Migueltzinta C. Solís’s “The Gay Villain Rides Again”

The Gay Villain Rides Again: The History of A Queer Biker” by Migueltzinta C. Solís

Performance lecture, 16 April 2021

Co-presented by the University of Lethbridge and Queer/Disrupt (UK)

This is Not a Bike, Migueltzinta Solís, 2021.Image from performative academic presentation, The Gay Villain Rides Again

By Lauren Gabrielle Fournier

TW/CW: Mention of residential schools

“I love a sloppy archive,” Migueltzinta C. Solís says during the Q&A of his recent performance lecture. There is power-to-be-harnessed in the mess, in the slop, in the spaces that resist sanitization and homogenization, that resist ossification. There is power in the sour spaces, the spaces where one can harness the possibilities of art practice, including performance and parafiction (art and literary work in which fiction is presented as fact), in history-making, in the resisting of the power of singular status-quo narratives that uphold those in power and protect them from being questioned. And at a time when the very grim aspects of Canada’s history are being revealed—with the unearthing of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children at the former grounds of a residential school in Kamloops and, more recently, Manitoba—the urgency around Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups having agency in the telling of history is resounding. These events remind us of the consequentiality of history and how it is told—what is included in historical stories and what is left out. While coverage of recent news events can make it look as though these horrors are outlying events, marking singular “sad days” for Canadians, Indigenous folks will point out, rightly, that these horrific, genocidal events are at the heart of the very founding of Canada—a colonial country on stolen, Indigenous lands, with very long histories for thousands of different Indigenous groups.

With the colonialization of lands comes other colonial inheritances, including the University. Academia and its rituals, methods, and languages are another impact of European colonialization, and we are experiencing a moment of reckoning right now. Challenging and subverting colonialist academia from Indigenous, BIPOC, and queer perspectives is a worthy endeavour. In Mestizx artist Migueltzinta C. Solís’s recent performance lecture “The Gay Villain Rides Again: The History of a Queer Biker,” we get what the artist himself calls an “academically-subversive performance.” In it, Solís tells a story from queer history that he happens upon and in some senses discovers; through personal experience, archival research, interviews, reading, and embodied reflection and deduction. As an artist with a background in performance art, Solís experiments with how research can be presented to academic, art, and non-academic communities, and in this way his practice can be said to ‘queer’ academic structures—which includes bringing more depth and breadth to the archives recognized by academic institutions,  and “queering” the very methodologies recognized as legitimate and worthwhile in those spaces.                           

Tugmented archival image from performative academic presentation, The Gay Villain Rides Again. This is Not a Bike, Migueltzinta Solís, 2021.Original photograph by Sylvan Rand.

The turning toward history from one’s personal and research-based art practice seems particularly generative in a present moment where issues from “history” are urgent and still being processed and uncovered—including the aforementioned news about Canada’s residential schools, and the challenging of the names of many Canadian universities, including Ryerson University, named after one of the architects of the so-named Indian residential school system. The tendency for queer artists to engage with history and the archive is common, often as a way for queers to find their “ancestors” and better understand their own selves and sense of belonging in history. Other queer artists working on the colonized lands of so-called Canada, like Cait McKinney and Hazel Meyer (their collaborations at the Toronto Reference Library and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archive in Toronto, for example), have used the performance lecture format to present their embodied findings as queer settlers engaging in the writing of queer histories and interventions in the archive. Solís extends the performance lecture from his perspective as a queer artist, Indigenous to Mexico but situated today on Treaty 7 Blackfoot territory, to reveal the changeability of history as a story. Indeed, the telling of “history” is always the telling of a story, from a particular, subjective perspective, even as there might be rhetorical attempts at objectivity by those who self-identify as historians.

This is Not a Bike, Migueltzinta Solís, 2021.

            The artist’s presentation centers on the story of a figure named Solitaire, a mysterious spectre in the background and fringes of gay and lesbian (queer) motorcycle clubs of the mid through late 20th century. Before he begins the story, Solís apologizes preemptively for his “treatment of history:” he is not trained as a historian or a sociologist, he notes, but is an artist “dabbling” in history and the archive. While I take his point, I have a feeling that his “dabbling” is going to be much more than what it sounds like. After all, this work emerged after nearly a decade of lived experience, research, and practice tied to the topic at hand, and demonstrates rigorous academic research alongside oral storytelling, imaging, and parafiction. The fact that Solís feels compelled to make this statement in his opening points to the urgency of decolonizing what constitutes legitimate methodological approaches within universities and who can do what kind of work, especially when it comes to the understanding, interpretation, and production of history—itself wrapped up in often violent colonialist, hetero and cis, Eurocentric biases.

            The story begins in San Francisco in 2012, when Migueltzinta lived in Oakland and was cruising on the Castro and shopping in consignment stores, before finding a leather jacket that fit him almost “magically.” He found a single playing card with handwritten inscriptions in the pocket, and this moment becomes the engine driving the narrative that ensues. It is this card as a cultural object which launches Migueltzinta into a practice of historical research, him comparing the card’s design to playing cards from the 1900s onward, and ultimately coming to the Satyrs, a Gay Motorcycle Club from the 1950s. Coincidence, happenstance, lived experience, all become drivers in what Migueltzinta researches and what questions he asks.

            The artist tells the story in the first-person “I,” moving between the autobiographical/anecdotal and the historical and presenting this in the form of a lecture: a Powerpoint presentation enlivened by Migueltzinta’s dynamic, live narration. Solís’s bridging of gay motorcycle clubs and Dykes on Bikes was a nice way of cultivating queer solidarity across differences—specifically gay male versus lesbian difference—with Solitaire as a figure being the figurative bridge between the two. Solís learns, through interviews and archival (specifically image-based/photographic) research, that Solitaire rode a bicycle which they called the “Gay Villain;” they put playing cards in the spokes of their bicycle to make it sound like a motorcycle, the cards loudly flapping in the wind. Contemporaneous historical events are discussed, including the Occupation of Alcatraz, an occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indigenous students and other Bay Area Native Americans from 1969 through 1971.

This is Not a Bike, Migueltzinta Solís, 2021.Original photograph sourced from The Los Angeles Times.

            Grounded in historical research and more traditional academic methods, Solís also engages in speculation as part of his process of forming hypotheses. As he works to uncover the “real story of Solitaire,” nearing a conclusion, he engages in a practice of “a theorizing of what Solitaire might have looked like,” and “a theorizing of what a female-presenting Solitaire might have looked like,” and a theorizing of a timeline of Solitaire’s life. And when he finally came to a place in the work where he felt he had a solid theory of Solitaire, Solís was presented with new evidence—photographs of Solitaire wearing what Solís lovingly calls the “vajacket” (jacket with a slit that resembles a vagina), and which radically changed what Solís had thought. “Had I been tricked?” Solís asked, aloud. “Had I somehow tricked myself?” Solís devises two solutions, which move the performance into the realm of parafiction: Solitaire might be a time traveler.

Solís does not stop there but goes on to auto-theorize his own parafictional move: “The act of longing for an idea of the past turns desire into a time machine.” Thus, the lecture concludes on the note of collective queer desire and the ways this drives what questions we ask.

Augmented archival image from performative academic presentation, The Gay Villain Rides Again. This is Not a Bike, Migueltzinta Solís, 2021.Original photograph by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover.

