The prototypical art book is an oversized monograph with numerous colour reproductions, accompanied by an essay or essays that those of us who write for such publications strongly suspect are rarely read. Such books are destined to spend a few weeks or months on a coffee or side table before migrating to bookshelves where they often function as much as décor as anything else. Perhaps I’m being harsh here, but any honest appraisal of the fate of the Canadian art book market will hover around the edges of such an argument. These familiar ‘coffee-table’ books are usually purchased as souvenirs of an experience, that of visiting an exhibition, and really, how often do any of us revisit old souvenirs?
But four new art books that have recently crossed my desk have all broken out of this mold, and all in different ways.
The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case (Goose Lane Editions) by Jon S. Dellandrea is a fascinating look at a long-forgotten episode in Canadian art history: the early 1960’s trial of a Toronto art dealer for selling fraudulent Group of Seven and Tom Thomson paintings. That there has long been a booming business in famous fakes should surprise no one, though most readers could be forgiven for assuming that Canada’s art market was (and is) too small rampant corruption. As Dellandrea ably shows, however, that assumption would be naïve. Wherever one finds increasing demand for a limited commodity, fraud is always a danger. The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case combines detailed scholarship, solid journalistic research, and engaging personal stories in an enjoyable and enlightening read. Leavened with flashes of wit and interesting contextual side paths, Dellandrea’s book, which reads like just what he describes it as—a labour of love—is highly recommended reading for anyone who is interested in the rewards and the pitfalls of collecting Canadian ‘blue-chip’ art.
Qummut Qukiria! Art, Culture and Sovereignty Across Inuit Nunaat and Sápmi: Mobilizing the Circumpolar North (Goose Lane Editions) is a collection of thirty-eight essays, artist’s statements, tales, and memoirs edited by Anna Hudson, Heather Igloliorte and Jan-Erik Lundström. It documents a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded project called Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage: A Multi-media/Multi-platform Re-engagement of Voice in Visual Art and Performance. Thus, Qummut Qukiria! is a much different sort of book than The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case. Comprised of four sections (Land and Language. Decolonial Practices, Community and Sovereignty, Circumpolar Resurgence), the book brings together voices and viewpoints from across the circumpolar world: Inuit, Sámi, and Greenlandic. It is a rich and complex collection, with academic research, traditional wisdom, and contemporary art side-by-side throughout. Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics and students are joined by Indigenous creators and wisdom-keepers in communicating aspects of what the editors identify as a “global Indigenous turn,” an “all-encompassing development, from cultural practices and the arts to science and research, including as well community-building and social revitalization.”
The diversity of the texts in Qummut Qukiria! speak to the power of this ‘turn,’ and to the dynamic resurgence of Indigenous culture documented in the book. Unlike the prototype I described at the beginning of this article, this book is no décor enhancer (despite its handsome and reader-friendly design) but rather a tool and a resource. The interviews with artists, the histories of cultural activities, the documentation of social and cultural events, all serve to provide a cumulative portrait of rich and fascinating spheres of activity. This book may be specialized, but any reader can find much here to enjoy. This is a book that seems destined to be useful and relevant for a long time.
In the early 1960s an innovative art collective was started in Elsipogtog First Nation (then known as Big Cove), a Mi’kmaw community in Kent County New Brunswick. Modelled loosely after the successful Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset) Inuit Art Collective, the group known then as “MicMac Indian Craftsmen” was, for a brief time, one of the most successful Indigenous artist groups in North America, selling their work (cards, prints, pottery, jewellery, weaving and more) across the world. From 1962-1967 MIC was a fixture of the Canadian art scene. And then, as suddenly as the group rose to international attention, the collective collapsed.
The story of the rise and fall of MIC is ably told in Wabanaki Modern (Goose Lane Editions and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery) by Emma Hassencahl-Perley and John Leroux. Originally an initiative of the then New Brunswick Handicraft School, with participation from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in partnership with the leadership of Big Cove First Nation, MIC eventually grew to employ dozens of Mi’kmaw artisans under the artistic leadership of Stephen Dedham and Michael Francis, two remarkable artists whose achievements have, until now, been little recognized. In fact, the very existence of MIC and its prominence in mid-1960s Canadian art is mostly unrecognized both in New Brunswick and beyond. Why this is so is a fascinating subtext of both essays by Hassencahl-Perley and Leroux.
Leroux’s essay details the history of the MIC in meticulous and interesting detail. His research is impeccable, and brings to life the spirit of those times, including the well-meaning, if patronizing, efforts of settler culture to “save” Wabanaki culture. Hassencahl-Perley’s essay brings an Indigenous perspective to this story, combining art history with personal and collective memories from Elsipogtog to further enrich this remarkable narrative. Wabanaki Modern accompanies a must-see exhibition of the same name at the Beaverbrook until February 26. Published in Mi’kmaq, English, and French, the book is an important and timely addition to New Brunswick, and indeed, Canadian art history.
And now for something completely different. Lou Sheppard: Phase Variations (Copy Shop Books, an imprint of Nevermore Press) is a publication released to document last year’s exhibition of the same name at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery by Lou Sheppard. That exhibition, based on research Sheppard had conducted at Robin Metcalfe’s Passage Memory Project, an ongoing archive of local Queer history maintained by Metcalfe at his Sheet Harbour home, presented several works that meditated on Queer culture, on the passage of time, on generational knowledge, and on the inherent difficulties of finding space for oneself and one’s community in a hostile environment. The publication (it’s too deconstructed to fit easily under the rubric ‘book’) mirrors the archive of ephemera maintained by Metcalfe (who also curated the exhibition), collecting a pamphlet, a ‘poster,’ cards, photo sheets, an original print, and looseleaf artist statement in a grey folder. Short essays by Undine Foulds, Brody Weaver, francesca ekawuyasi, and Metcalfe provide a contextual ground for the project, situating the show and publication within the large project of making and telling Queer histories. As Sheppard writes in his introduction, “Queer history is slippery and undefinable… A history of queerness couldn’t be told straight.”
Lou Sheppard: Phase Variations is much more than a keepsake of an exhibition, it functions, rather, as an extension, as a furthering and a deepening of the show and its related project, a reading room drawn form Metcalfe’s archive. It’s rare that a publication accompanying an exhibition feels so much like an exhibition itself. But that’s just what Lou Sheppard: Phase Variations accomplishes., Copy Shop Books, the new imprint of Nevermore Books will, publisher Jayme Spinks says, be “visuals-focused.” Based on Lou Sheppard: Phase Variations, that is an exciting prospect.