© Anna Hudson & Jeff Thomas, 2005. Used by permission
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Bridging art and audience: Storytelling in the presence of historical Canadian art
Date: 16 July 2005
"To know your history is to know your future"
Not long ago, Jeff asked Anna why she doesn't tell stories.
Jeff's an artist and a curator. His storytelling unites the written word with pictorial language as a means of reclaiming First Peoples' representation. For him, the past informs the present, which shapes the future. Such a temporal continuum doesn't exist for Anna. Or more precisely, the art of storytelling is not supported by the academic discipline of art history or the historical Canadian curatorial practice in which she's worked.
Jeff explains that the foundations of his curatorial practice began on the Six Nations Reserve in Southern, Ontario.
"I listened to my elders tell stories about our Iroquois culture, leaders, heroes, political battles with the Canadian government, and everyday life on the reserve. But the most important lesson given to me was to always be responsible and respectful to our traditions. I have transferred their wisdom to the way in which I work with artists, archival collections, exhibition spaces and developing projects that benefit First Peoples' and also challenge the general public's negative "Indian" stereotypes."
"Who wants to hear about my traditions - about Henry's Hudson's first attempt, in 1607, to link England and the 'islands of spicery.' My lineage retraces the colonial history of Canada and I'm trapped by the canon of Canadian historical art in which I was trained. Lawren Harris, Cornelius Krieghoff, Emily Carr, Jack Bush, and all those - painters - circumscribe my extended cultural family. But these canonical artists have been compressed into two dimensional symbols of too broad a definition of Canadian identity and too narrow a definition of art to be engaging - or relevant. What would it take to breathe historical Canadian art back to life so that the images may re-inhabit the three-dimensional space of our culturally-diverse present."
Anna and Jeff agree that curating should be more like storytelling, with images in place of words, and the walls - like grammar - ordering the narrative flow. The subject or theme could be as open as any topic of conversation. Storytelling is always a public performance, pitched to an audience consciously identified by the teller. Curating, like storytelling, invites multiple performances of the same material. The changeable and transformative nature of curatorial interpretation makes an exhibition.
How contrary this all is to art history and much institutional curatorial practice. In the name of discipline, knowledge is too often used viciously to control access to art. Audience is forgotten. The curator of historical art, anxious to contribute to the scholarship, and deeply committed to the protection of the high "Art" object, might scramble after the academic to an intellectual high ground, forsaking the art of storytelling. Meanwhile, museum educators and communications personnel still desperately launch public appeals over the high walls of Canada's public museums and galleries to beckon visitors with the prospect of a deeply human cultural connection or a brush with creative genius. But the majority of our population, and most significantly, people whose extended cultural family live outside the canon, drop into the gulf that divides art and audience. That's the beginning of the story.