Thursday, November 26, 2009

Arthur Renwick talks First Nations Faces in National Post

A couple of years ago, when I was introduced to the work of artist Arthur Renwick, it was in a small excerpt from one of his photo series that was hung alongside a large exhibition of Emily Carr's work at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In those photographs, Renwick was documenting First Nations churches in British Columbia--an interesting accompaniment to Carr, whose painting Indian Church is well known.

Recently, Renwick opened a show of rather different-looking photographs at Leo Kamen Gallery in Toronto. For it, he asked First Nations artists and curators to stare down the camera, and, in a way, all the imagery it has generated of native people. (The show on now is the newest iteration of a similar 2006 series.) Today, my Q&A with Renwick appeared in the National Post along with a range of his pictures. Here's an excerpt:

Q You asked your subjects to think about times when their native identity posed a problem. What experiences have you had with that?

A There's been many, especially with my brother. My father is white, and I have a pale complexion. He has a native father, so he looks really Indian. We're only a year apart, and hung out all the time growing up. But I'd be allowed places he wasn't. He'd call one of our friends, and the friend's mother would say "He's out right now." Then I'd call five minutes later and it'd be, "Hold on a second, I'll get him." It was obvious racism right from the get go.

I'm kind of an invisible minority. When people find out I'm native, their attitudes do change. And I've definitely heard a lot of remarks. One stands out: A guy I used to work with was a bit of a bigot. Finally, I got fed up and told him I was First Nations. He looked at me with shock and blurted, "Well, that explains everything!" Ha! It was quite funny. I laugh about it now, but then, I realized there was no way we could communicate.

Speaking of communication gaps, one thing that can't come across in the paper is the size of these portraits -- the faces are blown up to 30 inches by 30 inches. Worth seeing in person before the images head to the Richmond Art Gallery as part of the "cultural olympiad" stuff.

Image of Renwick's Rebecca 1 2009 from Leo Kamen Gallery

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