Critical Fictions

Critical Fictions, by Hannah Godfrey, published by ARP Books, Winnipeg, 2023.

Notions of ploughing, wayfaring and mudlarking are central to Critical Fictions (ARP Books, Winnipeg, 2023), the new book by artist, writer and curator Hannah Godfrey. Connected through slow repetition and relation to the land, each act suggests a patient and rhythmic sort of seeking. To meander and trace the steps of another, to slowly and painstakingly turn the soil and sift through the time-worn foreshore of a riverbank are all processes that both recover meaning and make it anew.

The book is presented in five parts, each centring, respectively, the practices of Derek Dunlop, Kristin Nelson, Hagere Selam shimby Zegeye-Gebrehiwot, Andrea Oliver Roberts and Logan MacDonald. All are contemporary artists living and working in Canada, connected by their queer identities and the abstraction prevalent in their practices. In a deviation from traditional art criticism, each segment includes an essay followed by a collection of corresponding Fictions, Godfrey’s own interdisciplinary abstractions. Critical Fictions is shaped through dialogue with each artist; Godfrey is not writing from a distant vantage point but in tandem with her subjects. The texts have not been written about the artists but to them.

In essay form, Godfrey examines each of these artists through a critical lens, after which she turns the lens over to approach them in a new light through her Fictions. Critical Fictions understands that the exploration of ideas is limited by the medium through which it is presented; an essay is not conducive to all forms of processing and thought. Just as the artworks are effective precisely because of their nature as artworks, Godfrey’s Fictions express what could not have been conveyed otherwise. Godfrey writes with the understanding that to queer something is to subvert it, to turn it on its head, reimagining dominant systems and hierarchies. Thus, queerness is inherently linked with struggles against power structures such as capitalism. In a subsequent Fiction, she places each punctuation mark in the book’s footnotes side by side, making visible the space between people that allows such systems to take root.

In the monoprints that are part of Dunlop’s series “PARK,” 2018, the remnants of ora gathered from what were once popular cruising sites are pressed onto paper. Here, wayfaring and mudlarking are means of walking with previous generations of gay men in search of a lineage that has not been overtly documented. This serves to excavate and preserve the memory of what has been paved over and gentried. In his retracing and remembering spaces haunted by both joy and violence, Dunlop erodes spatial and temporal boundaries, opening a window to non-linear queer time.

Nelson uses weaving to interrogate labour politics and the often unbalanced relationship between skill and value. The physicality of weaving and her experience as a person with a disability inform her practice, emphasizing the worth assigned to bodies based on their ability to work. For The Paper Series, 2012–2017, Nelson wove simulacra of mass-produced paper products, reinserting value into what is otherwise perceived as ubiquitous and inconsequential.

The third segment examines Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s short film yaya/ ayat, 2020, in which the artist, who uses they/she pronouns, documents a journey to Greece to spend time with their Ethiopian grandmother. Their relationship has been obstructed by both time and distance. Here, queer yearning for community and heritage is coupled with that of the diaspora, each amplifying the other. In a poem, Godfrey writes, “A skein of days / so many presents / like feathers braced in a wing.” Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s desire to know and be known by her grandmother is complicated by the uncertainty of being met with acceptance for her identity; many years of disparate presents have created a distance perhaps difficult to bridge.

In Roberts’s Crisis Canon, 2019, four musicians performed as part of a site-specific work taking place before the cement spires of what was once a test pile site for British-American Construction and Materials Limited. The ephemeral music undoes the fixity of this industrial graveyard. The sound did not alter or erase the site’s past, entrenched in the ever-expansive colonial exploitation of land, instead offering an alternative. Godfrey writes in the Fiction “Fragments,” “A hollow is not a hollow when it is immersed in water.”

MacDonald, an artist of mixed European and Mi’kmaq heritage, explores relationships between queer and Indigenous bodies and the land. In preparation for his 2017 exhibition “The Lay of the Land,” he travelled to Indigenous communities whose land is being threatened by corporate and government exploitation. In the resulting pieces, MacDonald documents the challenge of connecting to a heritage where access had previously been denied, while undoing the colonial assumption of land as property. He withholds precise names and locations, preserving the sacred for those who understand and see themselves represented. Godfrey notes that MacDonald is engaging in “wayfaring rather than navigating,” not mapping with precision but loosely guiding.

As each section echoes and expands on elements found in the ones previous, an abundance of through lines gradually becomes apparent. Godfrey’s study of each artist is more meaningful in the company of the others, each piece playing a role in situating and providing context for the rest. Haunting, queering time, resistance to colonial and capitalist power structures: these threads and many others slowly build upon one another. By the book’s end, they have created a tapestry of great intricacy and beauty.

In each essay and the Fictions that follow, Godfrey writes with gentle affection as she invites the reader into her process of meaning-making. The book’s power lies in this generosity, as Godfrey sets aside formality in favour of intimacy and encourages readers to imagine new and queer ways of being and understanding themselves and the world. ❚

Critical Fictions, by Hannah Godfrey, ARP Books, Winnipeg, 2023, 176 pages, paperback, $24.00.

Mielen Remmert is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory.