Independent curator Pamela Edmonds spoke to Toronto-based artist Charmaine Lurch about her recent art exhibition presented at the Lower Gallery, Toronto Centre for the Arts (September 15 – October 9, 2015). A multidisciplinary, artist, poet and educator, Lurch brought together a thought-provoking series of artworks exploring the relationships between time, space and movement read through manifestations of black presence in North American landscapes.
PE: Your recent exhibition, “Conversations in Flux: Visible presence unfolding in time and space,” brings together three installations of sculpture and painting that visualize the black body and its presence through the idea of ‘flux.’ Can you explain how the different artworks explore these ideas and what inspired you to create this display?
CL: The installations are part of a larger body of work on black visibility. I sculpt in wire and use painting and drawing to explore these ideas in relation to the racialized body. I think about ways that we might move beyond the stereotypical points that often frames the black subject as invisible or hyper-visible by contemplating a 4th dimensional new image of the black subject as human and visible through different dimensions. For example, I created a wire sculpture on the gallery wall to form a tesseract which is a four dimensional hyper cube that is never entirely visible. The tesseract acts as analogy for the black condition in its capacity to be ever changing and ultimately unknowable. The pieces also explore time by re-presenting tangible evidence of the past, present and future through fictional and historical figures. The floor sculpture “Blueprint for a Mobile and Visible Carriage” references a 19th century horse drawn carriage(represented in silhouette form) and the story of entreprenuers Thornton and Lucy Blackburn as he introduces the first taxi in the city of Toronto. Their story reveals a black past that is mobile and brings into view a local and transnational story that, despite efforts of erasure, has resonance in the colours of our present day TTC and the cabs in the city.
“Revisiting Sycorax” examines Shakespeare’s classic story The Tempest. Sycorax the mother of Caliban, invisible and voiceless in the play is recognized in scholarly circles as a metaphor for black/indigenous populations. My reconstruction of Sycorax is told with twist of wire reminiscent of DNA strands, an homage to ancestral female bodies. It is also is an acknowledgement of the ways that black women are spoken of and silenced today. This work moves from silence to action in and outside of the past and present, in flux. My other work, “The Phenomenal Henrietta Lacks” is about a African-American woman who died from cancer in 1951 and whose cells were taken without consent. These cells became the first ‘immortal cell line’ and contributed to numerous scientific and medical advancements, including the development of the first polio vaccine as well as in vitro fertilization. My installation is set as interactive works that sets the viewer in the story through a reflective mirror and labelled petri dishes, placing both scientific facts and lived experience side by side. Her body shows us the limitless ways, (invisible and visible) blackness moves us toward the future.
PE: You have expressed that your art practice is drawn from your social location as a black woman. Can you speak about this particularly in relation to being an artist and a black woman pursuing an art career in Canada? What are some of the challenges and the pleasures of working in the various media that you do (including your writing and poetry) and what keeps you inspired?
CL: In part the answer to this question can be understood through the lack of critical response to my installation. Overall feedback from academics, artists and community members has been very positive. But as a black female artist in Canada, critical outlets for my work is limited. I have found some small openings in academic settings where I was able to share my work (though the audience seem at times surprised by the ability of the arts to present theories as practice). Attention from the black community papers and academics is also lacking. Comparable is my success with my wire sculpture bees, (which does not speak directly to black subjects and does not mark me as black / female/ artist). My work as an arts educator also has been very successful and is documented in interviews on the CBC and other institutions, so it is only my specific work on blackness that continues to be ignored. Still, I am inspired by stories of overcoming odds and also by the responses of those who encounter my explorations.
PE: Coming back to the idea of black womanhood, the narratives of black female subjectivity (both historical and mythological) read through the powerful stories of Henrietta Lacks, Lucy Blackburn and Sycorax figure prominently. Do you see your work within the renewed explorations of black feminism in popular culture as well as the current activist movements such as “Black Lives Matter?”
CL: Acknowledging black female movements and visibility without overtly naming the work as such resides in the presence of the pieces. Individually and collectively this work reveals the lived experiences of black lives, black female lives that mattered and still matter. In this way these women are tied to the current movement calling attention to the culture of hyper-visibility/invisibility, that surrounds black women’s lives and also to revolutionary moments spearheaded by women.
PE: Your art also explores the symbiotic relations between humans, animals and the environment. Can you speak on this further?
CL: The intersection of science and art is seen in my construction and manipulation of wire, shown in my larger than life sculpted bees. These woven structures refer to the invisibility of wild bees and the important role they play in our ecosystem. Thinking about art and bees and the seen and unseen are for me a new way to think visibility, invisibility including movement within the landscape. Creating the sculptures reveal the relations between humans, animals and the environment. The bee’s fast movements in space, (that makes them hard to see), captures the invisibility that I am trying to capture in objects and language. Bees also help me think about a consciousness of how we work live and play and survive together.
PE: When you create art, how do you consider your audience(s)?
CL: I am interested in work that is educational, participatory and can engage broad audiences. Though the exhibition investigates race and gender, the stories are transnational, and I hope that this work will have local and worldwide appeal. The audience is encouraged to interact directly and/or join in conversations about the pieces.
PE: Who are some of your favorite artists and how have they influenced your art?
CL: My work finds resonance in Lynette Yiadom Boakye’s paintings. She brings identity to the fore but shifts us beyond this gaze into unknown landscapes. Jasmine Thomas-Grivan, Roshini Kempadoo and Christopher Cozier’s are artists working out of the Caribbean whose work provides contemporary social commentaries on memory, time and space to bring a black diasporic presence into view. Romare Bearden, Belkis Ayón, Denyse Thomasos, Alfredo Jaar, El Anatsui and Theaster Gates also provide exceptional artist expressions as both aesthetic and agentive forms of art.
PE: Are you preparing for any other upcoming exhibitions or art projects?
CL: The struggle and work continues. I will be presenting my work on a panel at the Emergence Symposium- Arts & Equity leading Social Change on November 13 at the Brickworks in Toronto. The Ontario Arts Council will be hosting a webinar on November 17, from 3:30 – 4:30 and I will speak about arts education and my work with the arts organization Inner City Angels and the students of Rose Ave public school to show our work together on bees.
More of Charmaine Lurch’s artwork can be viewed on her website: www.charmainelurch.ca