‘It’s like spilled milk,” Wanda Koop said to me last week as we stood in front of her painting Bay Blanket Moon, a presence to be reckoned with in her exhibition of new work at Division Gallery in Toronto. The white disc of light, suspended above a bold horizon stripe of black, leaks white pigment against a scarlet sky. It’s a landscape, but it is also an ambivalent homage to that icon of Canadian identity, the Hudson’s Bay blanket – a commodity relied upon by white settlers, and much traded with Canada’s indigenous peoples. It’s a kind of miracle, I say, that its design has remained unaltered through the years. “In a way, though, they shouldn’t change it,” says Koop. “The cost of colonization was so great. Those blankets are emblems of that. The blood runs through them.”
The presence of aboriginal people is a striking feature of life in Winnipeg, where Koop lives, and it was a part of her life growing up in that city. When she was a girl, her mother took a pregnant Ojibwa woman into their home to live and to have her baby. Her name was Margie Monkman. “She went on to become a nurse,” remembers Koop, “and she had five daughters.” In the summers, Koop used to go swimming with the kids in the Brokenhead River, on their reserve. Their families remained close.
Home and Native Land recalls that sense of proximity, and also the emerging awareness of difference. A smoky, sepia rendering of the provincial legislature seen from across a wide river, the painting is punctuated by two vivid orange drips. “In earlier paintings, I had native fires on the riverbank,” she says, “but here I’ve made that presence abstract.”
Other paintings in the show hint at other Canadian stories. Ice Shelf arose from an experience of homecoming, high above the Arctic on a flight back to Winnipeg from Europe. “The pilot came on and told us to look out the left side, that there was an ice shelf the size of Manhattan that had broken off and was floating,” she recalls. “When I got home to Winnipeg, I saw it again on the evening news,” a testament to global warming.
The hot red flag she appended to the image in her painting interrupts the atmosphere like a graphic feature on a television screen. Devoid of text, though, it seems to signal that nanosecond before experience has been packaged by media and transformed into commodity. She adds, “In the part of Winnipeg where I live, you hear the ambulances and the police sirens go by, and then later on you find out what it was on the TV. This was a bit like that, but on a global scale.”