When: September 4 through October 14th
Where: FAB Gallery, University of Alberta, 1-1 Fine Arts Building, 89th Ave. and 112th St
Check out our audio interview with Gavin Renwick here.
When I was asked to cover the exhibit currently running in the FAB Gallery here on the University of Alberta Campus, I was told I would be reviewing some kind of post-modern work. I must admit that I was anticipating a bunch of paintings, drawings or prints that would lead me to begin throwing around words like “pastiche” and questioning the value of this sort of art in a culture that is already so referential and overwhelmed with information as ours. So, upon walking through the gallery doors I was surprised (and relieved!) to find that I was given faulty information. Gavin Renwick is currently Canada Research Chair in design studies and a professor at the University of Alberta. His work is not post-modern and is definitely not deserving of the accusations of inherent superficiality I was all too ready to level at it. Indeed, it happens to be quite the opposite. Renwick is not creating and presenting art in the interest of style or even good ol’ personal expression. He is working with the intent of fostering change and actually making a tangible difference in the lives of real people. RADICAL!
Counterpoint: The Aesthetics of Post-colonialism is an exhibit of the work Renwick is doing with aboriginal communities in the North West Territories to find solutions to the problems created by over two-hundred years of colonialism and forced assimilation. The imposition of a Eurocentric model of housing design in Northern communities has essentially failed in its primary function due to an incompatibility with both the climate and traditional indigenous culture. Nonetheless, Renwick and his collaborators in these communities acknowledge some uses for this model while recognizing the need for innovation in the pursuit of creating functional and meaningful spaces that actually meet the needs of northern communities.
The exhibit begins with a timeline of colonial and industrial activity in the Dene region of the NWT. I probably spent more time here than any other part of the exhibit simply because there is a fair bit of reading involved, but it served as a refresher on the long and on-going history of abuse and exploitation suffered by aboriginal Canadians. If fifteen minutes of reading depressing historical facts isn’t your thing, you’re in luck! There’s also a video that details most of the same information and much more.
The upper level of the gallery functions largely as an exhibit of objective journalism, featuring archival civil engineering diagrams of Yellowknife and photos presented under three different design contexts: empire, colonialism and assimilation. The wall under the assimilation heading is particularly shocking for how clearly it illustrates the efforts that were made to completely divorce indigenous populations from their traditional culture. It features sketches from a guidebook that was issued by the federal government in 1968 on “how to live in your new home,” pages which explicitly detail the almost complete isolation of female life to the interior of these matchstick homes and a pathological preoccupation with cleaning and scrubbing (read: white-washing) everything all the time.
Back downstairs is the working studio section of the exhibit with some of the layered prints that are the core of the project. These prints are made by layering drawings and sketches over one another, usually with a pronounced difference in style. The result is a kind of loose collage image of a hybrid structure or space. They are intentionally abstract. Renwick states that this series is intended as a “way-point” in the design process and is an integral step in working toward solutions for the complex problems he and his collaborators are trying to solve. These issues are a long way from being resolved—just Google Attawapiskat First Nation if you need a recent example of the kind of literally disastrous conditions many of our fellow Canadians are forced to endure—but Renwick has done beautiful work in laying out a great deal of shocking information and striking art over both floors of the FAB gallery and it is well worth a look.