In her book Framing Identities: Social Practices of Photography in Canada (1880-1920), Susan Close uses the term photo-colonialism as a way to describe the power of photography as a tool for crafting colonial narratives. In the chapter “The Colonizing Camera of Geraldine Moodie,” Close further elaborated what Susan Sontag identified as how photographic images can capture and turn individuals into objects which symbolically can become the property of someone else. She also cites Edward Said, who argued that colonial powers have purposefully used photography to exploit non-Western people and portray them as exotic to gain political and economic supremacy. Close focuses on how the intentions of the person photographing do not matter when this practice reduces the subject to a stereotype and steals their agency.
In contrast, Family Patterns, featuring Darcie “Ouiyaghasiak” Bernhardt and Letitia Fraser and curated by Aiden Gillis and Sarah Moore Fillmore, and Tukien (Awaken), featuring Nelson White, which was curated by Pan Wendt and Matthew Hills, both use portraiture as a remedy to reclaim agency that has been stolen from BIPOC people in the past. The exhibitions opened to the public on October 16th, 2021, at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in K’jipuktuk. In them, the three artists utilize the same strategy—portraiture— with varying visual results. For instance, on the surface, Bernhardt’s paintings resemble overexposed photographs, Fraser’s paintings have a collage quality to them, and White’s paintings visually feel like cartoons from the ’90s.
The curatorial text for Family Patterns states that Bernhardt and Fraser build their paintings on traditional portraiture. It further explains how the exhibition is intended to craft a conversation between the overlapping themes of cultural rituals, family, and memory. The curators explain how the artists use motifs from their homes for memory-keeping by layering cultural and domestic references focusing intensely on the importance of patterns. Meanwhile, in the curatorial statement for Tukien (Awaken), the curators describe White’s work as a celebration of kin. According to them, the exhibition maps out a community of artists, activists, leaders, and creatives and depicts the ways they live as Indigenous people in the contemporary world. Tukien (Awaken) is a travelling exhibition circulated by the Confederation Centre for the Arts and Organized by the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Grenfell Art Gallery, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
As an Inuvialuk/Gwich’in artist, Darcie “Ouiyaghasiak” Bernhardt references their hometown of Tuktoyaktuk, in the Nunakput Region of the Northwest Territories, to produce paintings that pay homage to the endless northern landscapes and the warmth of domestic interiors. In Generations (2021), Bernhardt depicts an outdoor scene with three different family figures: a grandmother/mother, mother/daughter and daughter/granddaughter. The three people seem to be wearing parkas and sitting down while each one is looking in a different direction. There is a great disparity in the contrast between the faces and the garments. The high contrast on the clothing brings importance to the details in the patterns and fur which guide the eye of the viewer. The image looks as if it is fading away, hinting at how memories are in constant movement, ever-changing to be rediscovered.
Nungki (2019) is a rendering of a family photograph that shows Bernhardt’s uncle, Brian Rogers, inside a house as he pieces together a pattern for a pair of slippers. Bernhardt titles this painting in Inuvialuktun, their language, suggesting not only learning the language but using and remembering it is important. This practice decentres the western lens by focusing on Brian as an individual and not as a cultural specimen. The title does not burden the painting with a voyeuristic eye and does not limit the viewer’s interpretation of the painting. The title allows for space to know that some things are not meant to be known by outsiders. By utilizing personal archives the agency is restored, as there is an understanding between both parts of what constitutes a portrait because both people involved have the same cultural background.
Raised in the local African Nova Scotian communities of North Preston and Beechville, Letitia Fraser pulls from her lived experience to shed a light on the influence her community has on her work. Often, Fraser paints portraits of community members on top of recycled quilts or printed fabric instead of canvas, which alludes to a sense of survival that derives from a necessity to be frugal. Carrying On (2019) shows two people that appear to be laughing and were captured at the precise moment that reveals their camaraderie. The woman on the right, wearing a blue cardigan, has her eyes closed, smiling and putting her arm over the other woman’s shoulder. Meanwhile, the woman on the left is facing the other woman with her eyes closed, contorting her face as if she is about to burst out laughing while speaking. All the movement in their faces suggests a sense of shared joy. In this work, we can see how the treatment of the paint on the clothes is quite transparent, allowing for the quilt to peek through.
In Civil Boom (2021), we see one person sitting down with her arms crossed on top of a table, looking at something or someone outside of the frame with her eyes half-open and lips parted, both of these qualities give movement to the face. This gives the painting a photographic peculiarity since it captures an organic moment where it appears the woman is in the middle of talking. Fraser treats the blouse on this painting with the same transparency as before. This allows the quilt, stretched on the background, to give depth to the top that on its own doesn’t have much detail. The subtle merger of quilt and paint offers a glimpse into the intertwined relationship between individuals in Fraser’s community and objects she deems of familial importance. In her artist statement, Fraser explains how the value of quilts comes from the nurturing and protection they provide rather than as a simple decoration. The quilts bring the depth of domesticity into the picture by humanizing the subjects in Fraser’s painting, which combined with a veil of softness works against the ways the state weaponizes the image of Black people.
Nelson White is a Mi’kmaq artist originally from the Flat Bay, Newfoundland and he is a member of the Flat Bay First Nation Band (No’kmaq Village.) In his exhibition, Tukien (Awaken), he commemorates kinship between Indigenous people and how they transcend categorizations. Tukien, a Mi’kmaw term that means “to awaken,” conjures up images of a collective awakening. In this journey to portray Indigenous contemporary life, White paints NWA – Natives with Attitude / Stoney Bear Singers, Musicians (2019). Here he depicts The Stoney Bear Singers, a group of powwow Mi’kmaq singers based in Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island.) This group of musicians are fluent in the Mi’kmaq language, they honour their heritage in their songs. This portrait shows four people on a brown to blue gradient background with a white floral pattern on top. They are all facing forward with one of them squatting, while the rest are bending forward with their hands on their thighs or knees. There is a great amount of detail on their clothes in contrast to their faces (which is noticeable because White used the same tones on all of their faces). This also occurs in the other portraits in the exhibition, giving a high level of importance to how clothing is used to form a sense of self. The significance behind highlighting their garments can serve to dictate their position within their own individual cultures and how they decide to relate to it.
Fierce / Mariah Sockabasin, Fashion Designer (2019) is a portrait of Wabanaki Fashion Artist Mariah Sockabasin, and here she looks stoic and quite posed. She is sitting on a bench slightly on profile, leaning forward and looking out of the “frame” to the left with her eyes staring down half-closed. The background is red in a gradient, going from lighter to darker, with a floral motif. White celebrates Sockabasin’s purpose as a creative by emphasizing her career path, which he attached to her portrait. It appears to be important for White to have this link with the people in his portraits to evoke a sentiment of “we have been displaced but we are still here” and to push it even further, “we are here, flourishing.”
The two exhibitions at the AGNS are interconnected by the values both put in the force the art of portraiture carries for the artists. There is an emphasis on the role fabric and patterns have overall in how the artists relate to their cultures. The garments signify memory, resourcefulness and connection which aggrandizes the personal meaning that is being conveyed by the painters. They remind the audience—of a mainly white city—that how they produce portraits is changing the landscape of how we think about traditional portraiture. They do this by having the portraits not be mementos but instead, having them actively engage with the present, closely relating to and representing their communities that have resisted the violent process of colonization.