Long deprived of gallery space and excluded from the establishment, these works claim a place in the Canadian creative imagination a decade later.
Every Canadian art lover knows the rolling skies and towering trees of Emily Carr’s landscapes. But what about the portraits of Prudence Heward or the photography of Margaret Watkins? If these names mean nothing to you, it’s because Canadian women artists have always been excluded from museums, occasionally relegated to a small catalog or posthumous recognition.
The Vancouver Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, Not Invited: Canadian Women Artists of the Modern Era, aims to change that.
A colossal undertaking spearheaded by McMichael’s chief curator, Sarah Milroy, Uninvited gives Canadian women artists from the 1920s to 1940s what they deserve with an exhibition of over 200 works of art. Paintings, photographs, sculptures, weavings and beads from across the country come together in the space to provide a broad and diverse account of female creativity in Canada.
Originally designed in response to the Group of Seven’s centenary in 2020 (the Seven have never invited a woman to their club) Uninvited goes beyond the tradition of landscape painting that made the male artists of the time so famous. