynamic.

Semillites. queer lactose-free fantasy. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Who are some other artists that inspire or influence you?

I look up to artists across Turtle Island from different disciplines! The drawings of Syrus Marcus, the lyrics of Backxwash, the words of jaye simpson, the voice of Luisa Almaguer, the story-telling of Tajliya Jamal, the vulnerability of Lee Lai, the colors of Chhaya Naran, the unapologeticness of Iki Yos Piña, among many other Brown, Black and Indigenous artists!

I have also been immensely inspired lately by trans musicians and singers, especially trans women. I listen to Luisa Almaguer when I’m drawing, and I feel like my drawings flow very differently—I feel very much accompanied by her.

Do you have any other recent or upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?

I’ll still be giving the workshop and will start another series of workshops that are accessible and some are free for trans People of Colour. I am also working on a Snakes and Ladders game, that’s kind of where I’m moving towards with my art. I’m trying to go from prints and nice things that you can put on your wall to things that you can use. As I was telling you, I think playing is so important to me, so I want to incorporate that—games and art. Hopefully, in a few months I’ll be releasing the game.

What is your process like making a game versus a print? Is it a lot of different components?

It kind of reminds me of printmaking and bookmaking since you have a lot of different things to line up and you have to make sure you know the paper is the right size and format and everything. First, I was doing the board [holds up the board over zoom]. I was doing this with the circles and went ahead and did a [first draft] version with some colours. The format is one thing, and images are the other.

For the images, I wanted to do things that I wanted to draw, things that I like that remind me of pleasure and joy. That’s what I wanted to do with this game, explore some of the ideas that I had, but without having to mention them. I just wanted to subconsciously put ideas into people’s minds about fat bodies being beautiful, trans people being happy, and the scissors.

I think there’s that element of the prohibited as well, with sexuality being such a prohibited topic that we don’t get to discuss other than in seminars kind of like sex education. I think conversations about sexuality and gender happen way more organically through our lived experience in a less hierarchal way—it’s more of a horizontal way.

You can check out more of Semillites’ work on their website and Instagram. The next session of self-portraiture workshops will be starting April 3rd at 10 AM PST.

The Art of Food: In Conversation with Meech Boakye

Meech Boakye. Bioplastic Experiments III. Image courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Scrolling down Meech Boakye’s Instagram feed truly demonstrates the art of food— I view a pop of red from cherry tomatoes, floral patterns emerging on crackers, freshly grown asparagus, and bread twisting and turning. The images are not just intriguing to look at and appetite-inducing but create a sense of intrigue through their detailed presentation.

Interdisciplinary artist Meech Boakye performs material research as a ritual, exploring alternatives to extraction and exploitation through care and nurturance. As they further describe, “the markers of my identity and my connection to place has always been fluid and liminal, thus hard to describe in brief.  I’ve found that art focused on these peripheries and in-betweens is a social space. It is through alienation that I am drawn to making and through making I’ve found myself alongside others again.”

Through their work, they have begun to explore the potential of preparing food, foraging, and gardening, as an avenue for communal care and as a means of resistance. They also seek to uncover the hidden labour embedded in neoliberal practices. Meech speaks more about their art and creative process in the following interview.

Meech Boakye. DIY Bath and Body Works Imitation Cold Process Soap Tutorial! still. Image courtesy of the artist.

Your film DIY Bath and Body Works Imitation Cold Process Soap Tutorial is a satirical take on Youtube tutorial videos, commenting on the invisibility of labour and flattening of cultural identity through commodification. Can you explain more about the film and your process?

I recently went back to this work to participate in this online exhibition at Skelf, a virtual projects space. The show, curated by Hang Li, no-longer-being-able-to-be-able, is a response to the neoliberal ideology of constant consumption and productivity, attempting to discuss art-making amidst burnout, overstimulation, and a global crisis. I feel like I’m a very different person than the one that made this work, only a year later, but this year has been long. I made it because I needed to find a hobby. The summer prior, I was dreading winter, as I usually do, as I get pretty bad seasonal depression post-daylight savings. I thought, “What can I do this winter to fill up my free time?” I went on YouTube for a while and just sort of found myself in the world of soap making. It was kind of random, but I think the algorithm was working in my favour.

