Encounters with Diversity at the Art Gallery of Ontario
December 16, 2009 § 1 Comment
In a small room off the European gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario has mounted several pieces from their permanent collection in an exhibit entitled Encounters with Diversity. The pieces were chosen for their relationship to and depiction of the human tendency to “other,” and thereby oppress, those who are different. The exhibit is expressly interested in the processes of “othering” in the Western World as indicated in the didactic panel: “Our being is shaped in relation to others. In the Western World, such relationships frequently develop through oppositions based on gender, class and ethnicity. This process of identity often leads to the exclusion, marginalization and stereotyping of the social ‘other,’ the sexual ‘other,’ and the ethnic ‘other.’”
The exhibit juxtaposes art from different countries, time periods, and subject matter in one small space, implying that all processes of “othering” are inextricably linked: though the persons being “othered” are marginalized based on different criteria, the processes and motivations of “othering” remain constant. The exhibition consists almost entirely of paintings, ranging in subject from a licentious nymph pulling a satyr towards herself by his beard in Gerrit Van Honthorst’s Satyr and Nymph (Dutch, Late 16th to early 17th century), to Eugene Delacroix’s 1857 The Fanatics of Tangier, painted to satisfy French appetites for images of exotic people and places. The only pieces from present day are Kara Walker’s films about racial tensions in the United States after the Civil War which loop continuously on kiddie-corner walls. In 6 Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road and Lucy of Pulaski (both 2008), Walker uses shadow puppets to explore “negative self-identification,” (exhibit guide) meaning the processes by which human beings self-identify through exclusion: “I am me because I am not them.” Walker’s hand occasionally comes into the frame as she manipulates the puppets, implying the strength of the social hierarchy to force people into action.
Because the pieces chosen are from the AGO’s permanent collection (including Peter Brueghel the Younger’s The Peasant’s Wedding which is frequently featured on AGO marketing materials), the AGO is taking a self-reflexive stance on its own position within the discourses of gender, race, and ethnic oppression, effectively considering its responsibility as an institution to contextualize potentially oppressive works in order to critically examine their political punch. This invites visitors to reflect on their own “permanent collection” of biases and evaluate their conceptions of other. There is only one didactic panel in the exhibit outlining the AGO’s intention for this exhibition and it states that it does not want to only critically examine Western processes of marginalization and othering, but to invite visitors to recognize that “encounters with diversity can foster increased awareness and social transformation.” In this way Encounters with Diversity is intended to spark critical self-reflection and change in visitors as they take stock of their own attitudes towards other people(s).
However, the exhibition is highly limited. Encounters with Diversity consists almost entirely of European art created before the 20th century except for Walker’s films, and though they were released in 2008, they are focused on life in America after the Civil War and consequently are highly concentrated on a specific time and place. By not including works by Canadian artists from this century, the exhibition negates, or at least fails to address, the reality that racism, Orientalism, misogyny and class tensions are alive and well in the Western world (of which Canada is a part). By limiting the scope of the exhibition, the AGO renders these social issues as shadows of previous generations instead of very real and dangerous active social practices.
Though it is an interesting and well-meant project, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Encounters with Diversity misses the mark as it implies through its curatorial choices that issues of racial, social, ethnic, class and gender marginalization are no longer present in the modern Western World. To strengthen the intention of the gallery to invite self-reflection in visitors, it must be clear to visitors that they are currently operating within these frameworks of bias. Art that reflects current issues of social oppression would round the exhibit, creating a call to awareness rather than a prideful “look back” at problems that are considered solved.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan.New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.