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© Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa. 19710261-0189
"Houses of Ypres"
A.Y. Jackson, "Houses of Ypres", 1917, oil on canvas, 25" x 30".
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Collection of the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
Gertrude Kearns, "Dallaire #6", 2001, sign enamel on nylon, 84" x 62".
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Photo: Steve Farmer.
"until the story of the hunt is told by the lion / facing horror and the possibility of shame"
Nichola Feldman-Kiss, "until the story of the hunt is told by the lion / facing horror and the possibility of shame", 2011-2013, 61 digital photographs, multi-channel spatial sound composition, animated electro-luminescent back-light media, Durantrans media, loud speaker system, plastics, wood, electronics, programming, approximately 215' square.
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"Liberty Avenue (MFO North Camp Sinai)"
Dick Averns, "Liberty Avenue (MFO North Camp Sinai)", 2009, archival digital print on aircraft-grade aluminum, 24" x 36".
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"Ma`sum Ghar Fortification"
Adrian Stimson, "Ma`sum Ghar Fortification", 2010, digital colour photograph trans-mounted on Plexiglas, 18" x 24".
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Photo: Henri Robideau, grunt gallery.
Adrian Stimson, "10,000 Plus", 2011, acrylic on wood, sweet grass, sage, tobacco and cedar, 4 panels 8' x 1' each, flanked by Portrait of Master Corporal Jamie Gilman (left) and Portrait of Corporal Percy Bedard (right), 2011, oil on canvas, 6.5' x 3.5' each.
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© Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
"The Sunken Road"
Frederick Varley, "The Sunken Road," 1919, oil on canvas, 52” x 64”.
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"Retired Observation Posts (MFO North Camp Sinai)"
Dick Averns, "Retired Observation Posts (MFO North Camp Sinai)", 2009, archival digital print on aircraft-grade aluminum, 40” x 56.5”.
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Photo by Henri Robideau, grunt gallery.
From "Holding Our Breath"
Adrian Stimson, installation view of "Holding Our Breath" at grunt gallery, Vancouver, in 2013, showing "Sandbox," 2011, wood, acrylic paint, sand and razor wire, 1’ x 6’ x 6’, and Chinook, 2011, charcoal and graphite on Stonehenge paper, 9’ x 8’.
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"Blue and/on Green (diptych)"
Scott Waters, "Blue and/on Green (diptych)", 2013, oil and acrylic on panel, 36”x 48”.
WAR (AND PEACE)
Military art marches to fore as Canada marks anniversaries
By Paul Gessell
Adrian Stimson’s installation Sandbox is chilling. The Saskatoon-based artist, a member of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation in southern Alberta, has created an ordinary-looking children’s sandbox. In military slang, a sandbox can also mean a desert battlefield, like in Afghanistan. Above Stimson’s sandbox are loops of very real, very sharp, intersecting coils of razor wire. The result is a disturbing metaphor for the seemingly endless violence in Afghanistan that has killed thousands of civilians, including children at play.
Sandbox will be displayed at the Esker Foundation in Calgary from Sept. 27 to Dec. 14 as part of a war art exhibition called Terms of Engagement, curated by Christine Conley of Ottawa. The nationally touring show – one of an ongoing volley of exhibitions prompted by significant military anniversaries dating as far back as the First World War – includes works from three multi-media artists who participated in the Canadian Forces Artists Program in recent years.
The program embeds artists for a few weeks with the military. Basic expenses are covered but the military neither pays the artists nor purchases their work. Stimson was in Afghanistan; Dick Averns, an instructor at the Alberta College of Art and Design, went to the Middle East; and Ottawa’s nichola feldman-kiss was in Sudan. Their work includes photographs, videos, sculptures and installations. “Compelled by narratives of genocide, the traumatic legacy of colonialism and the War on Terror, the works in Terms of Engagement offer an encounter and critical engagement with Canada’s international role as a nation of warriors and peacekeepers,” says Conley.
Among the works is Stimson’s installation 10,000 Plus, referring to the number of aboriginal people who have served in the Canadian military over the last century. It includes life-sized portraits of two aboriginal soldiers Stimson met in Afghanistan, plus shelves of traditional medicines that memorialize his participation in a smudge ceremony in Afghanistan. Stimson says many people have little awareness of the military service provided by First Nations, Inuit and Métis. “Those soldiers, who we call heroes, some of them are indigenous,” he says.
Terms of Engagement is typical of contemporary war art, a genre that has travelled far in the 100 years since the beginning of the First World War, when artists’ sketches of battlefield scenes were meant to serve as supposedly objective historical records. Today’s war art, like Stimson’s Sandbox, often leans toward the conceptual and the subjective, including topics not always flattering to the military.