I was just struck by the number of white soap-makers there were and the gender demographics of soapmaking, which was unsurprising but kind of strange in its repetition. I was just making a video about that originally, not seeing myself, and then I started thinking a bit deeper about soap and cleansing and purity and contamination, etc., words with incredibly loaded, racial, and class undertones that felt even stranger juxtaposed with these soapfluencers on YouTube. We were starting to hear about what was happening in Wuhan and I wasn’t sure if it was too early to be worried yet. I had a stack of sea island cotton scented soap and this new hobby that coincided with a global pandemic. After that, I think the meaning has shifted, or at least my relation to it has. 

I was thinking about the idea of visibly invisible labour. Sondra Perry, in her exhibition Typhoon Coming On, has a work that projects a moving image of her skin, zoomed in to the point of being unrecognizable as a smooth membrane, opposite a chroma blue projection. Like Perry, I was thinking about the depiction of Black and Brown skin in film and TV, which complicates the chroma blue or green screen as a relation to the default white skin tone. I used the chroma blue morph-suit to indicate this idea of something visible, but knowingly made invisible; that these things unfolding around us, both literally and indirectly, are built upon the institution of chattel slavery and normalized through ideology.

The work was a satirical take on these videos using a Bath and Body Works called Sea Island Cotton. I combined the scents Ocean Breeze and Fresh Cotton to approximate the Caribbean cotton plantation dreamt up by Bath & Body Works. I made a large soap bar that could hold an iPhone, so that when you touch it to watch the video, it leaves a residue. Again, the residue acts as this visibly invisible thing; you’re still aware of it even though you can’t really see it. It leaves you with the silhouette of something. 

Meech Boakye. Is This Self Care? installation shot, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.

In your work Is This Self Care? you explore the idea of transplantation and also use marijuana relating to its recent legalization and its use for “self-care,” exploring how this relates to white privilege.  Can you discuss this project and its inspiration?

I wasn’t actually thinking about gardening as self-care until I showed the work. Gardening has become much more prominent as a result of that project, especially as I stay in my family home during quarantine. Gardening in downtown Toronto was pretty restrictive, but I was able to garden indoors with a hydroponic system called an AeroGarden. I wanted to use it to grow weed.

I went online shopping and was so fascinated by the images of people using superfluous tools, the ones with one function like an avocado slicer. This hydroponics machine was kind of unnecessary and expensive. It touted the cleanliness of not using soil and how much faster you could grow a salad on your kitchen counter than in the garden (which is somewhat true). I also noticed that everyone modelling the machine—it’s kind of a common theme—is white. There were these images of white women who were growing lettuce, their overly expressive smiles reminded me of that stock image of the white woman enjoying a salad a bit too much. For some reason, the first thing I thought was, “what if I used this thing to grow weed instead of herbs and lettuce?” which was something I still felt so uncomfortable doing even in a place where it’s legalized. I even had half of the amount of plants that were technically legal.

It was one of those projects that I found out what it meant as I did it. As it was living, it’s one of those works that can’t be recreated, well it could but its meaning would shift as it grew. I had some printed images of these women growing the lettuce framed by these hemp growing mats. I was also exploring the idea that hemp is the part of the plant that’s considered more acceptable was used for utility like in food or clothing, but the part that you get pleasure out of was criminalized.

You use food and natural processes as a form of artistic expression, the things you make are incredible—How did you first begin exploring food as an art medium? How does using food and gardening as a medium relate to your everyday life and act as a way to explore ideas of communal care?

As I was making soap and figuring out what I wanted to do with my time (while trying to get a bit less screen time and work with my hands more), I became interested in the entire timeline of objects and living things. I didn’t just want to know how to make a pasta meal for dinner but I wanted to know how to make pasta dough, how to grind flour, how to grow wheat—essentially trying to acknowledge the labour embedded in objects by making things from scratch. And this was partly an attempt for a new hobby to pass the time, but also a larger web of thinking I was beginning to engage with to remedy the alienation that I was deeply feeling.

