Official war artists have been following Canadian forces for more than a century, and that’s a long time to create expectations on what that art will be. As a result, even slight variations stand out to varying degrees.
The latest exhibition at the Canadian War Museum is from the Canadian Forces Artists Program Group 8. Most notably different is that the artists, including Philip Cheung, Aislinn Hunter, Simone Jones, Emmanuelle Léonard, Andreas Rutkauskas and Ottawa-based Rosalie Favell, were not sent overseas. Between 2016 and 2018, all six were deployed in Canada, from the sweltering south of Alberta to the frozen vastness of the far north.
The photographs and video selected for the exhibition portray training for catastrophic scenarios, search-and-rescue missions and patrolling our most remote borders. There’s also a bit of the unexpected: Rutkauskas followed gunners who avert potentially dangerous avalanches. Each spring, members of the Royal Canadian Artillery haul Howitzer cannons to Rogers Pass in British Columbia to fire shells 105mm shells into the tenuous ice and snow. Her video includes a sublimely incongruous moment of light snow falling gently onto the cannon barrel.
Another feature of the exhibition is the preponderance of Indigenous content, primarily within the Canadian Rangers reserve program. The Rangers patrol the most remote coastlines of the Canadian north, and many Rangers are Indigenous and particularly well suited to the task.
Phillip Cheung, who is based in Toronto and Los Angeles, accompanied a Ranger patrol out of Taloyoak, Nunavut. Bad weather forced the patrol to stay out in the wilds for four more days, and Cheung saw “how crucial the Rangers’ knowledge of the land can be to life in the North.”
Cheung’s photographs show the Indigenous Rangers as confident and resilient. In one frame three Rangers, dressed in standard-issue orange hoodies (for high visibility against the whiteness), sit outside their simple tent on a rock-strewn beach. In another, two Rangers move away from the shore in their small motorboat, their wake spreading slowly across the breadth of the frame.
Rosallie Favell, who is Métis, focuses more on the personalities of the Rangers. Favell spent time in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut and observed Operation NANOOK. In keeping with her recent portraits of Indigenous artists in Ottawa, Favell created portraits of hardy Rangers, all in their orange hoodies and caps. They’re but a few of the 5,000 faces that turn to the horizon, ever watching for threats and, by their mere presence, reinforcing Canada’s sovereignty.
The sense of isolation is reinforced in a photograph by Emmanuelle Léonard, who was deployed to Resolute Bay, also in Nunavut. A line of shooting targets is spread across the frame in the distance, like a thin barrier against the icebound horizon.
There’s a view of the Rangers loading their boats for a patrol, drawn by Tim Pitsiulak and unique here for two reasons; the coloured pencil drawing is the only non-digital image in the exhibition, and Pitsiulak was not part of Group 8. Pitsiulak, who died in 2016, was an official war artist in 2010, and he had previously served as a Ranger. The drawing is now part of the museum’s permanent collection and makes its debut here.
There’s another singular distinctiveness in the video by Aislinn Hunter. Hunter is listed — and this is yet another unusual thing — as a novelist and poet, and not as a visual artist. Perhaps that’s why her short video feels less documentary and more dramatic narrative.
She was sent to Camp Suffield in southern Alberta to accompany forces on “live scenario” simulations in the brutal heat of summer. The camp has a downed plane, a bombed-out bus and station, and even part of a ship in which to practice, for example, defusing explosives.
Hunter speaks of the “gutting uncertainty” she felt as soldiers defused a barrel-sized chemical bomb, and that anxiety permeates the images in her video. Soldiers in camo protective suits and gas masks move across the screen in slow motion, past overturned trucks and the rubble of buildings, the face of a woman who wears a head scarf flashes past, deer and coyotes show the wilderness that surrounds it all.
The video feels like a trailer for a dramatic thriller. While there surely must be limitations put on what the artists can portray — military matters tend to secretiveness, of course — the reality of the “complete artistic independence” granted to artists allows for satisfying variations in the tone and feel of the art. After more than 100 years, it helps to keep it all fresh.
The exhibition continues to May 18.