            By bringing in his own queer, trans, Indigenous perspective alongside varied forms of research and writing, Solís shows the potential for autotheoretical modes of art practice in the present-day university. He brings in “queer evidence,” both forms of evidence that lie somehow outside of traditional, colonial, academic structures, but also queerness as itself a form of evidencing—an idea that Dr. Suzanne Lenon, a Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Lethbridge, brings up in the Q&A after the talk. There, Lenon and Solís discussed academic methodologies and what it means to “queer” evidentiary support, as well as ideas of the “bad academic” and the politics, aesthetics, and ethics of engaging “unreliable” forms of knowledge and narration. The artist describes this performance as a “project of self-envisioning within a history;” here, he as an Indigenous and queer person is envisioned alongside and as part of the history, now present and speaking within and about contested histories that are changeable.

Jess MacCormack’s SHAME SHAME, Go Away Illustrates the Invisible

Jess MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away, 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist. ID: A colourful book resting closed on a wooden table, its front cover facing up. The book’s title reads “Shame Shame Go Away” in hand-painted letters with the author’s name, Jess MacCormack, neatly painted below. The title is written on the back of a blue hand with bright red fingernails painted in watercolor. The backdrop of the cover is a juicy pink and a few leafy plants grow out from the edges of the cover. Half of a skull peers out from the spine of the book and a rainbow shoots across it to the opposite corner of the book. 

By Rebecca Casalino

Trigger and Content Warning: trauma, sexual assault, police violence, and mentions of medical procedures and suicide.

Settler Canadian culture can be summarized in one word: silence. Many difficult topics like mental health, trauma, and gender identity are considered taboo and continue to be policed by social norms and ‘politeness,’ stigmatizing these very real experiences. These cultural aspects are supported and enforced by colonial police forces and medical institutions. These topics become the monsters living under our beds; always there, always hidden just beneath, seen by children and invisible to adults. Jess MacCormack’s book SHAME SHAME, Go Away grabs these monsters by their ankles and pulls them out from under the covers into the light of day. That being said, please take the time to steady yourself before reading this review (and Jess’s book) and make space for your own emotional needs.

Jess MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away, 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist. ID: White hands holding a book open on a wooden table. These pages have blocks of printed text and painted imagery. A group of three figures in conversation is repeated twice on the left page. In the second iteration, one figure pushes another to the side as they accept a gift. On the right “Empathy” is painted in cursive over a patch of white that covers a grey face with red cheeks and lips. Three little hearts rise above their bald head. A hand reaches down from the top of the page with blood-red nails.
Jess MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away, 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist. ID: White hands hold the book open on a wooden table. These pages have blocks of printed texts with painted text and imagery surrounding it. A bald head is peaking up from the bottom of the page, their eyes are rimmed with blue and they are holding cursive text that reads “help us” above their head. The opposite page is a grey stylized torso with red pigment accenting nipples, bellybutton, crotch, knees, and elbows. A block of text is in a white circle in the center of the torso.

SHAME SHAME, Go Away is written and illustrated by MacCormack, a Vancouver-based artist, activist and educator invested in queer politics, mental health, embodiment, and decriminalization.  Dedicated to their late friend Mia Rose Cameron, a teenager who died by suicide, SHAME SHAME, Go Away shares MacCormack’s experiences to bring light to the impacts of childhood trauma on people’s mental health and the damaging effects of medical and [in]justice systems.

SHAME SHAME, Go Away begins with the story of a series of police encounters. At age six little Jess presents a hand-written book to the police, MacCormack writes that they were “Eager to please [the cops] with my extensive knowledge.”[1] The small book outlines details of their sexual assault and lists the names of other girls who were abused. A small green puzzle piece, which had been a gift from their abuser, was taped in the book as proof. This is written out in the first two-page spread of SHAME SHAME, Go Away in a stylized hand-written font, rotating in colour across paragraphs. Within this first spread, two floating faces look back at the reader with wide eyes framed by arched brows, their mouth is in a soft grimace as the black watercolour bleeds out to meet a rim of red. Two pools of black pigment make nostrils and thick black lines frame wide blue eyes like clumpy mascara. Fingertips bleed into grey skin and stylized black lines form deep nail beds as two hands reach in to touch the pages. Even with details of the assaults written out as proof, it was not enough to convince the Canadian [in]justice system this man was not some imaginary monster under their bed. MacCormack writes: “He got two months in jail. And when he got out, he stalked us. After a few years, everyone seemed to have forgotten I was abused at all.”[2] He was never charged for crimes against Jess, as they were considered “too young” to know what had really happened and they might be “making things up.” It is no wonder why most people choose to not report their assaults at all.

Jess MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away, 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist. ID: White hands hold open a book on a wooden table. This spread is mostly illustrated, with some text, and is all hand-painted using watercolour. Blue hands with red knuckles and nails reach up from the bottom edge of the book. Leafy plants grow from their fingertips and along the edge of the pages. Two faces that are blue and red, with horns are crying, are accompanied by a pair of red apples and toothy skulls. Snakes and grey horned figures, with red accenting their eyes, nipples, and crotches. A starry sky is painted in the upper corner. One page reads “triggered”. The other says “i’m not dead i’m hiding.”

SHAME SHAME, Go Away feels like the second iteration of MacCormack’s book that they made as a child, in the sense that they are reaching out to explain what has happened to them and to the people they care for. In presenting their personal narratives, readers are freed from the constraints of medicalized terminology and language so often associated with research around mental health, childhood trauma, and sexual assault. MacCormack tells their own story, in their own way, making space to explain, understand, and process dissociative identity disorder (DID) from the perspective of their lived experiences instead of the sweeping terms that doctors, and medical writing present such personal realities. MacCormack lists parts that make up themself in SHAME SHAME, Go Away: an outgoing teenage girl, a protective boy, an anxious six-year-old as well as other parts and fragments to explain their experience of DID to readers. MacCormack makes room for all their parts amongst drawings of human and cat faces painted in greys. On the more monochrome pages spot colour stands out, bleeding red pigment marks mouths and genitals. Blue eyes look back at the reader, the watercolours extending like outstretched fingers. “feel” is written lightly in watercolor, so is “help me.” The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has historically been harmful to queer people, women, Black people, Indigenous folks, and communities of colour, yet it remains as the de facto resource for doctors, patients, and loved ones to learn about illnesses. SHAME SHAME, Go Away becomes a tool for preventing further shame by sharing experiential knowledge through creative, affective, and personalized means, instead of universalized (isolating and stigmatizing) medical terminology.

Jess MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away, 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist. ID: White hands holding a book open on a wooden table. The page on the left is all hand-painted. “they won’t believe us” is written over a starry sky at the top of the page framed by two grey-horned figures. Below is a pair of red-rimmed eyes with tears streaming past a nose and mouth. A grey body with red veins running down its neck and legs lays in a pool of blue water surrounded by grass and leafy plants. Above the figure hovers a toothy skull. On the right page, a horned demon hangs upside down with tears coming out of its horns. A block of printed text is in the center of the page. Beneath the text is a grey skull with two rainbows shooting out of its head on either side. Two blue hands with red nails are on either side of the skull and leafy plants grow from the edge of the page.

Women, trans and non-binary bodies are not welcome within medicine. We come with too many complications, too many differences to cis men for whom these institutions are built for.[3] Our concerns of pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion are rumours in hallways or secrets wrapped in shame. These realities have a far greater impact on Black and Indigenous folks, as well as communities of colour, within the medical systems on Turtle Island (North America) because of institutional racism. Jess details their experience of being pregnant at twenty, going through the abortion without anesthesia, and the fallouts of the first procedure. MacCormack writes “I’d realized it was a botched procedure when I started hemorrhaging at work. The manager said there was no one to cover me. I couldn’t leave.”[4] I gag on the story with Jess as we try to understand this trauma.