A lot of the things I’ve made are kind of pointlessly rigorous. Well, not in the sense that there is no point in making them, but, and I feel this especially being at home with my family, I’m often asked “why are you doing this?” And I don’t really know why. I just like the process and the presence of making something somewhat challenging from scratch. Some days I’m just killing time. Other days I’m learning how to take care.

I also like the idea that I can make something that takes several days and eat it with people I love in thirty minutes. That ephemerality is incredibly rewarding, it reminds [me] that making a thing, not just the end product, is what I enjoy about art. I’m sure that’s the same for most artists.

When the pandemic started getting bad and lockdown began, my immediate thought was that I don’t want to make art. Making art during a crisis felt wrong, or just irrelevant in some way, and I’ve been trying to get to the root of why I thought that. I also didn’t really stop, I just started making art differently. The thing about food is that it has a purpose, I can share it, I can eat it and nourish myself. Even in a superfluous state, it goes somewhere useful. I don’t really believe that art has to be utile in that way, pleasure is “useful,” but that distinction helps justify art making for me as my surroundings continue to fall apart.

Meech Boakye. Bioplastics IV. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

In what ways are you interested in using food as a means of social practice, or social resistance, through artistic intervention? 

In February of last year, I was part of a collaborative project led by an artist I admire dearly, Dana Prieto, chef Milo Ramirez, architect Reza Nik and I. Beyond Extraction, in conversation with the Beyond Extraction Counter Conference to PDAC (Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada), a networking event for the biggest and villainous corporate extractors worldwide. We created this mobile food stand to serve people protesting outside the convention center at the People before Profit rally. We fed protesters meals from the communities affected by extraction in the three countries that were sponsoring this year’s conference—Brazil, Peru and Canada. And we were sharing these meals not just to nourish people on a very cold afternoon, but [the] food was a way to connect us to these sites of extraction. As Indigenous populations are usually the most harmed through mining practices, the recipes were mainly Indigenous in origin. I was reminded, sweetly, how food can bring people together. If anything, free food can easily get a smile. It was honestly a really cool experience. We were serving chili and it was such a cold day. This was right before the pandemic too, or right before the restrictions of the pandemic, and we were handing out food in a crowd. It was the last time I would be around such a large group of people for a while.

I’ve begun to think about social practice art differently as I get more involved in community organizing. For a while, I wanted to make art about politics and social issues, but it was merely illustration, pointing at things. I’ve shifted to work as process rather than making a work about something. Making food has allowed me to connect making with communal care, performing labour as an expression of love to share with living things. I think this work, especially performed at the time it was performed, was an important inception point in thinking about sharing food as care and as social practice.

Making food has allowed me to connect making with communal care, performing labour as an expression of love to share with living things.

I’ve spent most of my time in quarantine with my family and making food for them as our small community unit has been incredibly fulfilling. For a while I also spent a lot of time on Instagram, connecting with a variety of weird and wonderful food accounts that sprang up during the pandemic. I’ve been connecting with people online by sharing my food creations in a way that I never have before. Food connects to each of us so deeply and we all want to talk about why. I am trying to translate this discrete individual ritual into a cyber-social space I’m clinging onto because it’s missing right now. But frankly, it has always left me with a lasting sense of ennui.

Who are some artists that inspire you and your practice?

Sondra Perry, Tiare Ribeaux’s Bioplastics Cookbook for Ritual Healing from Petrochemical Landscapes guides my practice with thoughts on communal material research as rituals for healing from extraction and tools for resistance. Sharona Franklin is a huge influence, she originally got me interested in gelatin and healing. When I first saw Franklin’s work, I just thought, “I’ve never seen food that looks like this,” it just blew my mind. Her work got me interested in edibility, and the idea of something being edible but looking sort of strange is intriguing and curious and beautiful.

