Journal of Canadian Art History / Annales d'histoire de l'art canadien


Vol. XXXIII:2 (2012)


Rejection and Renewal
Art and Religion in Canada (1926–2010)

In 1979, as part of a series of performances by members of the artist-run centre Véhicule Art in Montreal, Tim Clark (1943–) performed A Reading of “On Obedience and Discipline” from The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. The chosen text, by the German monk Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1371–1479), contrasts the fleeting nature of earthly joy with the eternity of happiness to be found in God, the mystery of Redemption, and the love of Jesus Christ. Clark stepped before the camera, removed his shirt, slipped a black leather gauntlet onto his right hand, knelt before the book, and, raising his right hand to cover his face, began to yell the words. When the reading was over, he removed the glove and walked away.

Thunderbirds and Concepts of Transformation in the Art of Norval Morrisseau

Over the course of his fifty-year career, Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau (1931–2007) or Copper Thunderbird (Miskwaabik Animiiki) fashioned a unique visual language that articulated a wide variety of artistic themes, including shamanistic conceptions. He explored three main spiritual directions in his life – traditional spiritual teachings within the Anishinaabe culture, Christianity, and Eckankar – and these are also reflected in his art.

The Story of Life
A Ceramic Mural by Lorraine Malach

In 2003, a ceramic tile project for the renovated reception area of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, was made possible through funds from the Alberta provincial government; museum director Dr. Bruce Naylor expressed interest in working with local artist Lorraine Malach (Regina, Saskatchewan, 1933 – Drumheller, Alberta, 2003). In her proposal for The Story of Life, Malach explained that the purpose of the mural was to make the idea of “deep time” – the vastness of the geological time scale – accessible to the museum's audience, and suggested a composition that would bring this concept into the present1 by using “human forms and symbols” to portray “evolution, diversification, and extinction through the ages.” The resulting ten-panel sculpted ceramic mural of unglazed fired beige clay now mounted along the museum's reception area wall is three metres high, fifteen metres long, and about thirty centimetres deep. Directed floodlights dramatically illuminate The Story of Life, heightening the play of shadow and light on the complex symbols and larger than life-size human forms on its high relief surface.

Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the Video Works of Sylvia Safdie, Marisa Portolese, Marielle Nitoslawska, and Sarindar Dhaliwal

In 1949, Clement Greenberg, an American art critic who was closely associated with modern art in the United States, categorically ejected religion from modernism by stating that art had to be “uninflated by illegitimate content – no religion or mysticism or political certainties.” In his essay on modernist painting in 1960, he upheld his belief that none of the arts need religion: “The arts could save themselves from this levelling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity.”

Imaging Islam in the Art of Arwa Abouon

Since the events of September 11, 2001, there has been no shortage of literature and societal debate on the growing visibility of Islam in Europe and the United States, including on art from or related to the Muslim world. But despite the numerous exhibitions dedicated to “contemporary Islamic art,” little, if any, scholarship has directly addressed the meaning and effect of the increasing number of visual references to Islam as a lived and living practice in contemporary art. Arwa Abouon (1982–) is a Libyan-Canadian Muslim artist whose work is openly informed by Islamic religious, cultural, and artistic traditions. In this essay I explore the imaging of Islam in her work and map how it relates to wider questions of taxonomy, gender, and self as well as to other dimensions of her practice. The approach I take to Abouon's work may seem disarmingly straightforward: it is anchored in the practice and event of looking, as I, like Doris von Drathen, consider the act of spectatorship and the encounter with a work of art an attempt, and sometimes a successful means, to meet an or the other.

Sacred Manifestations
The Making and Meaning of Mosques in Canada

A 1940s tourism booklet on Edmonton, Alberta, describes the city as the ideal gateway to the north and praises it for its central location in Canada. Throughout the booklet the tourist (and possibly the potential investor) is presented with Edmonton's many virtues as a picturesque yet growing natural resource–based and global economy. Somewhat surprisingly, it also refers to two communities that contribute to the city's cosmopolitan image, noting the existence of a Chinatown and the presence of Canada's first “Moslem temple” the Al-Rashid Mosque. While it may seem odd that either of these communities is credited with giving Edmonton a sense of global presence, their mention provides a glimpse of Canada's increasingly diverse cultural and religious landscape, although it gives an inaccurate portrait of the prevalent attitudes towards belonging, citizenship, and immigration in Canada during the 1940s. Unlike the Chinese community of this period, Edmonton's predominately Arab Muslims had been neither fully defined as or considered as being part of a racial Other distinct from their Euro-Canadian counterparts. Upon their arrival in Canada, many community members had become somewhat assimilated by adopting English names and marrying non- Muslims and could, as a result, often legally or socially pass for being white. The Al-Rashid mosque, with its two hexagonal minarets and makeshift metal dome, was for many the only visible marker of their religious identity in Edmonton.