SHAME SHAME, Go Away deals with many forms of trauma. Reading MacCormack’s experience resurrects stories I had buried long ago. Stories of loved ones’ sexual assault and violence I had kept in fear and paranoia. My own stories are made real again with old screenshots and lists of witnesses hidden in my computer. (I remember disclosing to a friend the next day, I was blushing in my naivety, but her face was angry and serious. It wasn’t until years later while listening to #MeToo stories I realized what had happened to me was attempted sexual assault.)[5] These experiences are tattooed on my skin and it surprises me how invisible they are to everyone else. MacCormack knows this powerful invisibility, as they write: “I like how they dust powder on the walls and it makes the prints of his fingers appear. They should brush our bodies.”[6] My bound copy of SHAME SHAME, Go Away is a physical reminder of these hard truths and realities people seem so eager to erase. A skull wraps around the spine of the book, one eye peers at the reader on the cover, a little horned figure dances on its head at the spine and its toothy grin stretches onto the back cover. Sitting on my bookshelf the skull looks back at me tracing invisible lines with its pages, making real what others hope to bury.

This article corresponds with the event that took place on April 25, 2021 in collaboration with the London Ontario Media Arts Association (LOMAA) “Jess MacCormack in Discussion with Rebecca Casalino.” You can grab a copy of SHAME SHAME, Go Away on Jess MacCormack’s website.

[1] Jess MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away, Hemlock Printers, (Vancouver: 2020).

[2] MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away.

[3] Roman Mars and Caroline Criado Perez, “Invisible Women,” 99% Invisible, Episode 365, July 23rd 2019, Last Accessed May 17th 2021, https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/invisible-women/.

[4] MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away.

[5] Even writing this here seems silly but then I walk myself through the whole night and it all becomes very serious.

[6] MacCormack, SHAME SHAME, Go Away.

Framing Black Sisterhood: An Interview with Gio Swaby By Nya Lewis

Claire Oliver Gallery (Harlem, NY) presents debut exhibition by artist Gio Swaby Both sides of the Sun on view April 10 – June 5, 2021

Gio Swaby. New Growth 8, Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas, Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

By Nya Lewis

Gio Swaby‘s work seeks to underscore joy and resilience while showcasing the beauty in imperfection and individuality as a counterpoint to the often-politicized Black body. Ranging from creating life-scale black and white sewn line portraits, to polychrome floral quilted works, Swaby is a multimedia textile artist whose figurative work explores the intersection of womanhood and Blackness: celebrating individuality and multiple ways of being rather than a flattened singular narrative. Swaby is a graduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada. She is currently an MFA candidate at OCAD University in Toronto, where she currently resides.

Sunday mornings are for waffle brunch, soulful music, plant watering, and sisterhood. I had the honor of sitting down with artist Gio Swaby, who allowed me to be a slow witness to her practice as we recapped her skyrocket success from her 2018 exhibit in a Vancouver storefront to the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, The New York Times, and beyond. From one Carib transplant to another, she greets me with a warm recognizable accent. We immediately dive into anecdotes about missing home, food, sunny weather, grannies, and colorful contemporary art. After a decade of performance, film, painting, drawing, prominent art collectors enthusiastically receive her textile work, in her major debut show at the Claire Oliver Gallery.

Gio Swaby, Pretty Pretty 6. Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas, Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Contributing to a new wave of bad-ass crafters and quilters, Swaby’s bold silhouettes and fabric on canvas work comes alive, meeting the call of freedom, reckoning, and subtlety that encompasses the ever-expanding definition of Black womanhood. The works are in conversation with each other, as she creates an enclave of safety and healing, framing Black sisterhood. It is inspiring. Like many of her influences, Beverly Y. Smith, Bisa Butler, Sherry Shine, Faith Ringgold, Ebony Patterson, Tavares Strachan, and other unnamed, underrepresented, and under-supported Black women artists that have paved the way for textile portraiture to be considered in galleries and institutions, Swaby uses quilting as a medium to challenge identity politics and relay diverse narratives of Black womanhood, speaking to the splendor and skill of the sewing tradition. The humble 29-year-old artist exhibits like a distinguished archive in her evolved ability to capture detail. The life-scale line works, created entirely from thread, the small-scale, intimate 11 x 14 mixed-media textile portraits, every facial inflection, bend of the knee, and movement in the garment is made real through needlework. The works are delicate, emotionally coded, and strategically minimal.

She is reclaiming the aesthetic values of Caribbean practices; the works straddle African traditions and post-modern European ideas of creativity. Swaby’s creations are bright, colorful, tactile artworks that challenge the impossible possibility of inserting marginalized folk art into the mainstream western canon. Swaby is masterfully skilled and has firmly situated herself within art history’s portrait tradition. Afros, dreadlocks, widespread noses, and beautiful smiles on Victorian florals, laces, and needlepoint rings- Swaby contrasts modern diasporic identity, challenging the visual vocabulary and conventions of colonial history and prestige. The models dressed in their everyday clothing assume organic poses and postures, inviting the audience to a self-proclaimed visual inheritance, the Black feminine. Each work is as unique as its subject and successfully portrays a celebration of strength and vulnerability. Though the subjects and stylistic references for her textiles seem oddly juxtaposed, the exhibit speaks to a long and complex relationship with women and sewing. Embroidery, needlepoint, and sewing crafts historically are intrinsically tied to women’s art. Some of the earliest acknowledgments of women’s art are in religious embroidery script and textile. Stich work is loaded with a heritage of women’s protest, activism, and resourcefulness. Predating the right of Black women to be counted members of society, craft, and domestic arts were central to women’s artistic identity. At the unique intersection of womanhood and Blackness, enslaved Afro-descendants used quilting as an innovative way to record and transfer their knowledge and history, and later as one of the only viable forms of labor in colonized regions.

For Gio, there is tremendous ancestral pride and pleasure in crafting. The power is in the doing and in the process of making. The exhibit embodies her connection to the medium, as the artworks are founded on traditions handed down from her mother and grandmother. Swaby’s mother passed away in 2020 and was a lifelong seamstress whose home sewing station was never short of extra fabric and thread. Gio shares that her school uniforms, clothes, and linens were sewn by her mother, who taught her to use the machine. Fabric and tactile work are an ingrained influence that allows for closeness and connection to her departed mum. For her, sewing is meditative, reformative, and revolutionary.

NL: Nassau massive! I have had the privilege of following your career for the last four years, and one of the reoccurring themes for you has been an investigation of displacement and longing. What does Both sides of the Sun vocalize, and are there new concepts in conversation?

GS: My grandmother had a quote that hung in the house, the author always escapes me, but I will never forget the line, “To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides” All the women that I have represented and drawn in these works are from the Bahamas, and the physical separation from them (now due to COVID) but in life due to school and other opportunities, has also severed my connection to Black women I love, to the sisterhoods that fuels me. I see the sun as a connector, the spiritual bridge between when I feel the sun and when they feel the sun sustains me.

NL: How have your personal experiences shaped your solo exhibit?