I kept weaving in and out of it but I finally finished reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which taught me a lot and was also a dream to read. The Mushroom at the end of the World by Anna Tsing helped me understand assemblages and loving a forest. In the winter I tend towards nature books, but specifically, those tend towards social ecology. I also read recently various books about cephalopods, and trees and psychedelic plants.

This isn’t an artist, but walking has become part of my practice as well. Being able to rest and walk, and look at the fractals in the leaves and look for mushrooms. That’s been just as important for me right now.

I know what you mean. I have an obsession with queer ecology as of lately, and my inspirations have been books as well.

When I think of books and walks as inspirations, I don’t mean they specifically influence the content of the work, but they sort of become part of the work. The rest they provide, the ability to reflect on what you are creating before or after or during, this part of the process is just as imperative to making art. We are constantly told to be productive as if our productivity is also a measure of our value as a person. Rest is the most important thing you can do to continue going.

You can find more of Meech Boakye’s work on their website and Instagram.

Time Well Wasted: Yawn By Julia McDougall

Wasting Time by Yawn still. 2021.

By Harper Wellman

Yawn is the latest project for Vancouver-based artist and musician Julia McDougall, who began her musical journey in Saskatchewan before earning a Composition Degree at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. Post-University, McDougall pursued her career—living and performing in Berlin, producing her self-titled EP alongside Andy Shauf, a Polaris prize nominee, and working at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music. Like McDougall herself, Yawn has seen a journey beginning in 2015. Initially recording and performing with other musicians, Yawn has been distilled down to its originator, following up a folk-influenced debut with a dream-pop statement of a new direction. With the release of Yawn’s new song, Wasting Time, and a new music video, directed by Leanne Kriz and starring dancer Shannon Gray, Yawn’s visuals and sounds are pushing their boundaries, exploring ideas of growth, isolation, and hope.

Yawn, Wasting Time still. 2021.

Thank you for talking with us. Can you tell us about your music career how Yawn as a project came to be? What was your vision when you started the project, and how has that evolved?

I’m originally from Saskatchewan, and I’ve been making music and playing shows since I was young. I grew up in a really small town where there was nothing to do. I have a memory of going into a wheat field to write poems as a kid. Writing kind of came first for me, then when I started playing music it seemed natural to me that they should come together. As a teen, my friends and I would book halls and organize shows and get bands from other places to come and play. I started recording and releasing music – it was all very cute and DIY. When I was older I left to study composition at SFU, continuing to write songs on the side. After university, I moved away to Berlin for a bit where I joined a psych-rock band, and then came back to go back to school for my teaching degree. It was around this time that Yawn started to take shape. It was a slow-moving project that began as a casual band in about 2015 and over the years grew into a more concrete ensemble. We released an EP in the summer of 2019 but for me, it never sat right. It felt close to what I wanted for a project but was somehow misaligned with my vision overall. I ended up parting ways with the band because I realized that I needed to trust my gut and not have to compromise on anything (so diva, right?). This is the version of Yawn you’re hearing today. A version that feels much truer to the project I’ve always wanted and more aligned with who I really am. 

Yawn, Wasting Time still. 2021.

Wasting Time is much different from You and I. Lyrically, things are much more pointed. Can you speak to this transition and why for you, sometimes less is more? What was your intent, or inspiration while writing and recording Wasting Time?

Wasting Time took a totally new and different direction than You & I, which I think you can feel in the music. I wanted to fall deeper into the electro dream-pop world and leave behind the folk side of things. Interesting that you should say it’s lyrically more pointed, maybe I’m just getting to the point more succinctly? For me, the way that I write hasn’t changed since I was a kid writing poems in the prairies. I try to be true and honest about what I have to say. Maybe with Wasting Time I have a better understanding of who I am and what I want to say, which is mostly that I want to capture the kind of human experiences that leave you feeling a bit lost or confused. It’s a way for me to air out my thoughts a bit. 

The song is about accepting life as an artist and persevering in the face of adversity. 

