At a recent conference at the University of London, organized by Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community, the theme of “Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory” was interpreted by a number of participants in terms of place. A compelling contribution came from artist-filmmaker Suze Adams, who reconstructed the process that led to her short film Communion (2012). The work was filmed on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, which Adams’s maternal ancestors called ‘home’. The film opens with a dedication inscribed in white – the reference to family albums is unmistakeable – which reads: “to those who have gone before and for those who have yet to come.” The figure of a woman is seen from the back as she gazes upon a landscape. The work is sited by the shores of a mountain lochan (a small inland lake), which the artist identifies as “a location of significance to her family.” She is accompanied by a small chair, a gift from the artist’s mother to Adams’s daughter on her second birthday, and the sounds of children’s voices are recollected by the unseen narrator. Views of the rippling water are overlaid with private documents, such as a family tree and an ancestral portrait, but the most persuasive claim to connection to (dare I say ‘possession’ of) this place is the woman’s body, her steadfast gaze upon this site of memory. As I watched and listened to her poetic meditation, I felt the strength of her attachment to those Scottish shores, which held my gaze and also transported me home.
In 1871 the Colony of British Columbia entered into Canadian Confederation on the condition that a transcontinental railroad be built to connect the extremes of a then nascent and developing Canada. The construction of the railroad was hailed from the beginning as a practical necessity, bringing resources from British Columbia to the east and moving settlers westward. The railroad was also considered to be a hallmark of Canadian expansion and progress; the enormous endeavour of constructing the railroad was the foremost feat and a source of national pride. The challenge to meet the ten-year time limit to complete construction was compounded by the need to pass the rail route through the mostly uncharted and treacherous Rocky Mountains. Planning and mapping began immediately with both geological and topographical surveys deployed for the task. The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was to work in tandem with the engineers of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and their Pacific Railway Survey teams already in British Columbia, in order to devise the most practicable route. Sir Sandford Fleming, Chief Engineer of the CPR, ordered his railway crews to provide assistance to Alfred R.C. Selwyn, Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, in conducting his geological work. This relationship between the two organizations offered mutual benefits through the sharing of provisions, trails, campsites, and, most importantly, information.
On the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy R.R. 140 miles west of Chicago.
June 28th 1871, 4.15 P.M.
Dear Wife and Daughter,
I will try and write you even while the cars are in motion. About an hour after I left you at the Montreal depot in Pullman’s Palace sleeping car, – June 26th , 1871 – I laid down to sleep but it was considerable time before I could sleep. The excitement of leaving on such a long journey kept me awake a long time.
In the morning – Tuesday June 27th – at 8½ o’clock we were at Coburg. There we took breakfast. We passed a few very pretty places, among which I might mention. Port Hope on Lake Ontario, and Buffalo still further west. At 4 P.M. we dined at Stratford. At 7.30 P.M. we took tea at Sarnia. This village is on St. Clair River which connects Clarke Lakes at St. Clair and Huron, and separates Michigan from Canada. Sarnia is on the Canadian side of the river and Port Huron on the American. After taking tea we crossed the river to Port Huron, passed our baggage through the custom and departed by rail for Detroit Junction. There we took Pullman’s Palace sleeping car for Chicago.
Two years ago I became interested in the sizable migration of artists from Aotearoa New Zealand to London in the post-war period. I found myself asking why the experiences of these artists were not written into the narratives about New Zealand art. Why do they disappear from these narratives when they leave the borders of Aotearoa New Zealand, and then become visible again when they return? Why, in short, isn’t London, in the 1950s, considered to be a major site of New Zealand art production, like Auckland or Christchurch?
As I did more reading, I discovered that these artists from Aotearoa New Zealand were part of a much larger migration. After WWII, London became a destination for ex-colonial artists from around the world who wanted to practice as modernists. Indian, African, and Caribbean artists challenged the hierarchies of colonialism and the colour-barred subjectivities of modernism by travelling to the metropolis and claiming a place for themselves within it. This moment has been named New Commonwealth Internationalism. It is part of a growing body of art history dealing with “alternative modernisms” and their relationship to the dominant narrative of modern art in Europe and North America. It has been presented as a process of decolonization, not least because the British art scene welcomed these artists as a way to secure London as a metropolitan art centre, and as a way to manage the end of empire.
I start – and stop, for now – at the word “settler.” I want to find the French term. I work in French, I sometimes write and publish in French, giving francophone editors an even harder time than anglophone ones, and above all, I teach in French (although English words frequently stray into the space I make with my students). My teaching position is labelled “Histoire et historiographie de l’art au Québec/Canada avant 1900.” In my research I specialize in satiric visual representations from the historical period up to 1960; in the teaching attached to my position, I lead a broadly-based undergraduate class that is now called “Les arts au Québec et au Canada, 16e–19e siècles.” This title used to include the words “Nouvelle France, Bas-Canada et les Canadas avant Confédération,” but this left little space for anything beyond an admittedly fascinating Quebec-centric canon. When I describe the class to students or colleagues or people who are not art historians, I say “from Quebec slash (barre oblique) Canada from contact to about 1860” and they seem to understand what that means.
Winding your way through this tightly-packed exhibition is a gradual process of total immersion into the distinctive symbolic and spatial order of Bob Boyer’s art. At its core, that order is defined by the traditions of indigenous Plains abstraction that Boyer embraced, explored and re-energized. His paintings are sometimes – especially early on – a battleground where conflicting symbols maul and maim one another. Later they tend to buzz with affirmative energy or rest in harmonious balance.