GS: This exhibit needed to feel like joy. It has been a year of working through trauma- and this body of work allowed me to look at resistance through a lens of healing. Love, liberation, joy are all also forms of resistance when enacted by Black communities. There is an emotional labor that goes into Black sisterhood. The adjacency demands work and personal responsibility. On this spectrum of resistance lives restoration. Living in Canada, especially in Vancouver, you are completely isolated from Black community. Finding other Bahamian Black women, befriending them, has been my main support system. That sharing of experiences is important. We hold reflections of love up for one another. Bahamian women show up for you when it is difficult to show up and vocalize fear, pain, stress. They show up with little explanation needed. That is the cultural coding.

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 5. Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas, Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

NL: Bisa Butler, whose exhibition at the Institute of Chicago headlines for the recognition of quilting currently, has influenced your work significantly. There is more discourse now about how Black women artists have contributed to the American canon historically, including the very significant aesthetic and tradition of quilting; how has this impacted your evolution?

GS: It is still unimaginable to me that Bisa Butler and I are represented by the same gallery. Her quilting made it possible for me to see a path to institutional engagement. She led the way. Artists like Faith Ringgold and Ebony Patterson, Tavares Strachan (who showed at the Venice Biennale) their technique specifically for Black artists have forged a distinct artistic identity in relationship to textile work and the diaspora. There are a million more writers and filmmakers, and practitioners who have shaped my perspective, Kachelle Knowles, and her minimalism and simplicity. All of these artists helped me to develop my own sense of authenticity.

NL: There has been a noticeable evolution in your work both in scale and medium. My first introduction to your work was with your moon man, which was more performance and film-based. Your show at the Cheeky Proletariat explored more intimately sized needlepoint portraits. At the time, you created by projecting your image onto the fabric and tracing your shadow. How has the articulation of your craft shifted?

GS: I didn’t want to be tied to any medium. I wanted to make sure I had access to whatever skill would be necessary for the work I was dreaming up. Bold silhouettes and fabric pieces are still a part of my aesthetic. I have introduced more line work. They are sewn some by hand, most by the sewing machine. Blind sewn and displayed on the reverse side of the canvas. There is a beauty in the imperfection of the knots and excess threading hanging, and bare stitching. Going home gave me an opportunity to have models sit for me. This shifted my process to a focus on capturing the power and detail from the photo reference to the canvas, this felt monumental, and so the pieces should be monumental in size. I like to think my practice is circular. I come back around to mediums and pieces as I explore different ways of making. I will never be finished; I am always reaching towards new levels.

NL: There is a complexity both in theory and in form that reminds me of Kehinde Wiley. You use the subject’s personal style as a tool to unpack this experience of invisibility and hypervisibility. It is a spectacle to see Black women in their natural form resisting the power dynamics and harm of misogynoir. Black bodies in public space can become overtly politicized. You have subverted the gaze by posturing them in regal-ity, a rewriting of history similar to Wiley, who repositions Black people into spaces of empowerment, inclusion, and unapologetic self-expression. How does your work respond to the times?

GS: This is a love letter to Black women. A celebration of strength, resourcefulness, usefulness, and vulnerability. I am making space to divest from the tropes and imposed imagery of Black normality to share a moment that encourages the audience to see every line detail that makes these individuals special. There is specificity to the work. It asks us to consider multiple ways of being and seeing. To challenge how we observe Black womanhood and to hold room to have primary, more important dialogue about Black sisterhood, which is to ask how do we want to see ourselves and each other?

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 3, Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas. Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image Courtesy of the artist.

NL: Black Artists in North America are experiencing a heightened interest in their expertise and practice. After the murder of George Floyd, many institutions went into survivalist mode, quickly acquiring Black art and hiring Black practitioners as the lack of representation in their galleries was called into question. How do you navigate tokenism, and do you feel forced to create identity-based work?

GS: Not forced, but honored, part of my identity as a Black artist is that I feel called to this work. I have a strong interest in exploring Afro-diasporic identities in my work. This investigation is just for myself, and I often create without the expectation that anyone is going to see it. It is about the process. The work is in the visiting. I am building a balance between aesthetic and concept by trying to prioritize real connection. I love Blackness so much, the creativity and the uniqueness, the similarities between us, between Black women globally, there is always something inspiring to find there. I am always wary of tokenism. I try to take into consideration the historical evidence of the institution before I work with them. Is there a genuine interest in my work, or are you filling a column because you’re curating something “Black”? I position myself in a way where my work is always closely representative of my message, of my honest lived experience as a Black woman. This usually weeds out the possibility of my work becoming homogenous.

NL:Your series, “She Used to be Scared of Hair Comb” 2017 has found its permanent home in The Current in Nassau, Bahamas. What a homecoming! Though there are so many bridges to understanding Caribbean art as its genre or aesthetic, artists from the islands often do not get the recognition they deserve. How do you work to define yourself as an artist within the Caribbean contemporary canon?

GS: I would almost say I am in between. I go home now, and I am considered too Canadian to some Bahamians. It’s strange. When you say Caribbean art, people think of palm trees and beach landscapes, but The Bahamas has some of the most capable artists the world has ever seen. It’s a melting pot of all of our colonial influences. The color palette is representative of our lands—its flora and fauna, and metalwork, pottery, leatherwork, oil-based paintings, textile, beading, folk traditional art. I could go on. There are so many techniques and styles unique to the Caribbean- That mash of multiple identities. I do my best to embody those things when I create. To use bright colors and prints that remind me of home. I want to make sure I do not lose these parts of myself.

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 6, Fabric and Thread Stitched onto Canvas. Claire Oliver Gallery 2021. Image Courtesy of the artist.

NL: So, the saying goes for Canadian artists, it is not that your work is terrible, but that no one has seen it! How has it been to navigate the US art scene?

GS: It is hard to know. Everything has been digital and at a distance—these weird times. I have not even seen my work in person in Harlem. I have done all the press virtually from Toronto. I have been so removed from the physical process. I am not sure that I would call it navigating. It is hard to reconcile when my body isn’t there. It is been a rollercoaster—it is all so incredible exciting. It feels like my career has moved quickly in a very distinct direction in a short space of time. The gallery represents Bisa Butler and has a small roster including a number of Black Women artists, with a historic reputation of acknowledging and collecting Black artists and marginalized artists so I felt it was a good fit at Claire Oliver Gallery. There is definitely more opportunity for my work to be seen, and out in the world. I have more eyes on my work now. I also feel connected to Black collectors and have been prioritizing selling the works to Black collectors, which may not have been an option in Canada. There is a lot of accessibility to Black community with the gallery being situated in Harlem.

NL: Have you had time to take it all in, or are you already contemplating what’s next?

GS: I want to be present with my work. It is consuming to always be thinking about what’s next. It is hard to balance. I didn’t imagine it would get this kind of attention, so I want to manifest long and hard. How can I make the best work for me? How can I maintain a presence at home in the Bahamas? How can I stay connected?

Gio Swaby’s Work is exclusively represented by Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, NY. Works from her debut solo show can be seen online.

Nya Lewis is a Vancouver-based, independent curator and MFA student at OCAD. Moved by the goal of equitable access to art and diverse stories in Canada, her work is the culmination of African resistance, love questions, actions, study, and embrace. Currently, she serves as the Founder and Director of Black Art Gastown, a year-round programmer Vancouver Queer Film Festival, and guest curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery and UBC Museum of Anthropology.