For instance, Toronto-based Gertrude Kearns, a leading military artist, has painted horrific scenes of Canadian soldiers torturing a Somali civilian and also created a controversial portrait of Roméo Dallaire, the former commander of the UN’s ill-fated peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, illustrating his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Scott Waters is another A-list military artist. Originally from Kelowna, B.C., but now based in Toronto, Waters is known for paintings of what he calls “debauchery” among drunken soldiers. Both Kearns and Waters were part of Forging a Nation: Canada Goes to War at the Military Museums in Calgary and Enterprise Square Galleries in Edmonton earlier this year.
Contemporary war art can be puzzling. Averns says not every one “gets” his nuanced and ironic photographs of military signs. (Check out his Liberty Avenue and see where it takes you). Even some fellow artists are unsure of the messages conveyed by Vancouver’s Althea Thauberger in a Military Museums exhibition last year that included staged photographs of armed Canadian female soldiers in Afghanistan frolicking like schoolgirls.
Still, those uncomfortable with contemporary art have traditional options. Witness, a grouping of First World War paintings, is set to tour the country after it closes Sept. 21 at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Among the dozens of paintings in the show is The Sunken Road, a grisly battlefield scene by Frederick Varley, who later became part of the Group of Seven, as did A.Y. Jackson, another official war artist who created Houses of Ypres, showing the ruined Belgian town in the aftermath of deadly battles.
These paintings present fact-based scenes, rather than what Laura Brandon, the curator of Witness, calls the “searing personal response” of contemporary war artists. Lindsey Sharman, curator of the Founders’ Gallery, a space in the Military Museums administered by the University of Calgary, offers a similar analysis, saying contemporary war art tends to be more “in-depth” than the “knee-jerk reaction” of traditional paintings.
Details of the Witness tour are still being negotiated. But it’s expected within the next few years at the Military Museums in Calgary and other Western Canadian venues, including The Reach in Abbotsford, B.C. The Canadian War Museum is planning other exhibitions in Ottawa during the next four years on everything from military dentistry to the iconic Battle of Vimy Ridge of 1917. Some will have national tours.
Canada has had official war art programs intermittently since the First World War. Most of these programs tended to send handpicked artists to war zones to produce documentary-style work. The current program, which began in 2001, offers artists greater freedom. “There was never any sense that you have to make – or you can’t make – certain work,” says Averns. But with freedom comes responsibility: “If they’re going to give artists that opportunity,” he says, “it’s important not to abuse it.”
Waters, a former soldier, agrees. He has participated in the program with stints at Canadian bases and in Afghanistan. He praises the program for allowing artists to exercise “their subjective vision.” But artists should act responsibly, he says. For instance, Waters wants soldiers to feel his paintings are “honest” even if they don’t understand them.
Ottawa artist Leslie Reid spent three weeks with the military last year, recreating the Arctic travels of her late father, an Air Force pilot, and is using her aerial photographs for paintings and photo installations. She has exhibitions in Montreal and Ottawa next year and is in discussions for a Calgary show. Reid describes her military adventure as “amazing, excellent and extremely rewarding.”
Leslie Hossack, who divides her time between Vancouver and Ottawa and specializes in architectural photography, went to Kosovo in 2013. “My experience with the Canadian Forces Artist Program exceeded my expectations,” she says. “This was in large part due to the warm welcome, cooperation and support that I received from the Canadian officers with whom I was embedded.” Hossack is yet to exhibit her Kosovo photos. But she recently completed a body of work about buildings related to the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Her exhibition, Registered, will be shown next year at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, B.C.
Meanwhile, at the Military Museums, two war-themed exhibitions continue to Dec. 15. One is an artifact-laden show called Wild Rose Overseas: Albertans in the Great War. The other is built around the work of Slovakian photographer Tomas Rafa. Called #EuroMaidanYYC, it examines the role of social media in the recent unrest in Ukraine.
Social media was not even part of our vocabulary when Varley donned a uniform in the First World War. Clearly, war art has changed in the last century. Or maybe not. Consider the work of feldman-kiss in Terms of Engagement, which comes to Calgary after runs in Halifax and Kingston, Ont. One of her works is an installation of curved backlit photographs that seemingly float in the air, spiralling upward from the floor of a darkened room to a vanishing point above. From a distance, the installation seems peaceful and inviting. But look more closely. The photo fragments show horrific images of corpses, skeletons and spent armaments after a 2011 massacre in the Sudanese community of Kaldak. The installation is titled until the story of the hunt is told by the lion / facing horror and the possibility of shame.
Now, is this work really all that different from Varley’s painting of dead soldiers, The Sunken Road? The artists used very different media. But the subject matter is similar. And so is the message. Both decry the casualties of war. Both leave the viewer unsettled. Maybe war art has not changed so much after all.