Dybbuks of Derrida
Traces of Deconstruction in Contemporary Jewish Art

The title of this essay is designed to give a decidedly Jewish twist to one of Jacques Derrida's well-known books – Specters of Marx (1994). In this work Derrida introduced the portmanteau hauntology as a way to register the spectral surplus of ontology that marks our being in the world as a being haunted. Hauntology evades the metaphysics of presence and introduces haunting into every concept to the extent that ontology becomes the forever failing attempt to exorcise the ghost from the concept. As Derrida writes, “To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concept of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism.” While such uncanny and spectral logics occupied Derrida in the last decade of his life, and to this extent we might say that he became haunted by hauntology, it is interesting to note that he never invoked or conjured the dybbuk, a Jewish version of these spooky specters, in his vast corpus of writings. As the spirit of the deceased that inhabits and cleaves to the body of a living person, the dybbuk is part and parcel of this uncanny class of beings between. Indeed, the dybbuk provides a wonderful parasitic figure for thinking about the practice of deconstruction itself or as a double of itself.


A Letter to Montreal
Making Love with Jesus

from : AA Bronson, born Michael Tims, formerly a hippy, a member of the artists' group General Idea, and a pagan become a Buddhist; now an artist and healer, focusing on issues of queerness and healing, studying for my Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and artistic director of the Institute of Art, Religion, and Social Justice, which I founded, together with my colleague Kathryn Reklis, at the seminary last year.

Artists Works

L'art contemporain et la religion au Canada
oeuvres choisies

translated summary:
Contemporary Art and Religion in Canada
A Selection of Works

The gallery of images in this issue of JCAH presents works by Goota Ashoona (1967–), Thérèse Chabot (1945–), Robert Houle (1947–), Ed Pien (1958–), Ted Rettig (1949–), and Mitch Robertson (1974–). Chosen for their creative and profound engagement with religion, some of the artists were directly inspired by sacred texts and experiences with organized religion, while others drew from private spiritual moments, revealing the effects these moments had had on their lives.


The artistic expression of religious beliefs and sentiments is a recurrent topic in art historical research. The corpus is enormous and open to interpretation. Readings may be mystical, spiritual, institutional, iconographic, psychoanalytical, linguistic, anthropological, or ideological … the list of viable approaches is very long. As fascinating as these lines of inquiry have been, and continue to be, the blowback phenomenon – iconoclasm – has been equally productive of scholarship, and promises even more in a culture attuned to unwritten histories, the encoding of forbidden knowledge, and the art of ekphrasis. All such investigation is about history, however, and contemporary religious art, in Canada and elsewhere, remains a delicate and sometimes contentious subject. Its chroniclers, curators, critics, and practitioners often camouflage their studies in the secularisms of identity politics and material culture.

Guest Editorial

The papers I selected for this special issue on contemporary art and religion are significant in that they bring some order to a theme that has arisen persistently in Canadian art-making, sometimes against the grain of critical and curatorial interpretation. By discussing work that takes place in a Canadian context, these essays look at a culture that has fostered fascinating developments in this area. Given the importance of freedom of expression in Canada’s pluralistic society, it is significant that contemporary visual expressions of religious feeling have flourished largely outside religious institutions. Understanding such expressions becomes particularly relevant when one considers Canada as a nation of immigrants with different religions and recognizes that matters related to identity politics and its visible manifestations are fundamental to the study of the Canadian social fabric. Moreover, Canada’s current socio-political climate is strongly affected by a new type of far-reaching conflict that is increasingly interpreted not only according to national parameters but through the post-colonial lens of religious and cultural identity. This discussion of Canadian art and religion thus also provides a forum for reacting against the campaigns of religious organizations that create internal conflict within societies.