By PAUL GESSELL
The curved backlit photographs glow as they spiral heavenward from the floor of the darkened room. It is as if some whirlwind has just passed through, disturbing what had once been a neat arrangement.
The photographs are fragments of lives disappearing into the gloom. From a distance, the installation looks peaceful and inviting. Until, that is, you realize what is pictured in these photographs. Then the arrangement becomes horrific because the images are of corpses, skeletons and spent armaments – reminders of a 2011 massacre in the Sudanese community of Kaldak.
This installation by Ottawa artist nichola feldman-kiss is titled “until the story of the hunt is told by the lion / facing horror and the possibility of shame (Jonglei State, Sudan)”. It can be seen at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston as part of the nationally touring exhibition Terms of Engagement curated by the University of Ottawa art professor Christine Conley.
Terms of Engagement is an exhibition of war art but very different war art than can be seen these days in the major summer exhibitions about the First World War at the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum. The Kingston exhibition deals with contemporary conflicts in Sudan, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. But simultaneously, the exhibition is about all war, as the world has known since the beginning of time.
The three artists in Terms of Engagement were all participants in the Canadian Forces Artists Program. Along with feldman-kiss, there are Dick Averns of Calgary, who travelled in Egypt and Israel, and Adrian Stimson of Saskatoon, who visited Afghanistan. The CFAP program was formed in 2001 to allow artists to be embedded with Canadian troops either at home or abroad, generally for a few weeks at most. The artists can create whatever type of art they want. The military does not purchase nor collect the work.
feldman-kiss participated in the program during the period of 2010-11. Initially, she was given six weeks of specialized training to prepare herself for hazardous environments. Then she was embedded with the Canadian Forces as an official guest of the United Nations Mission in Sudan.
“Both pre-deployment training and deployment were intense, dislocating, and disorienting,” says feldman-kiss. “In hindsight, the utility of the training was its very disorientation. One prepares best for the indescribable who does not pretend to a capacity or readiness to understand. I submitted to the CFAP experience to learn about protection, trauma and post trauma, and gain new perspectives on colonial narratives. As an artist of the African Diaspora, I have been particularly focused on making sense of the experience through the privilege of a Canadian filter within the echoes of my family history – colonials and Afro-Caribbeans of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and refugees of Nazi Germany.”
Stimson has paintings, drawings, videos, and installations, including a child’s sandbox encircled in real razor wire. It is surely a fitting metaphor for the dangers of contemporary Afghanistan.
Averns offers several photographs that dig deep into the psyche of military manoeuvres in the post-911 world.
Terms of Engagement continues at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until Aug. 10.