In a column late last year, I said that I would be writing about Jordan Bennett’s remarkable new exhibition at AGNS, Ketu’ elmita’jik (They Want to Come Home). The exhibition runs until March 31, and I’m pleased to be getting to it now. Bennet, who is Mi’kmaw from Stephenville, Newfoundland, now lives in Halifax.
In this exhibition, he makes full use of the gallery’s architecture to create an immersive environment where traditional Mi’kmaq and Beothuk design motifs take on new life through a physical, graphic and conceptual extension through time and space.
A dialogue with his ancestors as much as a contemporary expression by a living artist, the exhibition thinks about the history of the Mi’kmaw peoples, their stories and their interactions with the Europeans who now live on their land. The show is also a dialogue with the artist he admires who preceded him, many of whose works are on view in mezzanine gallery above the room where Bennett’s project is on display.
Artists like Arlene “Dozay” Christmas, Alan Syliboy, Jerry Evans, and Charles Doucette inform Bennet’s practice as much as do the historical works that are his subjects in this exhibition, the objects that want to come home. “I think what we’re all trying to do is figure out our place in the world,” he told me last fall. “It’s through this visual culture that we’re trying to understand and to make this visual language speak to further generations.”
Bennett is also thinking about the Beothuk, the nation that inhabited his home of Newfoundland, and whose distinct culture did not survive contact with Europeans. Both the Beothuk and the Mi’kmaq peoples used bold graphics in their traditional crafts, which were often objects made from wood, grass, bark and quills, objects designed to be both beautiful and useful. And being useful, they wore out. Making objects was a process of constant renewal.
With our Western habit of collecting objects in museums the natural life span of cultural artifacts is slowed, objects are preserved, not used. Post-contact, many Mi’kmaw artisans created objects for European trade. In Victorian England, chair seats and backs were often commissioned in traditional quillwork, as were baskets and other small domestic items. Bennett believes that these makers observed the Western habit of collecting and used it for their own purposes.
“The quillwork, I mean, it was being created through European consumption, like the porcupine chair seat covers,” he says. “There was a way to pass on this language, and it is embedded in all these objects. The way I like to think of it is that they knew what they were doing by putting them into objects that would then be collected. That way future generations can then see it and try to figure it out.”
Bennet has borrowed several quill seat covers from museum collections across Canada. They are mounted on the walls of the gallery, behind sheets of Plexiglas open on the sides. These objects and their designs, or as Bennett refers to them, stories, breath again.
The intricate patterns, their colours faded from time and use, are extended by Bennett, painted directly on the gallery’s walls in vibrant colours to approximate the originals. The eye is dazzled, and one is almost fooled into hearing the colours. And don’t be fooled by the seeming modernity of these colours. As Bennet says, “Well, there have been hot pink porcupine quills in existence since the early 1800s. We’ve been rocking them!”
In concert with Bennett’s drawings and paintings and ensconced within a narrow high gallery with open walls to the upper mezzanine that holds AGNS’s First Nations galleries, the extended objects spark a dialogue with the other artworks, with the artists that he looks to as his precursors.
In a talk at AGNS Bennett, suggested the wonderful analogy of an overflowing basket for the gallery space. This work is generous, wise and beautiful. And it rewards multiple visits with new insights. Viewers are immersed in Ketu’ elmita’jik (They Want to Come Home), and for those of us who have settled here in K’jipuktuk (Chebucto/Halifax), it is an important glimpse into the vibrant, living culture of the peoples on whose territory we have made our homes.