Memory and Place: In Conversation with Michelle Paterok

Michelle Paterok. Night Snow, oil on panel, 9×12″, 2021.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Michelle Paterok’s paintings are hauntingly arresting, depicting everyday landscapes and portraits of those surrounding her using deep hues of violet, cerulean blue, and pale pinks. In her painting untitled (snow) (2021), footprints in the snow lead over the scene as if walking over the horizon at the end of the earth, depicting a solemn landscape. Almost as if viewing the surrounding environment in a nightscape, the imagery in her work looks like it’s been pulled from a dream, like emotive snapshots of everyday life.

In the painting Spring Ends (2019), leaves are suspended in space, falling from mid-air amongst the obscured background. Although they take a familiar shape, the leaves seem uncanny like another dimension exists within them. The overlapping imagery is reminiscent of the difficulty in remembering life moments as they replay in our heads repeatedly, each variation straying from the next like an altered reel.

Paterok often uses photography from her travels abroad and everyday life as a starting point in her work, allowing for interpretation in the rendering of the images to embody memory and lived experience. Through this, she is interested in capturing the “poetic infrastructures” of everyday and exploring the subjective nature of memory and how it relates to place. Michelle Paterok is currently pursuing her Master’s in Fine Arts at Western University. She speaks more about her practice in the following interview.

Can you further explain your interest in place and how you address the poetics of everyday life through your work? Can you speak to your interest in travel as well?

When I was an art student in my undergraduate years, I had the opportunity to travel abroad to complete a research project. Something about being in a completely different environment and country made me consider my immediate surroundings more closely than when I was here in Canada. For that project, I had a specific research interest, but the idea of a fascination with my (often mundane) immediate surroundings has persisted, and I have redirected that lens to my local environment here. I’ve found that if I pay everyday scenes enough attention, they often transform into unexpectedly beautiful, interesting things. In a way, it’s also destabilizing: looking at something seemingly familiar long enough, it starts to become unfamiliar. The practice of closely at things I may have otherwise taken for granted or not noticed—examining and reflecting on the things I encounter in everyday life with more consideration—is part of what sustains my interest in making art. When I sit and I paint a landscape, I have to contemplate what it meant to be in that place as I record it on a canvas. That exercise is fascinating to me.

Michelle Paterok. Night on Earth, oil on linen, 14×18″, 2021.

I’ve noticed that in your work too. The paintings are of everyday scenes but the way you approach them is other-worldly, it reminds me of dreamscapes.

I like that idea of the dreamscape. When I was first learning how to paint, I aimed to represent things as realistically as possible—but once I felt I had a good handle of the medium, representing reality became much less interesting to me. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about how I can convey a precise emotional atmosphere in my work. What interests me the most currently is representing subjective experience and a sense of mood. The recent work has drawn just as much on imagination and memory as it has on references from life or photos.

I’ve found that if I pay everyday scenes enough attention, they often transform into unexpectedly beautiful, interesting things. 

You have a strong sense of layered imagery in your work, almost like double exposure photography. Can you describe your process of using photography as reference in your paintings? How does this tie into the broader themes of your work?

Working in layers started by accident. It was a way to reuse old canvases that I had deemed unsuccessful and left in the corner of the studio, hoping for a solution to materialize. After a few weeks (sometimes months or years), I lose my attachment to these images and feel less precious about them. Usually, rather than trying to complete the painting, I paint something new on top of the old image. Through this process, incidental narratives are created, and later I embraced them. I like the idea of material memories embedded in the layers of the paintings.

The relationship between painting and photography has a long history—the invention of photography fundamentally changed the medium of painting. Painting has existed in dialogue with photography ever since. In my own work, I think about painting’s affordances—what can paintings do that photos might not be able to? One of these is the kind of emotional atmosphere I mentioned previously. Representing subjective experiences, like perception, memory or dreams, is one of the affordances I think painting has. I often use photos as a kind of foundation for some of the work’s formal aspects, but reinterpret light, colour and composition through the process of painting. I’ve recently tried to challenge this working process, as it’s become something like a habit for me over the years. These days I’m more often working from observation or memory—the latter of which has really changed the direction of the work.

Michelle Paterok. Spring Ends, oil on wood, 10×16″, 2019.

In your work Spring Ends, you use a sense of obscurification that provides a snapshot glimpse into a landscape from the outline of falling leaves which I was intrigued by. I was wondering if you could speak more about this piece and your use of both opaqueness and fragmentation?

At the time I painted it, I was living in rural Japan and making work about my experiences there. I initially painted a landscape. Where I was living, the landscape was full of rice paddies, which farmers flood in the spring. I tried to capture the reflection of the sky in the flooded fields, but (as often happens when I try to paint a scene that’s already too beautiful) the painting wouldn’t work—it gets dangerously close to hyper-sentimental territory.

The painting sat unfinished for a while. A few months later, in the fall, the ginkgo tree near my workplace shed its leaves, which covered the ground in a huge yellow and green blanket. I thought the silhouette of the leaves might speak to the landscape I had painted previously. Both scenes—the flooded rice field and the fallen leaves—indicate seasonal change and time’s passage. Using the silhouette of the leaves to reveal and obscure parts of the landscape, I was thinking about how time exists in our memories: some aspects of memories obscured and others clear, but both experiences of memory are mediated by the present moment.

It might also be important to mention that all of the images that I use in my work are based on sketches or photos I took. I don’t usually go on missions to find art photos or anything like that. Often, I’ll be going for a walk, or be on my way to work, and I’ll see things on the street that I think are interesting or poetic [so] I try to record them.

I’m also a walker. I love to walk, especially when I lived in Vancouver, and even here, I just walk around my neighbourhood. If you look you can find some interesting things. Even though they’re just part of everyday life, they can spark interest in different ways.

Yes! I’ve always gravitated towards walking as a means of collecting references. I used to be self-conscious of this way of working, especially among peers with more research-based practices. Although, I guess walking is its own form of research, a kind of local research. It reminds me of the flaneurs—the idea of wandering as a means of reflecting on contemporary life.

Michelle Paterok. Existing Among Others, oil on linen, 14×18″, 2021.

What has your process been working on larger paintings? How do you think scale affects your process?

When I was living in Japan, I converted my living room into a studio, and there wasn’t much space to make large work. The pandemic added more challenges, and the result was that I didn’t make any large work for about three years. It wasn’t until recently, when I started my MFA, that I had the space to work large scale again.

It might just be a result of working this way for such a long time, but small-scale comes more easily for me: I can approach the canvas intuitively, and if I need to make a big change, the stakes (cost of materials, time) are low. There is also something important to me in the small-scale work about the economy of the brushstrokes. When the work is scaled up, for me it requires more planning—sketches, colour studies—and being minimal in my mark-making becomes much more challenging. That said, it seems like the current work is asking to be big. I’m interested in creating work that’s more immersive. I’m trying to listen to the work more and let it go in the direction it suggests it wants to, rather than imposing my own restrictions on it.

Who are some artists that inspire you and your work?

Even though I’m mostly making paintings these days, print artists have been a really big influence. I saw a retrospective of Tetsuya Noda’s work at the British Museum a few years ago, and I was really moved. I still think about it often. Since the late 60s, he’s created a diary series that’s become his life’s work—he has a distinct process of photographing places, objects or people in his daily life, then screen printing them onto paper printed with a subtle woodblock texture. I think the woodblock is a nod to the tradition of ukiyo-e, but his works depart significantly from traditional Japanese printmaking due to his use of a camera. What I really love about his work is that it’s personal and specific, but at the same time, somehow highly universal. Compiling all these seemingly mundane moments from daily life, when done over such a long period of time and with such focus and craft, turns them into something that feels really meaningful.

