Oppression Aesthetics: Engaged or Overplayed?

Some say we need to draw a line between politics and art. Some say the line doesn’t exist.

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Montreal is known for its active political engagement. This year’s Art Matters 2015 adds a political spark to student art!  

What is it about politics that turns some people off—and turns so many others, especially students and artists, so completely on?  

Part of it is controversy, which can be a main feature in the rising tide of art shows, journalism, poetry and films; these works often address power inequalities derived from structures such as gender, race and class. Needless to say, these discussions are difficult ones to have.  

Oppression Aesthetics (March 17th-21st) is a show curated by Laurence Beaudoin-Morin as part of the student-run Art Matters Festival, now in its 15th year. The festival involves exhibitions taking place across Montreal throughout March. Oppression Aesthetics, according to the Art Matters description, aims to “drive the spectator to an engaged reflection that incites action” and showcases artists whose works function in response to contemporary issues of struggle. The exhibition also directs itself specifically towards the anti-austerity student strikes—the organizers held a “PRINT & YELL” workshop on March 9th. The posters created there were displayed in the VAV during the vernissage, and viewers were encouraged to participate in community actions by taking them to put up around the city.

 “[We] wish to inscribe ourselves in a broader movement in Spring 2015,” reads the exhibition’s promotional material. “Side by side, these works provide a sense of responsibility towards our priorities and concerns as individuals who are part of a living community.” 

At the vernissage on March 17th, one thing was definitely apparent: there were a lot of conversations happening. Navigating the busy VAV Gallery to get a look at all the works was a precarious process. 

The first piece, I Knew You Were Some Kind of ‘-nese,’ displayed at the very front of the room, consists of a non-descript rack of clothing. Encouraged to browse like a shopper, one discovers messages like “You look like a white girl with a black girl body” embroidered into a bodysuit, or “I was covering the black girl” stitched into a basketball jersey. Each racialized message in Aletha Kourtney Persaud’s work acts not only as a recognizable microaggression, but it also corresponds with the personal item of clothing it is sewn into. “Your black comes out when you’re sassy,” says a Spice Girls t-shirt. The viewer may assume that the artist was wearing these clothes when the comments were made, thereby brought into the lived reality of racialized existence. 

A stop-motion animation by Miles Petrella called Untitled (After Ariel) cycles through disruptive and jarring movements of morphing body parts. Based on poetry by Sylvia Plath, the sexual imagery of arousal, castration and constantly evolving gendered processes evokes very visceral reactions. At times revolting and beautiful, the animation is interrupted by graphic footage from real political violence. Subconscious anxieties of conception, birth, deterioration and renewal collide with the historical destruction of the human body to leave a haunting impression.  

Jasmine Yerbury’s piece, titled “The Coming Season,” references oppression by parodying dictators like Putin, Kim Jong Un and Harper and dressing them as 18th century socialites at a “Coming Out” party. Another work called “Viarge,” by Genevieve Lebleu, interrogates the Catholic legacy of sexism in her video installation, which depicts a pair of hands manipulating, wrapping, chopping and grating a play-doh replica of the Virgin Mary. Often grotesque, hilarious, sexual and disturbing, these works blur the boundary between art and activism. They encourage viewers to think about and discuss inequality and link it back to current events like the austerity measures that largely marginalized populations will experience the worst effects of. 

However interesting, a discussion of political art cannot be simple. What does it mean when white artists such as Lebleu cross-stitch portraits of women wearing hijabs? To whom do we give the license to speak freely, and on whose behalf?  

The development of this dialogue is just as crucial as the spark that first ignites it.

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