I came across an exhibition which took me to a deeper level of a heavy soul. It does not matter about the volume of the sound, but the level and duration of suffering that counts.

Does any tune/ sound evoke certain memories of your past?

Sound can be a powerful tool despite its short lifespan, especially when it interweaves human history. No matter it is personal or national, the audio memory may have been automatically footprinted in one’s subconscious mental archive during the growing process. When sound becomes active, it is an absolute physical as well as spiritual sonic vibration substance that not only moving around us, pulsates us, in fact, it will completely embrace and penetrate our fresh, bones, inner organs, and soul.

God never promises a blue sky, so when life gets tough, what should we do?

I guess everyone will have different answers. For me to conquer hiccups in life, prayer is my priority, also I would take refuge with a piece of music to revive my heavy soul.  John Williams’ “Remembrances” of Schindler’s list is my all-time favorite. When Itzhak Perlman releases his very first note of the composition, his violin literally cries and mourns simultaneously. Truly, this piece of music should be a matter to all humankind as it unravels the darkest hours in history. I guess my sentiment of this piece is a strong proof of my soulish existence and humanity. I believed that inner healing always comes after the tears. The worst case is no tears, no healing but only pain.  As we read about the history of mankind, we can find numerous heartbreaking moments that only pain remains…

 “My Auntie Bought All Her Skidoos with Bead Money” by Jeneen Frei Njootli

@Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG), Vancouver
July 13 – September 16, 2018

Five steel sheets dominate the whole setting. However, the message behind is more than our eyes can see. Photo credit: CAG

For most of the exhibition visits, I prefer to rely on my instinct to feel the atmosphere first without any prerequisites of the artist and the artworks. The opening is optional in most of the case, but not with this one. Upon my arrival in Vancouver, the opening had already taken place, I felt as if I had already missed the main course because the artist had prepared a one-off opening performance, and, on her request, no record of any form could be taken.

Instinct, instinct. While stepping into the exhibition area, I have immediately catalogized it as one of those exhibitions that I could see it all in a glance. The setting and visual material were very minimal, the metallic tonal and textual value might not induce much adoration, and the sound was inaudible. Nevertheless, my inner voice kept urging me to keep on digging in.  The struggle did not hold me long when the chat with the gallery curator Ms. Kimberly Philips began.

The natural sunlight breathes air into the solid studio setting.

After knowing that Jeneen is a female artist whose work holds cultural and historical significance in Canada, I was eager to learn more about her artworks and let it agitate my heart. Simply because we are, both female artists, standing on the similar ground. Jeneen is telling her family stories of the Aboriginal people in Canada, and me, stories related to the fading heritage of Cantonese Opera Costume. This indirect connection enabled me to read her work without many difficulties. Once this ground was laid, the rest would be easily related.

The aboriginal peoples are part of the Canada communities. According to the Census of 2016, there are 1.67 million + Aboriginal people in Canada, mainly divided into three distinct groups, the Frist Nations, Inuit andMétis, each of them has its own unique languages, cultural practices, histories, and spiritual beliefs. They are, until the present time, facing many setbacks in life.  The Indigenous background of Jeneen solidifies her interdisciplinary artworks, so as her involvement as the founding member of the feminist Indigenous media collective ReMatriate.  She employs her artwork to honor and protect her cultural heritage, especially the lives of women in her community to fight against the invasion of the capitalist consumption of the culture and violence upon the bodies of the indigenous women. Her culture, history, and land originate from the self-governing Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in northern Yukon, a wild, mountainous and sparsely populated territory in northwest Canada. Aboriginal Right to Self-Government set a platform for the peoples to manage historical, cultural, political, health care and economic control aspects within first people’s communities.

The large steel sheets in the gallery generate a horizontal and vertical linear impact against the white walls. The sharp solid lines of the steel sheets cut out space and divided the spatial atmosphere with certainty, no matter they were leaning against the walls or laid flat on the concrete floor.

When I approached the central piece closely, I could barely hear some mysterious sonic vibration in very subtle and low-key tune that reverberated through that steel sheet. The identification of the source of the sound was unclear as it carried few layers of sonic components. Later, I was told that it was the artist’s vocals intertwined with the subtle percussive effect being electronically modified and played on the steel sheets. It was a brilliant presentation of mixing human voice with mechanic composition.

The artist is sharing and echoing something deeper within souls. For this kind of exhibition, viewers are required to input more time to understand and interpret the meaning and story of the artwork.

Portability and the body are the center point of Indigenous art. The artist took the latter element as her tool to create a raw connection between herself and the material. Skin is personal, intimate and sacred. A touch of it may cause various emotional and physical reaction. Jeneen has chosen two extreme substances here to bring annoyance to the viewers; the softness of skin against the toughness of steel, the warmth of the body against the coolness of metal, natural and industrial, human and commercial.

Beading is one of the major hand sewn skills aboriginal women obtained and passed on through the generations. A piece of beadwork becomes a portable evidence of ancestral memory and care of a community. The skills, the bead, the design, and material are all authentic. Even though no beading work was showing in the room, the artist employed another mean to present it to the viewers. Before applying her body with grease as a printing plate to press onto the surface of the steel, she wrapped her body tightly in a piece of beadwork from her family to impress the patterns into her skin. Grease as a medium to transfer the impressions onto the metal plates.

In the beginning, the greasy image would reveal the details of the beadwork, but as the process of oxidation and rust on the panels began, the images would be distorted during the exhibition. The evidence of beads would then be disfigured into abstract patterns, and the original pattern disappeared. I found this fading process interestingly captured the character of the truth of history also a very thoughtful act to present one’s feeling of intimacy. As time passes, history may remain, but its true face is hard to verify. The artist’s practice and art making process reminds me of ancestor worship or the oil anointment in religion.  An artistic ritual fall between sacred and secular.

The red dots reflect the impression of the beadwork on the artist’s body.

At the back of the venue laid the new video work “Willing” commissioned by the CAG. It was projected on the steel sheet and played in a loop in a single take. The video captured the fading process of the impression of the red dots on the artist’s bear back caused by pressing beadwork on her skin. I really like the way the video set in a semi-dark area with the natural light source from the side windows. Firstly, there was a kind of spiritual incarnation of hope to the situation. Secondly, the viewer required to pay more attention to the video to watch it clearly.

The way the artist navigates the connection of her body to the commercialization of her community would surely rise discussion and reflection of the viewers to rethink about one’s attitude towards Indigenous people, their history, culture, and issues. For me, I would like to see the real beadworks and find out the similarity and difference between their work and sequin work of Opera costumes. Maybe it can be another cultural exchange idea in the future.

Besides Jeneen, there are few indigenous artists practicing in various media in Canada. Edward Poitras and Rebecca Belmore represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2005 respectively. In fact, indigenous artists such as Mungo Martin, Bill Reid and Morval Morrisseau had commenced to publicly revamping indigenous art traditions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Photo Credit: JC Jessie



Interview of Itzhak Perlman on schindler list


Jeneen Frei Njootli @ CAG

About Aboriginal People in Canada

Mungo Martin

Bill Reid

Norval Morrisseau