“Awakening: seeing beyond the frame”

A cluster of blown glass vessels that burst out of their metal casings greets us as we enter the room. While each organic entity appears unique, standing upright and apart on the concrete floor, these sculptures also seem to speak to each other like members of a chorus, or to communicate underground like a fungi forest. With their mix of yellowish-brown tincture or plain transparency, Lorna Bauer’s … air is where effort goesonce our effort is spentthis crowded airNo.1–17, 2021, is curiously pleasing to contemplate. Like a vertical greenhouse melting through its steel structure, Bauer’s installation embodies constraint and tension. The opening pieces of the group exhibition “Awakening: seeing beyond the frame” literally overflow from the frame, setting the tone for breaking barriers, final frontiers and other glass ceilings.

Tau Lewis, Opus (The Ovule), 2020, various recycled and hand-dyed fabrics, recycled leather, acrylic paint, recycled polyester batting, jute, metal frame, PVA glue, secret objects, safety pins, metal hooks, wire, 309.9 x 223.5 x 640.1 centimetres. Collection of Nish De Gruiter. Courtesy Musée d’art de Joliette, Joliette. Photo: Romain Guilbault.

One hour east of Montreal, the Musée d’art de Joliette is a bastion of contemporary art in the province of Quebec. “Awakening” is a prime example of the regional museum’s knack for presenting young and exciting local, national and international talent. Curator of Contemporary Art Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre invites us to bear witness to the practices of seven women-identifying artists for whom resistance to control and imposition has resulted in the creation of powerful works. The artists included are Lorna Bauer, Marie-Claire Blais, Nadège Grebmeier Forget, Alicia Henry, Tau Lewis, Michaëlle Sergile and Eve Tagny. Through photography, sculpture, performance, textiles, installation, collage and video, “Awakening” weaves together a compelling interdisciplinary visual experience. Without naming it as such, it also aims to demonstrate what intersectional feminist approaches to artmaking and curating might resemble.

Marie-Claire Blais’s The Intoxication of Depths, 2021, which overlooks Bauer’s statuettes, explores the themes of the exhibition on a more literal level. Eighteen colourful unstretched canvases criss-crossed by rectangular forms resembling wooden bars occupy the entire wall, creating diaphanous, rainbow-like gradations. Giving a sense of airiness, the canvas almost seems to float off the flat vertical surface to fill the gallery. The spilling or folding-over motif echoes Bauer’s sculptural gushing, but this time the margins of painting are evoked and tested. This play on the layering of perceptual and physical fields, on the flattening or texturing of space and place, is taken up in the next gallery by Alicia Henry. In the installation Brown, Red, White, and Blue, 2012–2015, the American artist makes handsewn portraits with complex stitching that hang flat on the wall to generate an accumulation of figures observing the space. These characters are both haunting and familiar, their spectral presence pointing to the multifaced and layered nature of identity. Drawing attention to flesh as an envelope and the face as a mask, Henry’s piece reflects on the interrelatedness that race, age, class and gender should have in the construction of feminist discourse.

Following Henry’s formidable wall piece, Eve Tagny contributes to the political mantle of the exhibition with her immersive installation Of Roses [how to embody the layers of time], 2022, accompanied by the two videos How to hybridize an English Rose, 2020, and Of Roses—How to embody the layers of time [fragments of a bibliography], 2021. Together, these works expose the trajectory of roses as an aesthetic, economic, environmental and social entity. Through performance, found and collaged video footage, sculptural objects, assembled materials like flowers or books and a domestic set to house all of these elements, Tagny builds an environment like a home garden where we can consider the connections between extractive colonialism, the global flower industry and the persistence of racism in trade and commerce. Paying close attention to the finer details of each nook and cranny of the piece, the artist hides with care literary references, dried flowers or black earth, delicate casts of hands and other beautiful artifacts for the viewer to find, appreciate and ponder upon.

In the final gallery, Michaëlle Sergile holds court with We Wear the Mask, 2019, and To Hold a Smile, 2022, next to Tau Lewis’s monumental sculpture Opus (The Ovule), 2020. Both young contemporary Canadian artists pushing the conceptual boundaries of textiles, this pairing is another brilliant one. We Wear the Mask translates Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem by the same name into a coded vocabulary of thick cotton and acrylic threads that blend to recreate the colours of different skin tones. Citing a vocal performance of this poem by Maya Angelou, Sergile cleverly introduces a wooden rod structure resembling a drying rack to hang the weaving, which recalls Angelou’s homage to Black domestic workers. Just a few feet away, Opus (The Ovule) similarly pays tribute to the beauty, glow and might of Black women. With effervescent colour, the sculpture depicts a larger-than-life head with bold features birthing an immense plush tongue. Resplendent and unrestricted, Lewis’s manifestation of open exuberance contrasts with Sergile’s To Hold a Smile video projection, in which the artist documents a close-up of her mouth struggling to hold a smile for over six minutes, quivering with exhaustion and stress. The video underscores historical and contemporary racist stereotypes of Black women’s mouths that pathologize and caricature them as either unsmiling “sapphires,” grinning “mammies” or “jezebel” seductresses.

Michaëlle Sergile, of Haitian descent, To Hold a Smile, 2022, HD video installation (colour, sound), cotton blanket, cotton thread, wooden support, variable dimensions, 6 minutes and 9 seconds. Property of the artist. Courtesy Musée d’art de Joliette, Joliette. Photo: Romain Guilbault.

Among the many parts of “Awakening” that move beyond the frame, Nadège Grebmeier Forget’s video-installation-collage of live and recorded performances in the lobby is the most successful in breaching conventional exhibiting boundaries. In There is no ultimate signification inside me: An appearance of participation (2014–2021), the performance artist mixes multi-channel videos with prints on adhesive vinyl, tablets and monitors to give a kaleidoscopic experience of her corporeal, objectoriented and citational practice for the camera. Fragments of pink-hued performances collide with each other to engender an affectively inebriating and at times anxietyrendering sense of glitchy computer screens, JPEGs, MP4s and other data streams. Concretely outside of the exhibition’s main space, Grebmeier Forget’s contribution leaks out into everyday performativities of white femininity. Like most of the selected works in “Awakening,” this intervention opens yet another space to discuss fluidity and intersectionality in contemporary artistic feminist practices. ❚

“Awakening: seeing beyond the frame” was exhibited at Musée d’art de Joliette, Joliette, from February 5, 2022, to May 15, 2022.

Didier Morelli is a FRQSC Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of art history at Concordia University. He holds a PhD in performance studies from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois).