I have been chronically ill for almost ten years now, and last year I got diagnosed with a new chronic illness. My body has always been untameable, it has always needed fixing and I have been made to feel monstrous for most of my life. Illness has been a main event in my life with a family haunted by strange conditions that can not be easily explained. Presently, I’m awfully aware of my medical status as I have seen how so many have embraced ableism with open arms. That, combined with Canada’s new MAiD legislation – which reeks of eugenics to me – makes the political landscape seem bleak. 

For these reasons, Alicia Henry’s Witnessing could not have occurred at a better time. This exhibition was originally shown in Toronto at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in  2019, where Sarah Moore Fillmore, Interim Director and CEO, experienced it originally and expressed a desire to bring it to Halifax. After two years of COVID delays the show finally opened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on March 12, 2022. 

Alicia Henry, originally from Chicago, currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she is an art professor at Fisk University in Nashville, one of the country’s oldest Black universities. During her artistic career she has won multiple honors, including the Joan Mitchel Foundation Award, Ford Foundation Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, and, most recently, the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art. In the past two decades, Alicia Henry has been searching for unusual approaches to portraiture while using various forms of textiles, in addition to paper and cardboard. The fabrics get stained, dyed, stitched, heated and/or boiled. The portraits derived from a variety of sources, including her collection of West African masks, people on the street, and self-portraiture. In this body of work, she lets viewers bear witness to a range of stories that are familiar and daring.

When I first went to see Alicia Henry’s work at the AGNS I considered contextualizing the work within an American framework, a country filled with a past/present of brutality and violence towards Black people. Considering that some of the installations are made up of several drawings that have missing limbs, have no eyes or appear mutilated in some capacity, that seemed like the most evident route to take. But the more I thought about it, the more one-dimensional this approach seemed. 

This is not to say that these topics do not exist in Henry’s work. But there is also an alluring depth that touches on current conversations around how we collectively think about bodies, health, beauty, love, and community. Especially when the bodies depicted in this show look visibly disabled and/or ill. 

Witnessing doesn’t allow the audience to be blissfully oblivious as the grouping of bodies stare back, confident and confrontational. This can be seen clearly in Untitled (cluster), 2019, a wall installation composed of multiple drawings and cut-outs of body parts (legs, heads, torsos) and what appear to be women with missing body parts (breasts, abdomens, limbs, eyes, noses, mouths). The paper cut-outs are different shades of brown, black and purple, overlapped and sewn together. Some have graphite drawn faces of women with a certain air of disdain, as if they are repudiating the pity stares of viewers. Disabled people are often used as inspiration porn in the media, and therefore when a person that is not legible under the standards of “normal” is defiant, it hits with greater force. A defiance that feels rooted in a profound need for what author and social activist bell hooks calls a “love ethic.”

Untitled (cluster), 2019, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: RAW Photography. Courtesy AGNS

According to hooks, “A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well.” It further entails letting up on one’s desire for power and dominance. This occurs in Alicia Henry’s work since the gathering of the figures in the entire exhibition hint at connections within communities that are described by the curator as “multigenerational survivors.” How can this body of work not be anything else but an awakening to love? A love that seeks to make evident how individualism is not the way, as alienation allows abuses of power to be more prevalent. 

Analogous II, 2019, is a composition of leather cut-outs that resemble masks, as if they have been removed from faces. The pieces of leather are placed on the wall overlapping with each other, going from black to maroon in a sort of gradient. This gathering seems like a collection of shed skins that maybe belong to people that are related and are meant to co-exist on the same cluster. The ‘skins’ suggest a rite of passage into the future, as a way to mark a new start. They are evidence of what was. 

Analogous II, (2019), Acrylic, thread, yarn, leather; dimensions variable. Photo: RAW Photography. Courtesy AGNS
Analogous II (Detail), (2019), Alicia Henry, as documented on display at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, October 2019. Photo courtesy of Blaine Campbell.

I often think about my body in pieces, the pieces that I wish I could change, the parts of my body that are failing me. In Untitled (fragments), 2019, something different is being echoed. Those perfectly organized paper cut-outs of body parts hover over the audience occupying almost an entire wall. They are dissected and presented as imperfect as they are, just as they are. This approach uncovers how innate it is for bodies to age, change, decompose and perish. Being ill has always felt shameful and something that I needed to keep hidden, specifically in what I allow my family to know. The gatherings in Henry’s work presents a new possibility, one in which we are bonded over the survival of the current mass disabling event we are living through. This moment can teach us that love can be the moving force in the way we behave by closing the gap between intent and action. 

Witnessing encompasses a raw calling that is palpable in the space. As we are drawn into the family units that hold something profoundly sad, we encounter an openness that lures the viewer in. The work does not plead, but rather asks to be explored, wherein lies the reward. In this exhibition, transformation wanders in the communities depicted and gives agency to each member. We are called to approach our own communities from places of love as the seams of society are ripping and pretenses have been dropped. COVID-19 has uncovered how non-disabled people truly feel when they are “inconvenienced.” When they can’t blatantly ignore institutional failures anymore. Disability rights and inclusion activist, Imani Barbarin, tells us about wanting to return to ’normal,’ “To move forward and change nothing despite what we have learned about these systemic failures and the people they affect would be a complete failure to protect ourselves from this happening again.”  

When you love, you can no longer hide and must question all you’ve been taught. I couldn’t look away from Henry’s installations because of the way she treats the materials in her work to evoke care and connection, which are deeply intertwined with love. I, a chronically ill person, desperately want to love and live in a just world. A world that prioritizes loyalty and a dedication to long-term relationships over monetary gain. I want to live in a world where my life is not seen as disposable but instead others care about my well-being. Henry’s work offers itself as a window of possibility for someone like me by being so effortless and assertive a reminder that these realities already exist and are being constructed every day. 

Witnessing was organized and toured by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery and   curated by Vancouver Art Gallery Chief Curator Emerita, Daina Augaitis.