Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada took place in 1949, with 2019 marking its 70th anniversary. Future Possible: The Art of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1949 to Present exhibition gathers close to 100 artworks, images and objects from across The Rooms art gallery, archives and museum collections. It is the second part of a two-part series that looks at the art history and iconography of Newfoundland and Labrador. Craig Power sat down with curator Mireille Eagan in St. John’s to discuss the current exhibition.
Craig Power: So, um, Future Possible… like what’s up with that, man? (Laughter)
Mireille Eagan: Basically, Future Possible is about what it means to write a history of this province and what it means to make art here. Is Newfoundland and Labrador its own contemporary? It’s a place with its own history, its own way of operating. And that’s fine. It doesn’t fit in with other conversations across the country for the most part and that is fine. So Future Possible is just asking: What does the art of this place look like? And the exhibition has also brought to light that there has been no comprehensive art history written of this place, it started from the ground level, asking fundamental questions about the art of this place, and using iconic art to do so.
When you think about this place, you know, you think about Christopher Pratt, you think about Gerald Squires, you think about these artists who are synonymous with the experience of this place and so I bring those art-works out, and I say Why is this something that we associate with this place? And place our other art-works in conversation and say, ‘Well is there a lineage—I’ve been thinking about this for so long I can’t even talk about it anymore.’ (Laughter) But my role as a curator is to understand context. It’s to ask questions. It’s to talk to artists. It’s to gather from those conversations stories that are told in a gallery space. So that’s what Future Possible is—a conversation. And a series of questions.
CP: I wonder to what degree that notion of you as an outsider—being from outside of the province—how does that affect you curatorial inquiry? Or does it?
ME: It’s key. The awareness of the fact that I did not grow up here, that I’m a newcomer to this community. A key thread in all the exhibitions that I’ve done here is to question my own authority, and to question the authority of The Rooms as well. Future Possible is that. It is saying that an institution that is seen to write “Official History” can be a site for discourse, for asking questions. So in the exhibition there’s a quote by Robert Ayre, in 1949, where he says the history of art in Newfoundland is comprised entirely of outsiders and amateurs—so by using this he’s leaving out a lot of things: women’s histories, Indigenous histories, craft—he’s leaving out ALL of Labrador in fact. So as an institution and as a curator, how can we be aware of our own blind-spots? I don’t necessarily believe in experts. I don’t devalue my own role in this, but I do view the curator not as an objective expert but as a facilitator. One that can act as a go-between between object, the artist, and the visitor.
CP: How did you navigate the dangerous terrain of deciding what would or would not go into the exhibition?
ME: Yeah, that’s definitely dangerous terrain. So the process of developing the exhibition was talking to as many people as I possibly could within the community—probably every three months I’ve done thirty studio visits—a really intense amount. So that was one part of it, and that led, when this exhibition was on the schedule, to working with focus groups and advisors to provide pointed feedback. And we got together the people we knew were gonna ask punchy questions. We wanted this to be solid. And it was developed alongside numerous individuals in The Rooms, people who were well versed in their particular collections. So it wasn’t just me who was doing this, it was me working with people and getting their advice as to what would be included in the show. Or should be included in the show – across The Rooms divisions and also across an art historical conversation. And then, as this project developed, of course, there’s only so much space, only so much of a budget. Newfoundland has one of the biggest per capita ratios of working artists. It was impossible to show everybody. So then the question is, how do we, The Rooms, tell the story about this place that can touch the different threads that run throughout the conversation here?
But the main thing we wanted to talk about is that the conversation here is multi-vocal, that it is multi-generational, that it is emerging artists drawing from senior artists—that are criticizing senior artists—that they’re revisiting long held symbols of this place, not only in terms of its visual culture but its political culture. And we’re talking about New Canadians, Queer histories, Women’s histories—and how to do so in a way that isn’t tokenistic—so it’s a very difficult task to give a balanced presentation. The major aspect of this project is that it will ultimately fail. This is an exhibition that’s failed. The catalogue will be a failure. (Big laughs from us both) And that’s fine. It’s one perspective—a well-informed one—but just one way of telling our histories. It’s a space for argument – ultimately this exhibition is a building-block for people to ask questions about the visual culture of this place—it launches the conversation.
CP: Do you think there’s an inordinate amount of navel-gazing in the province? I mean, what is your sense of the state of like, Newfoundland and Labrador cultural nationalism?
ME: Well that’s something in the show with the title, Future Possible, with the kind of hidden subtitle: Possibly Horrible, right? (Laughter) The show is on the 70th Anniversary of confederation with Canada. It is asking about what I’ve noticed in conversations with people here—especially with the decline in oil prices, which is when this project was initiated—where people are thinking: ‘It feels like we’re doomed. It feels like we’ve done it again.’ All these events that are part of the cultural trauma of this place, it feels like we’re here again. So if we’re already doomed, is there a way to change the story?
I think by asking institutions and people in power informed and thoughtful questions—that’s how we can move forward. And that’s what this show is saying: If we’re already doomed, how can we move forward? And the subtle line that runs through it is that individually, we have to own up. But also, I have no idea how to fix things (Laughter) so that’s why I’m posing questions.
Future Possible: Art of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1949 to Present opened at the Rooms on May 18 and runs until September 22, 2019.
Photographs by Jordan Blackburn, courtesy of The Rooms.