There is a Jordan Bennett billboard on the side of the road as you drive into K’jipuktuk/Halifax. It advertises Bennett’s exhibition Ketu’ elmita’jik (They want to go home) at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The sign’s clean lines and sharp color blocking foreshadow the arresting visuals viewers are met with when they arrive at the exhibition: swirling, intertwining, limitless geometries, vivid pop aesthetics, and twisting neon pathways.
With several high profile public artworks across Canada, Bennett’s oeuvre is easily identifiable. But in Ketu’ elmita’jik it is clear that the design elements that are almost synonymous with Bennett do not belong to him alone: they are part of a long lineage of traditional designs by Beothuk and Mi’kmaq artists, whose uses of bold patterns and colouring long pre-date contemporary graphic design trends. The work in Ketu’ elmita’jik traces these lineages by pairing Bennett’s paintings and wall murals with quillwork objects borrowed from museum collections. The effect is one of intimate collaboration, and it is obvious that this is not really a solo show, despite the advertising.
The exhibition functions like a multivocal, intergenerational conversation that winds in and around itself, repeating itself occasionally, pausing when necessary, but never quiet for too long. The quillwork objects are the first speakers. They are multi-colour baskets and quill embroidered chair seats displayed in glass cases or mounted between plexiglass. Bennett takes up their conversation, and replies by replicating, re-mixing, and expanding the quillwork patterns and motifs beyond their containers and onto gallery walls and wood panel paintings.
Curatorial conventions are cast aside in this exhibition. Hanging height is subjective, and frames and cases are just suggestions. Instead, Bennett treats display mechanisms like puzzles that are meant to be broken apart and rearranged. Patterns grow beyond the frame, scaling the gallery walls and wrapping around the staircase. In one corner, a grid of bright red blocks is painted near the ceiling. In another, a group of thin black lines sweep nonchalantly sweep over a vent.
The limits and irrelevance of institutional spaces are apparent here. The site-specificity of the work implies its impermanency—it is not intended to stay. Breathing and alive, it doesn’t need to stay. You can already imagine the painted lines seeping out beyond the gallery walls, beyond the roadside billboard, on their way home.