Toronto art exhibition strives to present Canada’s real North

"Art and exhibitions such as this one make the North accessible"


A Toronto art exhibition wants to bring a new, more realistic view of the North into focus.

On the walls of the Modern Literature and Culture gallery in Toronto, you’ll see recent prints, including Ooloosie Saila’s striking Ornamental Owl, or Saimaiyu Akesuk’s Transfiguration, both from the Cape Dorset print collection of 2017.

And then, in cases, you will find plastic cubes made by mixed-media artist Emily Pleasance.

Some feature works of Canada’s Group of Seven landscape painters, mainly Lawren Harris, who often used stylized Arctic images in his now-famous paintings.

Other cubes are made of resin and soil from Nunavut.

These cubes were created in custom moulds, Pleasance told Nunatsiaq News. Then soil was placed in the mould and they were sealed with a two-part epoxy resin.

She made 70 of these, each selling for $50.

While all of the works in the exhibition are for sale, money from the sales of the soil cubes will be donated to the Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line, which offers crisis support, she said.

The drive to create the cubes and mount this exhibition came after Pleasance visited Iqaluit in 2016, “because Nunavut, its history, culture, landscapes, were nothing like I had ever seen before,” she said.

“Nor is it anywhere to be found in the Canadian narrative of the North,” she said.

The experience shifted her graduate research focus in communications and culture to thinking about the North.

“Since coming back from the North I have spent a lot of time at the Dorset Fine Arts Gallery, learning about artists working in the North, the history of Nunavut and Cape Dorset,” she said.

Through this exhibition Pleasance aims to take the south’s romantic images of the North and “re-locate” them back into the Arctic, which is why the name of the exhibition is “Re-locating the Canadian North.”

“I wish this place was more accessible to the rest of the country. In a way that is why I think art and exhibitions such as this one make the North accessible,” Pleasance said.

“When Canadian, mostly southern and western Canadians,” say “the Canadian North,” what they are often talking about are places like Algoma, Algonquin, Banff and Jasper, she said.

“With no coincidence at all, these are generally the places the Group of Seven painted. Essentially, the Canadian North is the landscapes of the Group of Seven.”

And that’s more “lake plus mountain plus forest” than tundra, she said.

“When we really think of where these places are they aren’t very north at all. In fact—they are very south in terms of Canada. And so to label these geographical places as ‘the Canadian North’ is to completely erase everything north of those places.”

After she made the cubes from Nunavut soil, emphasizing Nunavut’s place in the North, Pleasance said many wanted to buy them.

“However, to profit from the soil taken from Nunavut felt very wrong, and so I knew that any money gained from the soil cubes would have to go back to the land and community,” she said.

She chose the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line to benefit from the sales on the recommendation of an Inuk artist friend who suggested a list of worthy organizations.

“The reason I chose the helpline is that there are so many problems in the North—there is no one solution. Whether it be infrastructure, healthcare, judicial.… And so, since there is a suicide crisis happening in the North, I thought the money could at least go to the last line of defence,” she said.

You can see the exhibition at the MLC Gallery 111 Gerrard St. E. in Toronto, on Tuesday to Friday, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. until Dec. 21.

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