Winter show at Kamloops Art Gallery offers long lens on social, political conflict

With depth of history and a social scope of dizzying proportions, the winter exhibition at Kamloops Art Gallery amounts to a conversation on the human condition.

It is, at once, a troubling conversation yet a fascinating and compelling one as well.

Bearing Witness, which opens today and continues to March 10, is drawn from the permanent collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, where it was on show in 2010.

Through photography, painting, printmaking, drawing, video and sculpture, 27 renowned artists are represented with perspectives on social and political conflict.

"There include atrocities of war, representations of women and gender politics and slavery," said Charo Neville, KAG curator.

Slavery is a subject that seldom finds its way into the gallery, and it can't be too often that works by Pablo Picasso are found there as well. Both help pique public interest in an exhibition that, in many respects, holds a mirror to the world.

The expression "bearing witness" means to show, by one's existence, that something is true. When Reuters, the world's oldest news service, published a retrospective on the Iraq War, it called the project Bearing Witness. A documentary on women working in combat zones bears the same title.

Yet these artists, whose work spans from 1916 to 2005, take viewers well beyond the superficial clips and sketchy accounts afforded by routine media coverage. Many of them, including Picasso, were experiencing horror directly in the eye of the hurricane.

Bodies on a Stretcher (watercolour on paper, 1945), for example, an early painting by Jack Shadbolt, predates the post-modernist expression for which the British-born B.C. artist is best known.

"He was in the Canadian army in World War Two," Neville pointed out. "He did a lot of war art."

Similarly, a pair of penciled cartoon sketches by Picasso reveals the thinking of one of the 20 thcentury's greatest artists as a young man. Not coincidentally, he created them in 1937, the same year he painted what has been described as the best-known work of art of the last century - Guernica. Guernica screamed of the atrocity of a fascist bombing campaign against civilians, helping to bring the horror to world attention.

The sketches were intended as postcards for sale at the 1937 World's Fair in Berlin.

"This is like a precursor to Guernica. He's kind of put (Francesco) Franco with jurors when he was obliterating Spanish culture and acting monstrously. He really took a position, although he wasn't famous at this point."

In Picasso's lines, viewers may be able to discern the beginnings of cubism, which would become his signature style.

Cuban-born artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons reaches back across the centuries to bring to life the largely undocumented horrors of African slave ships. The Seven Powers Come by the Sea (sugar pine, ink, 1992). The coffin-shaped slabs depict the inhumane conditions of the ships. They are inscribed with the names of seven major deities who watched over the slaves en route.

Was it just coincidence that these were created on the 500 thanniversary of the voyage of Columbus (on his second voyage, he sent back a consignment of natives to be sold as slaves)?

Conscious of visitors who may wish to avoid more graphic depictions in the show, Neville has positioned War Series, late-'60s gouache-and-inks-on-paper works by American artist Nancy Spero, on a back wall. It's not that she wants to hide the works.

"I really hope parents and teachers don't shy away," she said. "We had a lot of conversation about this. Once you put it in a gallery context, it does create difficulty."

Images such as Spero's Androgynous Bomb Waste and Female Bombs depict the carnage, the obscenities of the Vietnam War. While they appear rough and hastily composed, these are considered among the most powerful artworks exposing the consequences of violent conflict.

More than 40 years after the ink dried and for as long as they exist, they will continue to bear witness, preserving the memory and resisting the seemingly inexorable call to war.

The exhibition was curated by Ian Thom, VAG's historical curator, who will lead a tour of the show on Saturday, March 10, 1 p.m.

Next Thursday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m., TRU political science professor Derek Cook guides a tour of the show as well.


WHAT:Bearing Witness

WHEN:Opens Sunday, Jan. 15, and continues until Saturday, March 10

WHERE:Kamloops Art Gallery, 465 Victoria St.

TOURS:With TRU political science professor Derek Cook on Thursday, Jan. 26, 7 p.m.; with curator Ian Thom on Saturday, March 10, 1 p.m.

PRINTMAKING WORKSHOP:Thursday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m.

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