Review: Ottawa artists help capture Canada’s three coasts in Open Channels exhibition

Paula Murray. Who is Speaking. Who is Listening, 2019. This piece is part of the exhibition Open Channels at the Canada Council gallery.

One of many events that marked Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 was an expedition that would have seemed an impossible fantasy when the nation was born.

The Canada C3 expedition travelled from coast to coast to coast on the MV Polar Prince, a decommissioned Coast Guard ship. It left Toronto and went up the St. Lawrence River past Montreal and Quebec, crossed the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Maritimes, sailed east of Newfoundland and then turned northwest and weaved its way through the massive archipelago that is Canada’s North. It traversed the fabled Northwest Passage, then sailed around Alaska and down the coast to Victoria, B.C. It took 150 days, and covered thousands of kilometres.

Thirteen artists were along for various stages of the journey, including the Ottawa area’s Leslie Reid, Paula Murray and Christine Fitzgerald. The work the artists produced is included in Open Channels, an exhibition now on display in the lobby gallery of the Canada Council for the Arts at 150 Elgin St.

Christine Fitzgerald. Kaniehtí:io, 2017. This portrait is included in the exhibition Open Channels.

The exhibition begins with geographical scale and context, displayed on a map of the route that appears as a dotted line tightly tracing the three coasts of Canada that can be journeyed by sea. Each artist’s name appears on the map near where their art was inspired or created — Fitzgerald appears first, off the coast of Quebec; Murray floats off of Baffin Island; Reid crowds into the M’Clintock Channel near Prince of Wales Island. 

Fitzgerald’s photographs have a clarity often lost in digital times. She’s printed five portraits on aluminum, and the colours are stripped back to greys and sepia, thereby focusing the view upon the face and body and presence of her subjects. Her subjects here are five women from the same family from the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal, and their collective presence is powerful.

“Kaniehtí:io and I became friends,” Fitzgerald says of one of the women in her artist’s statement. “She opened my eyes to the truths about our past.”

The other portraits are of Kaniehtí:io’s mother and sisters, including Kahente, who writes, Fitzgerald says, “of otiyaner, the clan mother who sets the path, and the centrality of powerful and resilient women in their culture. These portraits represent this spirit: Waneek, an Olympic athlete; Kaniehtí:io, an actress; Kahente, an academic; Ojistoh, a physician; and Kahentinetha, their mother and an unrelenting fighter for her people’s rights. Her strong daughters are her greatest legacy.”

Chelsea’s Paula Murray’s ceramic work typically looks like it was created not by hand but by nature. Here Murray has 34 pieces of ceramic sculpture that look like hollowed horns or tusks from some mighty northern creature. They’re arranged flat on a table in two rows, with the wide ends outward, like plenty of horns of plenty.

The title is Who is Speaking? Who is Listening? I listened, and longed to hear the music of nature, like rustic notes from a primitive pipe organ, perhaps the chill wind flowing over the rugged face of Baffin Island.

Leslie Reid has a tremendous talent for large, opaque scenes of sparse landscapes, so the wide-open lands of the north seem like a natural habitat for the Ottawa artist.

Reid also has an interest in video, and her six-minute loop features the voice of Uluriak Amarualik, who speaks of her grandparents, her challenges as a northern woman, her life in Resolute, her family’s critical link to medical care in the south. Uluriak is never shown on screen, but her unassuming voice — a calmness built on wisdom earned through years of challenges — is heard over clips of the landscape, of a land so seemingly empty but so full of heart and history. Reid lets the camera linger over the water, the ice, the tiny, remote villages. It’s the same assured restraint that creates those austere paintings of landscapes.

Sarni Pootoogook, Blue Bird and Sedna, 2002, etching and aquatint.

Also included in Open Channels are artists Lizzie Ittinuar, Sarni Pootoogook, Deanna Bailey, Soheila Esfahani, Anna Gaby-Trotz, Phil Irish, Benjamin Kikkert, Dominique Normand, Geoff Phillips, Francine Potvin, Rachel Rozanski and Véronique Tifo. The exhibition was curated by Melissa Rombout.

“Open Channels implies the flow of navigable water,” Rombout says in her curatorial statement. “Sailing along Canada’s three coasts, through actual open channels via the fabled Northwest Passage, is a phenomenon borne of warming ocean temperatures, a disturbing augur of the advancing climate change that already affects Canada’s coastal communities.”

It’s a beautiful, sobering perspective on lands and people both hardy and vulnerable, caught between timeless tradition and the ecological recklessness of the world around them.

Open Channels continues to Jan. 26, admission is free.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.