A moose hunted in Newfoundland more than a decade ago. A moose skull living on the land in Nova Scotia. A porcupine quill basket in storage in a Vancouver museum. A 19th-century photograph at a Paris museum. An artist in Nova Scotia. A pandemic. More photographs – transferred via the internet. And the result: a large-scale photograph of an intricately painted moose skull resting on Mi’kmaq land in Eastern Canada, installed on the other side of Canada, on the exterior of a substation that powers half of downtown Vancouver.
Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett’s al’taqiaq: it spirals (2021) has become a signature image for this year’s Capture Photography Festival in Vancouver (if not the most talked about; that would be Steven Shearer’s now covered-up billboards of people sleeping).
Bennett, who was born in Stephenville Crossing, N.L., and now lives in Terence Bay, N.S., was shortlisted for the prestigious Sobey Award in 2018. He is a multidisciplinary artist who is not really known for his photography – and in fact former Capture director and curator Kate Henderson did not even realize his history with the medium when she approached him about doing something for the festival.
“I was interested in working with artists who work around the periphery of photography, the edges of photography and thinking about how in general we can push the medium,” Henderson said in an interview this week. “I became interested in his work having no idea that he used to study photography, so it felt really serendipitous.”
Among the reasons Bennett had been inspired to return to photography was an encounter he had at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris many years ago. There he found an 1859 photograph of three Mi’kmaq women. “That was physically the closest I could ever get to my ancestors, because the light that bounced off their skin in that moment – making those images – was literally captured on those plates, which in turn became artwork that I was able to visit over a hundred years later,” Bennett explained in an interview with Henderson in the Capture catalogue.
al’taqiaq: it spirals was inspired by a porcupine quill basket created by Mi’kmaq artists at some point between 1860 and 1890. The basket is in the collection of the Museum of Vancouver. (There is a circa 1930 photograph in the Capture catalogue of stacks of baskets for sale at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver – including this basket.)
Bennett wanted to bring the basket back home in some way – and the most powerful way to do that, he felt, was to translate the design onto a physical form and photograph that on the land, where it came from.
The skull had belonged to a family friend who had hunted the moose in Bennett’s home community. Bennett’s father had asked the friend about the skull over the years, and the friend eventually gifted it to him, and he in turn gave it to his son.
“I let the skull live on the land,” Bennett tells Henderson. After about two months, he spray-painted the skull hot pink, inspired by the basket. “I left the hot-pink skull in my yard for a while, and then it hit me that I needed to paint it with porcupine quill design as a way to connect it back to its home.”
Visiting the basket in Vancouver to study it became impossible last year because of the pandemic. So another photographic layer was added to this project: Bennett used photos of the basket painstakingly taken by MOV staff to create the design on the skull on the other side of the country.
He then photographed the skull on Mi’kmaq land, in what is now Nova Scotia, once home to his ancestors who created that basket.
The enormous photograph is now installed on BC Hydro’s Dal Grauer Substation, a few kilometres from where the basket now lives – and visible on Vancouver’s busy (although less so, these days) Burrard Street. It will be there for a year.
“The work in person is just astounding,” says Henderson, who curated the project but is no longer with Capture. “I was walking down the street. I had to stop and felt like I couldn’t breathe; it was so amazing. It’s really a powerful, powerful piece. And it was just beautiful to create this kind of conversation between these different territories.”
Bennett tells Henderson that he wishes he could visit the Coast Salish peoples here, “but because of the weird times we’re in, this photograph is now acting as a physical stand-in for me.”
Comment on covered-up artwork
As Capture officially launched last week, seven billboards displaying work by internationally renowned Vancouver-based artist Steven Shearer were covered up, following public complaints about their content. They had displayed found images of people sleeping or resting – which some members of the public found disturbing. The owner of the billboards, Pattison Outdoor, made the decision to cover them up. “The removal of these images is disappointing,” reads a statement from Capture director Emmy Lee Wall, released Tuesday. “This is, however, an important opportunity to take pause and consider the role of public art in our city.” Wall emphasizes that she is thankful for Pattison’s support. And she says she is hopeful this will start an important conversation about public art.
In her statement, Wall says Capture remains committed to exhibiting work that challenges and provokes. “We fiercely believe that art’s capacity to incite pleasure and joy as well as questions and discomfort is what makes it a crucial vehicle through which to instigate complex, multifaceted dialogues.”
More to see as part of Capture Festival
There are many other works of public art that can be seen in Vancouver as part of Capture. They include:
- Explosion, 2011 by Sarah Anne Johnson – installed on a billboard in Vancouver’s River District
- Works from the How do you love me? series, 2017 by Émilie Régnier at the Stadium-Chinatown SkyTrain Station
- From a Still Unquiet Place, 2019 by Meryl McMaster at Vancouver City Centre Station
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