By chance or design, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre has juxtaposed two fascinating—albeit wildly different—feminist exhibits this spring. The first, The Artist Herself, is a curated collection of self-portraits by 55 female Canadian artists, all done before 1970. The collection expands the definition of self-portrait to include virtually any type of self-representation, including textile work, photos, and film. Billed as spanning from “pre-Confederation colonialism to the cusp of second-wave feminism,” the exhibit features both Indigenous and settler voices, to its credit. Some of the pieces include a 19th century scrapbook by Lady Belleau, dolls created by Inuk artists, an ornately crafted performance dress by Six Nations of the Grand River artist Pauline Johnson, and several needlepoint samplers immaculately completed by girls as young as 11. While many items show the hallmarks of the expected colonial and Victorian femininity, there’s an undercurrent of enterprise and resolve, as these artists used such tropes of womanhood to bring their voices to the fore. It’s a beautiful collection, touring nationally through 2016.
Step through the door beyond The Artist Herself and you’ll find I’m Not Myself At All, by Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell (and while I suppose the matchy exhibit names are just a coincidence, it just furthers the brilliant effect of having these two shows side by side). A combination of film, sculpture, wallpaper, drawings, and other media, I’m Not Myself At All stands in sharp relief to The Artist Herself. Take, for instance, the latter’s use of 19th century needlepoint samplers completed as part of routine girlhood; Logue and Mitchell also use needlepoint, but blow up the pattern and use it to wallpaper all four sides of the second room of the exhibit. In other words, the trope becomes vaguely suffocating, surely a comment on the expectations of Victorian women and girls. Logue and Mitchell likewise play with the idea of dolls, but make them sculptural caricatures: oversized, stuffed nudes with exaggerated breasts, hair, and genitalia. Equal parts shocking and comical, it’s a testament to how far women have come in their ability to self-represent. While The Artist Herself showcases subversive use of female icons, I’m Not Myself At All rejects these tropes through hilarious amplification.
These are two exhibits that, while each wonderful in their own right, deserve to be visited together. The sheer contrast between the two inspires a sort of awe for the state of feminist art in Canada and for the tenacious voices that participate in it. Whether with yarn, cloth, or paint, women in this country have long been—and still are— creating some beautiful work.
Both exhibits run until August 9, 2015. For more information about hours and exhibitions, visit the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.