Of course, I also love paintings! Vija Celmins is my current favourite. I’ve also been staring at Maja Ruznic’s work a lot. My friend also recently introduced me to Agnes Pelton’s work, those paintings are magical.

Michelle Paterok. Ghost Plant, oil on canvas, 24×24″, 2021.

There can be a lot of meaning in the everyday. I think that’s the biggest question with painting is “what do I paint?” And like you were saying, there’s so much you can do with colour—It’s so tied to emotions. I’m drawn to your work because of the way you use colour too.

Before I start a painting, I ask myself, “what kind of emotional climate do I want this to have?” like I mentioned before. Often reducing my variables in terms of my palette has been a lot more conducive to capturing what I’m after as opposed to working with a lot of colours. This has grown into working with more of a limited palette in a more intentional way than what I used to. 

I was looking at these historical palettes, limited palettes people used to use. I made a few paintings with the Zorn palette, which is traditionally white and only three other colours—but its namesake (Anders Zorn) was able to get almost a whole spectrum of hues with just these colours. Working often with fewer hues, but more intention, has been useful for me lately in addressing the question of “how do I want this painting to feel?” Colour can be so evocative, and it’s one of those things that artists can spend their whole lives trying to understand. There are almost endless combinations and colour relationships. As a painter, you can never get bored.

Do you have any plans or projects coming up in the future that you’d like to discuss? I will be part of a Western MFA show in the fall—date TBA. My work right now is all very much in development, and I’m spending most of my summer in the studio seeing how things progress. I love this stage of the process where things feel like they could go in any direction. I’m excited to be starting a new larger-scale body of work and I’ll share things as they develop.

You can view more of Michelle Paterok’s work on her website and Instagram.

Art and Social Change: In Discussion with Munea Wadud

Munea Wadud. Support Queer and Trans Artists sticker.Image Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

I first came across Ottawa-based artist Munea Wadud’s colourful pastel patches on the LGBTQ2+ market site Flamingo Market, and the way she blends activism and art and design immediately caught my eye. Their art prints, pins, patches, and stickers reading Support Queer and Trans Artists” and “Destroy White Supremacy” use bright colour schemes to dynamically convey messages of advocacy.

As she describes, Munea Wadud is a “self-taught, multi-disciplinary artist with years of experience in acrylic painting, watercolors, and many other traditional forms of visual arts.” Recently, they have also been exploring digital drawing as a form of expression. Passionate about social change, Wadud creates art that is first and foremost inclusive and feminist, and her “identity and being a queer, non-binary person of colour” informs her work. Wadud’s art also has a strong focus on body positivity, creating representations showing that queer and trans bodies of all sizes are beautiful. Munea describes more about their art practice in the following interview.

Your art is influenced and inspired by culture, for example, the animation you created of a woman going out after Iftar. Your lo-fi city animations also convey the loneliness of the city, which is only highlighted by the pandemic and lockdowns. Can you speak more about how your art and cultural identity intersect in your practice? 

I feel like because I grew up in Canada, I felt really ashamed of my culture and my traditions. I know a lot of other South Asian kids in North America who felt similarly and there was a lot of internalized racism there. You get made fun of a lot for how your food smells and how you dress. Art has helped me heal from that—it’s helped me fall back in love with that part of myself that I was denied for a long time. I do this by trying to include Bengali text in my works, drawing more traditional clothing, parts of my culture I think are fun and joyous, like going out after iftar, wearing really vibrant and colourful sarees. I’d like to continue rediscovering my culture through my art.

Munea Wadud. Plus Size Nude Series Art Print. Image Courtesy of the artist.

You celebrate body positivity in your art by depicting larger bodies, stretchmarks, and folks with larger noses. I was wondering if you could explain the importance of body positivity in your art and illustrations?

I am passionate about body positivity – it has helped me gain a lot of confidence and see myself in a much healthier way. It made me realize just how many of us struggle with body image issues, so I wanted to create more work that reflects people’s beauty. Things like stretch marks, cellulite, body hair, just larger bodies in general, are not depicted in a lot of art [and] it creates these unhealthy expectations of your body. You feel awful about the way you look and it’s really disheartening. I just want to make art that people can see themselves in. I want them to feel just as beautiful and important as anyone else because they are. It’s really important to me that representation is reflected in my work.

Munea Wadud. Support Black and Brown Artists sticker.Image Courtesy of the artist.

Your art explicitly advocates for support of Queer and Trans folks, particularly Black and Brown Queer and Trans artists, and does so by juxtaposing bright, colourful graphics and imagery (such as your arcade game print stating “Trans Rights are Human Rights”). Can you speak more about this juxtaposition and how you use it to convey important messages and advocacy? How do find creating multiples (like stickers and patches etc.) help communicate messages of support?

I just think that every space should be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) but often, I think a lot of work depicts sadness and struggle and though that is a reality for lots of minorities, our pain is not our only story. There’s a lot of media representing our obstacles and ways that we’ve overcome them. I just think I also want to see us being joyful and having good lives. I like adding bright colours and fun imagery with the same messages that represent inclusivity for QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) because we deserve to have those things too. So that’s why I create the juxtaposition.

Often, I think a lot of work depicts sadness and struggle and though that is a reality for lots of minorities, our pain is not our only story.

As for things like patches and stickers, I guess I’ve just always wanted some similar colourful and pastel designs but that reflect the views of minorities like me—I want people to feel included in my work and like their voices matter. So, I wanted to design my products in a way that fits this design aesthetic that I love but also incorporates really important issues that matter a lot like advocacy for LGBTQ+ folks, inclusivity of BIPOC folks, and much more!

I think it’s important because these are all items I as an independent artist have designed and have decided to share with folks, which is very different than big corporations who create similar messaging only to support themselves rather than the people being directly affected by these messages. I wanted to highlight that difference too, that although you can find intersectional and inclusive messaging in a lot of different stores now, it’s still important to look at who is making that product and for what reasons. 

Who are some artists (or other influences) that inspire your artistic practice?

I follow so many amazing artists that really inspire me every single day – ha.ha.ha.sina is a talented Black artist on Instagram and I love her painting style. I also follow Manahil Bandukwala who creates everything from watercolour pieces, to jewelry, to written works! There’s also Harar Hall (gold.tinted.glasses on Instagram) who’s work is super lovely as well – I love their poetry and how well it blends with their art style! And Lucky Little Queer who is a supportive fellow artist and creates amazing products too!

Munea Wadud. Trans Rights are Human Rights sticker.Image Courtesy of the artist.

Do you have any advice for other queer and BIPOC creators about starting an art business?

I know a lot of you are hesitant and nervous about starting a business, I was too. I used to feel like my work wasn’t good enough like I needed to practice more and wait longer to post something worthwhile. Honestly, looking back, I just wish I had started my online business sooner. And that’s the advice I have for you – your work is beautiful, you are talented, and I think you should still share it! I would love to see more BIPOC creators thrive and unapologetically show off their amazing art. 

Do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to mention?

Right now, I am working on a really big print restock of many of my series like my body positivity prints as well as a few others – so please keep an eye out on my Etsy store for that drop! I’ll be posting my latest updates on my Instagram so make sure to follow me on there.

Check out more of Munea Wadud’s art on their Etsy Store, Facebook and Instagram.

