Unearthing: Foundation Mentorship Program Graduate Exhibition

Photo credit: Kelly Campbell


Kelly Campbell, Kristiane Church, Lane Delmonico Gibson, Chrystal Gray, Yolanda Paulsen, Brenda Stuart, Lisa Walter, Cathy Woods, and Aikaterini Zegeye-Gebrehiwot


Response by Christina Hajjar


I made my way through aceartinc’s new space for the first time, exploring the works of nine women and non-binary artists from Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA)’s 2021-2022 Foundation Mentorship Program. The typical white cube was dressed in earth-toned and bright artworks that evoked movement and cyclicality. There was a contained maximalism to the show—each artist took up space, but respected the invisible boundaries without interference. Still, themes felt interconnected. Cycles of life, death, and ecology weaved through the group exhibition. It was opening night; the reception was warm and lively, as visitors activated the artworks through conversation and embodied exploration. 


Lane Delmonico Gibson’s work invited viewers to handle an Untitled birthing mirror in order to access the reversed text etched in clay. The message, “the degree to which you achieve it will be perfect,” was an encouraging quote from the artist’s clown school teacher, which set the tone to receive the rest of the works in Unearthing—many of which were process-based, laden with emotionality, and created in collaboration with nature. 


Kristiane Church’s Betula featured a 16mm black and white film installation in a setting that felt reminiscent of a beach. A large sunshade umbrella with hand-dyed textiles implied an engagement with food scraps or botanicals that saturated the cloth. Its ethereal presence made me wonder if the umbrella could be used outdoors, and what further collaboration nature might impart through sunstains or other elemental impacts. A chartreuse blanket sat beneath the umbrella, where people removed their shoes and chatted in clusters, overlooking scenes in Church’s film that depicted a woman talking through a screen door, a woman with her hands immersed in water, and more.


Behind this nestled area, a shoreline of driftwood was sprawled neatly in Brenda Stuart’s From the river of the sun; from the river of the sky. Another collaboration with nature, Stuart’s work included four large solargraphy prints depicting sun trails captured through pinhole cameras that had been planted in a dry riverbed for a month. Dancing streaks of colour revealed the inevitable movement of life, which is not always a forward trajectory.


Looking at the land from up above, Yolanda Paulsen’s Finger prints, fields of the land in Oaxaca gave pause. Featuring painted and embroidered agricultural patterns, the textile piece on the floor was reminiscent of a snapshot taken from an airplane. Here, the message encoded in the ground had been received by the artist through a diasporic process of coming and going, surveying the land as a sentimental visitor. Like the rings of an aged tree, the fingerprint-patterned fields are reminders of time and human relationships with land.


Nostalgia continued through Kelly Campbell’s Gaudy Gay Gewgaws, a queer coming of age amalgamation of prints, paintings, sculptures, embroidery, plant clippings, and repurposed objects. Slogans and text were visible throughout, such as “NO THANKS,” Eat the Rich,” “Life in harmony,” and “CUNTY,” as well as pronoun pins and labelled jars. Campbell’s angsty and enthusiastic artworks came together with a humorous and political queer kitsch aesthetic that was epitomized with a print of a twink(ie) kissing a pansy. 


Lisa Walter’s Insulting words in the singing of birds featured a dismayed, open-mouthed figure laying on a bed of human hair, with a bird on a bed strapped to the figure’s legs. Hair was stuffed into the figure’s mouth and the restrained bird seemed unwell. The use of abjection and horror felt as if Walter was speaking back to an experience in which the Othered body had been subjugated—perhaps using art as a method of reclaiming power. 


The representation of figures in the exhibition was sparing considering the amount of artists, so each instance had more weight. Surprisingly, my experience in the gallery started and ended with puppets. At the front of the gallery, a handmade doll bearing some resemblance to the artist appeared in Cathy Woods’ photographs from a canoe trip. The photographs were placed in an orderly fashion on the gallery wall with red-pinned maps indicating water traversed with the help of a map-reading doll, which came off as the artist’s alter ego or close companion. 


A smaller room off the main gallery showed the work of the final two artists, including a hanging felted wool Sex Monkey marionette by Chrystal Gray. The monkey looked realistic and malleable, and I longed to watch it in motion. I tapped the string and watched it sway gently, as I returned my gaze to Aikaterini Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s 35mm film, Farewell my Winnipeg brother Jeff. 


Visiting with Zegeye-Gebrehiwot was intimate and moving, as she described the grief that inspired her work. Having lost three friends in three months, she talked of death and the sickening realization that one day you are here and the next day you are gone. Manipulating found film with scrubbing, scratching, and improvisational mark-making, Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s use of paint and javex abstracted the imagery without removing it entirely, in order to filter the scene through her emotional landscape and pay tribute to her recently departed friend, Jeff. 


During our conversation, Gray entered the room and we all turned our attention back to the monkey. When I asked Gray why it was called Sex Monkey, she pointed underneath to a previously unnoticed gaping vulva. I became amused by the vulgarity of the art, although the marionette aspect made me feel concerned for the monkey’s sexual agency. With the artist present and open to people interacting with her work, Sex Monkey began to take on a much more tender energy. Zegeye-Gebrehiwot cradled the monkey in her lap like a baby—her hands caressing the side of monkey’s soft face, as she described the meaning of having witnessed monkey’s growth over the past year—looking at the inanimate object with such adoration. 


Her affection was infectious, as I momentarily cradled Monkey too. What was apparent in this interaction, and in the exhibition statement, was how much the group of artists had become connected through the mentorship program, witnessing each other’s turbulent, monumentous lives and creations grow and change. In Unearthing, continuous threads of narrative remind us of the inevitable cycles of life, moving through difficulty with humility, connection, and collective care. 

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