My intent with Wasting Time was to bring a single from this new iteration of Yawn to the table. I had a really clear idea of what I wanted the song to feel like and what came out from this recording mirrors what I had in my mind. For me, the song is about accepting life as an artist and persevering in the face of adversity. It’s also just a reminder to myself, to say “Hey, don’t forget, this is who you are. You can’t run or hide from it, it will find you.” My inspiration really stemmed from frustration. I often feel frustrated by how little artists are appreciated (economically) and how much work it is to push for what you want. Sometimes a song is a way for me to acknowledge myself and hold myself while I’m working through it all. 

Tell us about the video for Wasting Time. While you do make a cameo, it was filmed in LA, quite quickly, while you were in Vancouver. Can you tell us about the process of how this team and video came together? Were you involved in all aspects of the video, or were there certain things you had to entrust to your team? 

The director of this video, Leanne Kriz, is a friend from Vancouver who’s based out of LA. During COVID she started developing these cool music videos and I asked her if she’d be interested in working with me. The way that the whole thing came together really surprised me. It was so natural, Leanne and I were so in sync in our ideas and she has a brilliant mind when it comes to art direction and design. I wanted the video to border pop and art, and I wanted it to be moody and magical. Leanne had this idea of a flower monster that is at first lethargic but over time they kind of evolve into this inspired monster. We circulated around ideas of coming to a kind of higher self or just coming to own who you are which is the essence of the song. I loved the idea and the result was so close to our original concept it was amazing. We had a shoestring budget to work with but Leanne and the team did an incredible job. It was shot in one day, and I should also mention our dancer, Shannon Gray, did an incredible job capturing the emotions of the song and evoking the ideas that we wanted to capture. When Leanne told her we needed to be an apathetic monster she said “that’s great, I did a whole performance workshop on apathy!” (Like, what are the odds?) Paul Helzer was also our lighting designer and he helped with some of the shots. To the team down in California, I am so grateful to you! 

I was involved in all the conceptual aspects of the video but when it came to the actual shoot and execution Leanne and her team did all the work. I felt bad because she would text me photos from the set saying, “Do you like this?” Or “what about this shot?” I guess that’s how things have to work during COVID. I was lucky though because Leanne listened to me and was open to my input. It meant a lot to me and I could tell that everyone involved with the project was super dedicated to making the song come alive through this video.

Yawn, Wasting Time still. 2021.

I am curious to know how your work as a music educator has influenced Yawn, or your music generally. Do they inspire you? Or does your music provide a break from being an educator?

I’ve been a teacher at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music for about 5 years now. I think of teaching as very separate from the music I make but my students inspire me all of the time. They are always showing me new music and new ways of thinking. Or sometimes a student will say something so profound without even meaning to and it gives me life. The school is kind of my one working refuge that isn’t like real-world jobs and I’m very thankful for it. My colleagues also inspire me constantly – they are movers and shakers in the music world, each in their own way, and I look up to all of them.

With the year we’ve had, I think many people are looking for new music. Who are some of the artists that got you through 2020, and what does 2021 look like for Yawn?

That’s a tough one. I listened to a lot of different stuff over COVID but sometimes I found myself feeling like I wasn’t even listening at all, do you know what I mean? Like you’re so lost in what’s happening, so buried in it that really deep listening isn’t there for you? That’s what has been happening for me. Still, I listened to Caroline Polachuck a lot in the summer and Moses Sumney. I listened to Adrianne Lenker, perfume genius, Tirzah. Lots of things. Ethiopian jazz too. 

For Yawn, I hope I can get lots of funding and make a record in 2021. That’s my biggest goal and I’m looking forward to achieving it. This is the record I’ve been wanting to make for a long, long time. I feel ready. I also hope I can just continue. I hope shows and festivals happen again. I hope we get vaccinated. I hope life can resume but I don’t even know what that means anymore. I’m still hopeful anyway, and maybe that’s enough. 

The new music video for Wasting Time is out now. Connect with Yawn online to keep up with what’s next.