The Unexpected Subject: 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

April 4 – May 26, 2019

FM Centre for Contemporary Art, Via Giovanni Battista Piranesi 10, Milan

by Gabrielle Moser

A mouth, open wide and mid-speech, hovered over a black ground on the enormous banner hanging above the entrance to the FM Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea in Milan, soundlessly announcing the exhibition The Unexpected Subject: 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Superimposed in a diagonal line, the words “ti AM O” (a play on “I love you” in Italian) articulated the lips’ unheard utterance. A Letraset collage on cardboard created by the Rome-based artist and curator Mirella Bentivoglio and titled AM – (ti amo) (1970), the visual poem conjures up the way that identity is constituted: every “I” must have a “you” to address itself to. But it also calls to mind the words of the Rivolta Femminile, a feminist collective founded by Carla Lonzi, Carla Accardi and Elvira Banotti that, between 1970 and 74, self-published a series of essays condemning the omission of women from Western philosophy and communist politics, and argued for the vital force of language, both written and spoken, in constituting women’s identity. “Not being trapped within the master-slave dialectic, we become conscious of ourselves,” they wrote. “[W]e are the Unexpected Subject… An entirely new world is being put forward by an entirely new subject. It only has to be uttered to be heard. Acting becomes simple and elementary.”[1]

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, featuring Mirella Bentivoglio’s AM – (ti amo) (1970). 2019. FM Centre for Contemporary Art. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            But if the unexpected subject can be uttered and heard, it is less clear how it comes to be seen, especially when, as so many Italian feminists of the 1970s pointed out, the visual codes for women’s subjectivity were (and one could argue still are) constrained by patriarchal modes of representation. A contradictory impulse lies at the heart of this historical moment in Italian feminist practices. On the one hand, artists, philosophers and writers sought to generate what J.L. Austin would describe as new visual, verbal, textual and performative utterances to signify female subjectivity and sexual difference,[2] while on the other, figures like the art critic Carla Lonzi insisted that de-culturation (the un-learning of male culture) and “dropping out” were the only strategies through which women could achieve freedom.[3] As a visual arts exhibition that incorporated archival materials, video, ephemera, textiles and sound, alongside the more conventional fine art modes of collage, sculpture, painting and photography, the show navigated these two drives while also attempting to translate the particularities of Italian feminist thinking for a wide, implicitly international audience.

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            Curated by Marco Scotini and Raffaella Perna, the exhibition’s global address speaks to a wider resurgence of interest in the practices of 1970s Italian feminism, both within and outside Italy. Elena Ferrante’s wildly successful Neapolitan novels, for instance, have been read as a take on the feminist practice of affidamento, or entrustment, between two life-long female friends, in which the differences (or disparities) between two women are a generative source of sustenance and recognition.[4] The work of contemporary artists Claire Fontaine and Alex Martinis Roe, meanwhile, takes up the politics of the Rivolta Femminile and the Milan Women’s Bookstore explicitly in both its form and content, while groups such as the Feminist Duration Reading Group in London and the EMILIA-AMALIA collective in Toronto (of which I am a member) have worked to translate, annotate and activate key texts from the period.[5] Largely unknown in the English-speaking world until recently, Italian feminist thought was explicitly at odds with the horizontal model of sisterhood that dominated 1960s Anglo-American feminism. [6] Coming after the surge of “second wave” feminist activity in the United States and England, Italian feminism sought to correct or avoid what it saw as the failings of this earlier movement, including the devaluation of the authority of older and more experienced women, the fight for the legalization of abortion, the refusal to ask for maternity leave (particularly in the US), and, most importantly, the investment in equality with men as a political goal.[7]

            In the place of these bids for legal and formal equality, the women’s groups meeting in Milan and Rome in the 1970s sought two parallel forms of freedom: a representational one that required discarding an existing repertoire of representations that privileged the male perspective, and a symbolic freedom, centered on making spaces for women to think themselves differently. For this reason, many feminist groups of the 1970s turned to autocoscienza, or consciousness-raising, activities, to autobiography, and to group psychoanalysis as practices that would allow women to create a new symbolic order that could transform their everyday relationships and their understanding of their position in history.[8] Carried out in separatist, largely private spaces (another difference from the public, collective imperative of Anglo-American feminism), these activities embodied the mantra that one must “start from oneself,”[9] centering personal, lived experience as the only grounds for knowledge production.

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art.2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            In the context of exhibition-making, Scotini and Perna, therefore, set themselves a tall task: to not only try to coherently narrate an often ungainly explosion of feminist activist, artistic, political and filmic production that emerged during the period around 1978 (there were no less than 100 artists and artist groups on display across the exhibition), but of cataloguing the visual gestures that needed to be invented to articulate women’s previously unthinkable position as speaking, acting subjects. The thematic sections of the exhibition—language and writing; objects and the domestic world; image and self-representation; and the body and its performativity—were necessarily permeable and messy, and the show sometimes contradicted itself. While this is not an uncommon curatorial gesture that ideally unsettles curatorial authority and signals the dynamic ways histories are told and contested, when combined with the encyclopedic scope of the exhibition, it occasionally produced abrupt disconnections and doublings as the viewer moved through the galleries.

            Operating as a prelude to the exhibition, for instance, was a darkened semi-circular space, reminiscent of a theatre proscenium, surrounded by black curtains onto which the nearly four-hour long film Anna (1975), directed by Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli, was projected. Warped and misshapen in its tiny theatre area, the film took on a ghostly aspect: the din of a street scene on the Piazza Navona in Rome was almost unintelligible, and its visuals nearly opaque. While the film is infamous in Italy for its depiction and exploitation of its eponymous subject, a 16-year-old pregnant young woman that Grifi took into his home, it was presented in the exhibition without any explicit curatorial framework, leaving the viewer to infer that everything Anna represented provided the negative ground onto which the figure of the unexpected subject could emerge.[10]

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            Pushing through one of two openings hidden in the curtained screen, I entered into the main room, in which a towering vinyl print out of a black and white photograph of Carla Lonzi—leaning authoritatively against a gallery wall, one hand on hip, smartly dressed in a white button-down and leather skirt—announced the pivotal impact of her work on the feminists and artists of her generation. A vitrine set into the same wall displayed archival photographs of the women of Rivolta Femminile, images of Lonzi at work over her typewriter—her famous Dictaphone in hand—as well as first editions of Lonzi’s books in their identical green covers. Their titles alone are thrilling in their imperative tense and their playful, antagonistic approach: Self-Portrait (1969); The Clitoridean Woman and the Vaginal Woman (1971); Let’s Spit on Hegel (1974); Shut up. Or, rather speak: Diary of a Feminist (1978); Now You Can Go (1980). Nearby, sound and video work by Cathy Berberian, Betty Danon, Ketty La Rocca, and Katalin Ladik activated these ideas through the artists’ bodies. La Rocca’s video, Appendice per una supplica (Appendix for a Petition) (1972), was particularly evocative of the problematic that Italian feminists sought to address. In this performance for the camera, a closeup shot shows the artist’s hand as it attempts to slowly navigate the small spaces left between the fingers and palms of another pair of men’s hands. Soundless, the video plays with a repertoire of possible gestures responding to the male subject, from the sensuous and erotic, to the suffocating and forceful.

