Alta Vista, a tidy postwar suburb in the south end of Ottawa, feels a million miles away from the art-world hustle in New York and London, let alone the streets of Johannesburg, but this is where the globetrotting Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum has settled in.
The 39-year-old Botswanan-Canadian artist is rapidly building an international reputation for her evocative Afrocentric paintings of mythic characters in landscapes. A rising figure in the African art world centred in Johannesburg, she is represented by a commercial gallery in London, Tiwani Contemporary, which is devoting a whole booth to her paintings at the Armory Show art fair in New York this weekend. Meanwhile, her art has barely been seen in Canada, one of her several homelands.
“I think of Ottawa as a really nice base,” she said in a recent interview. “I’ve been Canadian everywhere except Canada. It’s important for me to have a presence here.”
The child of an international development professional and his Botswanan wife, Sunstrum has always been peripatetic: The outline of the migrating Canada goose sometimes shows up in her paintings along with the traditional makoro, a dugout punt used on rivers in Botswana.
She was born in Botswana, but the family also lived in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Malawi and South Africa, and moved back to Ottawa during Sunstrum’s middle school years. She was back in Botswana for high school and then attended university in the United States, assuming she was premed during her studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Still, “I had always been a step child of the art department,” she recalls. She abandoned any idea of becoming a doctor after a successful artist’s residency in Panama, where she spent two months in the jungle building an earthwork sculpture as a monument to a Nigerian woman sentenced to be stoned for adultery.
“Then and now, I was reading a lot of poetry and fiction and was moved by narratives that involved these condemned female characters, tragic characters,” she said. In earlier work she invented a fictional alter ego named Asme who travelled with a Canada goose; today her characters and her figures are more varied and ambiguous, although mainly female even if the photographs from which she sometimes works may originally show men. For example, one work-in-progress sitting in the small light-filled studio at the back of her Ottawa house, shows a female soldier, partly modern warrior in a combat helmet, partly a lady in a skirt: The source image was of a man in a Scottish regiment wearing a kilt.
“I want there to be an uncertainty about everything, whether it’s the emotional reading of the figure, whether they are the villain or the hero, whether they are winning or losing,” she says. The paintings are often inspired by old photographs of Africans, in traditional or Western dress, exoticized subjects to which the artist tries to impart some new agency of their own. She draws in pencil on wood panels and lets that drawing show through as she paints delicately over top with acrylics. There’s a lingering atmosphere of old things and ancient times in these works but they also look into the future: Sunstrum is interested in sci-fi and the concept of Afro-futurism. Just as it projects black characters into the lily-white speculative realm, she is creating an African mythology for the future.
After that decisive summer in Panama, she pursued her art studies in a bruising program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, which forced her to catch up with art theory and history in a hurry. On graduation, her classmates flocked to New York, but Sunstrum, a global citizen who has learned that outposts can be as interesting as the metropolis, declined to follow. She taught in Baltimore for a few years and then, seeking to reconnect with Africa and her roots in Botswana, applied for an artist’s residency in Johannesburg and moved there in 2010.
“I just fell in love with Johannesburg. … It was such a great community,” she said.
Her career flourished there as European galleries increasingly came calling for African art, and she became a single mother, to a boy who is now five. But in 2016, her own mother was diagnosed with cancer and her parents returned from Africa to Ottawa for her treatment. Sunstrum quickly followed, moving to Toronto, where she taught drawing at York University for a few years, and then finally back to Ottawa.
In some ways these latest moves have proved sorrowful – Sunstrum’s mother died last fall – but they have also finally connected her to the Canadian art world: The MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ont., is planning her first major Canadian show for spring, 2021.
Still, Sunstrum, who returns to Johannesburg annually and is currently preparing for a solo exhibition there this fall, is never described as a Canadian artist. On the contrary, she is identified as belonging to a group of female artists from Africa who have caught the attention of the global art market. Her clipping file is filled with articles that include her in numbered lists of female African artists who are “changing contemporary art” or “hitting the international stage.” Sunstrum, however, is concerned about tokenism.
“It’s exciting to be offered opportunities and to be given visibility under this rubric and it’s an identity I carry with pride,” she said, pointing to the emergence of African art fairs and interested curators as crucial to her career. “I just get disappointed in the pigeonhole of being a contemporary African woman artist, it seems to create this hierarchy of value.
“I’m wary of all my invitations being: ‘Hey, we are doing a contemporary African show, this is your show.’ The more interesting shows are the ones about portraiture, or drawing … so I get to push my politics against this larger narrative instead of being sequestered.”
Drawing is a category she finds particularly fruitful since she thinks of her own works, first and foremost, as drawings. She also produces animation in a similar style, and remains committed to the basics of the craft, those foundations she never paints over, often letting a landscape show through the figures that stand in front of it.
As for the figures, they often appear with their faces obscured, or seen from behind or only from the legs down. They are powerful people but who they have become now that they are no longer objects of a Western gaze is rather mysterious.
“I try to reward slow looking, through details, clues that reveal themselves,” she said. “I think people recognize the work is full of secrets.”
In Alta Vista, Sunstrum’s secrets are finally wending their way home.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum is showing work at the Armory Show in New York March 5-8, and at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ont., in 2021.