Harbour at the Saint John Arts Centre
Saint John Arts Centre’s inaugural curatorial resident Amy Ash has assembled a metaphorical harbour with the group exhibition Harbour. Her safe resting place for ideas, politics, and art contains works as varied as the ships and cargo docked in this port city. It also guards more secretive and tightly held narratives and feelings that must be examined at close range to be revealed. This is no accident. In the corner there is a pair of binoculars for looking at a collection of archival photos of the actual Saint John harbour hung high above eye level. It quickly becomes apparent that this is the way we are invited to view all the works. We need to look closely if we are to make out the full meaning. Each work has been offered safe mooring and, in return, the artists have invited us in for a deep and introspective experience.
Chantal Khoury’s liquid blue watercolours, Nienke Izurieta’s massive photo of outstretched arms, Sara Griffin’s circle of beaver sticks and wire, Sarah Jones’ playfully coy harbour-scape, Emma Hassencahl-Perley’s complex jingle dress, Alisa Arsenault’s collage, Sarah Power’s video, Dan Xu’s accordion book and Ann Manuel’s touchingly poetic installation all share an immediate visual impact and a second, quieter, but perhaps more powerful, reveal. Each piece is also in some way fragmented or deconstructed, as if parts have been removed to be shipped. Perhaps this is what prompted the curator’s large didactic statement: “What do you keep & what will we build from this place?”
Nowhere are all these ideas united as clearly as in the striking piece by Wolastoquey multidisciplinary artist Hassencahl-Perley. Ahtolimiye (She Keeps Praying) is a beautiful red jingle dress with golden cones and bright fabrics hauntingly displayed on a headless dress form in a corner. Out of context it immediately invokes thoughts of museums and the colonial history of confining cultural artifacts to glass display cases. A closer look reveals that shreds of the Indian Act are bonded to the dress. The powerful message guarded in the details of the dress is a reminder that the Indian Act restricted spiritual and cultural expression, and has had a lasting impact on the culture it tried to limit. Hassencahl-Perley’s dress shares a story of strength, courage, and hope, is a living part of the history it reflects, and will be removed and worn by the artist to dance in at Pow Wows as needed. Not confined to the gallery or museum, it is a personal legacy in fabric standing in contrast to the local background of colonialism and trade that is inextricably linked to the history of modern harbours.
A safe haven for weary ships, a place for guarded secrets and the personal effects of history, a glimpse into small private thoughts and relationships: these are all ideas touched on by these nine very different artists, yet they all feel at home in this unusual harbour.
Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick. He is the co-founder of Sappyfest and Thunder & Lightning Ideas Ltd.