            Like Lonzi, La Rocca is a central figure for 1970s Italian feminist art practice and is one of the reasons the exhibition focuses on the date 1978. Though the works in the exhibition span the early 1960s to the 1980s, 1978 was marked by several important moments of international resonance, including the exhibition of 80 women artists at the Venice Biennale, organized by Bentivoglio (a show that is painstakingly recreated in one room of The Unexpected Subject), a posthumous exhibition of La Rocca’s work also at the Biennale (she had passed away at the age of 38 two years earlier), the publication of Lonzi’s Taci, anzi parla. Diario di una demminista (Shut up, or rather speak. Diary of a Feminist), and the issuing of a collective book/self-portrait by the “Wednesday group,” titled Ci vediamo mercoledi. Gli altri giorni ci immaginiamo (I’ll see you on Wednesdays. The other days, we’ll imagine one another). But in many ways, 1978 can also be thought of as part of the “long history” of international student protests of ten years earlier (Lea Melandri’s essay for the exhibition catalogue is tellingly titled “1968 Lasting a Decade”) in which that earlier moment’s “undetonated potential”[11] met with Italy’s particular history of armed working class strikes and autonomia post-war politics.

The Unexpected Subject • 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy. Installation shot, FM Centre for Contemporary Art. 2019. Photos courtesy of Raffaella Perna.

            The most surprising discoveries of the exhibition were those works that elucidated this particular tension between local concerns and transnational movements. Tomaso Binga’s Alphabeto poetico monumentale (1976), for instance, echoed the strategies of conceptual art photography but made them engagingly vulnerable by manipulating the artist’s nude form into the shape of every letter of the alphabet. Documented in spare black and white photographs taken from above, the body here becomes an unactivated medium for speech. Similarly, Irma Blank’s Trascrizioni Documenta ABCD (1977) toys with the limits of speech and the politics of opacity, seeming to transcribe a 36-page typed manuscript into indecipherable scribbles that—while refusing the legibility of language—are nonetheless faithful signs of the artist’s hand moving across the page.

A room devoted to Betty Danon’s work with the International Mail Art movement, beginning in 1973, displayed more than 200 responses to her initial postcard project: a doubled pentagram which she invited international artists to intervene upon before returning it to her. Hanging banner-like from the ceiling, respondents included Carolee Schneemann, Ray Johnson and Shozo Shimamoto. Liliana Barchiesi’s Casalinghe (Housewives) series of gelatin silver print photographs (1979), meanwhile, offered intimate, moving portraits of women at their unpaid domestic and care work that resonated with the urgent politics of Silvia Federici’s landmark book, Wages Against Housework (1975).

            Given how eloquently these works spoke to Italian feminist art production’s links to international conversations, it was ironic that one of the exhibition’s missteps was its room explicitly devoted to the “international dialogue” between artists in Italy and those from the United States and Europe (and especially Eastern Europe). Featuring performance documentation, sculpture, video and photography by Schneemann, Valie Export, Joan Jonas, Marina Abramović, Gina Pane, and Sanja Iveković, among others, the section threatened to succumb to the tendency of legitimating underrepresented histories by comparing them to the Western canon of art historical and feminist works. By telling the viewer that Italian feminist art responded to international audiences, rather than allowing the artworks to show it, the gallery had the strange effect of making the earlier works feel redundant: a disappointment when the need for nuanced transnational connections between feminist artists and practices is more urgently felt than ever.

            The exhibition catalogue that accompanied the show is thankfully rich with historical context, including reprints of key essays by Italian thinkers and curators from the period, alongside generous reproductions of the artworks on view, and related press coverage from 1970s issues of Flash Art magazine. Although the English translations of the curatorial texts are sometimes awkward, the publication’s visual material and richly researched footnotes make up for them. Perhaps the issue of translation is the most urgent and unresolved one for the exhibition, beginning with its title. While the translation of Carla Lonzi’s wonderful phrase il soggetto imprevisto as the “unexpected” subject is not wrong, there are (as with all translations) nuances to the term that are lost in the economic move to its English equivalent. Imprevisto also suggests the un(fore)seen, the suddenly emergent, or the yet-to-be-realized. With its foundations in psychoanalytic thinking, Italian feminist practice has consistently recognized the powers of the unconscious on human behaviour and our limited capacity to know ourselves—it has also put great hope in the symbolic realm as the site of radical political transformation. It is perhaps this aspect of the exhibition that is the most potent: the suggestion that there is so much more to be excavated, uncovered and uttered in the unfinished project of the feminist movement.

[1] “Manifesto di Rivolta Femminile” in Carla Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel (Milan: Scritti di Rivolta Femminile, 1974). English translation by Veronica Newman available at http://blogue.nt2.uqam.ca/hit/files/2012/12/Lets-Spit-on-Hegel-Carla-Lonzi.pdf

[2] J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures, edited by J. O. Urmson (Oxford: 1962).

[3] The Italian art critic Carla Lonzi was particularly vocal in advocating for “dropping out” as a feminist strategy of withdrawal. See Lea Melandri, “Autonomy and the Need for Love: Carla Lonzi, Vai pure,” MAY 4 (2010), n.p.; Giovanna Zapperi, Carla Lonzi: un art de la vie – Critique d’art et féminisme en Italie (1968-1981), Christophe Degoutin, trans. (Paris: Les presses du reel, 2019); and Claire Fontaine, “We Are All Clitoridian Women: Notes on Carla Lonzi’s Legacy,” e-flux journal #47 (September 2013), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/47/60057/we-are-all-clitoridian-women-notes-on-carla-lonzi-s-legacy/.

[4] The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective is credited with first writing about the practice of affidamento, or “entrustment,” a term used to describe the long history of relationships between women founded on difference.

[5] For further context about these returns to 1970s feminisms from Italy and abroad, see Helena Reckitt, “Generating Feminisms: Italian Feminisms and the ‘Now You Can Go’ Program,” Art Journal 76.3-4 (January 2018), pp. 101-111; and Catherine Grant, “Fans of Feminism: Re-writing Histories of Second-wave Feminism in Contemporary Art,” Oxford Art Journal 34.2 (June 2011), pp. 265–286.

[6] It is problematic to homogenize the practices of Anglo-American feminism, especially under the rubric of “second wave” feminism, just as it is impossible to argue there is any one thing called Italian feminism. Both movements were networked, dispersed, and heterogeneous and the most interesting aspects of each have been obscured in dominant narratives of the period. See, for instance, South Atlantic Quarterly’s excellent special issue on 1970s Feminisms (Lisa Disch, ed., Volume 114, Issue 4, October 2015), and in the Italian context, Paola Melchiori’s essay “The ‘Free University of Women.’ Reflections on the Conditions for a Feminist Politics of Knowledge,” in Gender and the Local-Global Nexus: Theory, Research, and Action V. Demos and M Texler Segal, eds, Advances in Gender Research, Vol. 10, (Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited: 2006), pp. 125-144.

[7] For an overview of some of Italian feminism’s main claims, see the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: a theory of social-symbolic practice, Teresa de Lauretis, trans. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990),pp 60-63. The original title of the book in Italian translates to “Don’t think you have any rights.”

[8] In the model put forward by performance studies scholar Diana Taylor, it is not only the repertoire of female stereotypes that needed to be jettisoned, but also, importantly, its archive. It is for this reason that groups like the Milan Women’s Bookstore and the 150 Hours School began by generating bibliographies, and eventually literal libraries, of women’s writing that could constitute an alternative or counter archive. See The Archive and the Repertoire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[9] “Doing justice starting with oneself” in the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: a theory of social-symbolic practice, Teresa de Lauretis, trans. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990),pp 134-142.

[10] See Rachel Kushner, “Woman in Revolt: Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna,” Artforum (November 2012), https://www.artforum.com/print/201209/woman-in-revolt-alberto-grifi-and-massimo-sarchielli-s-anna-36151.

[11] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

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. NPR.org, 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.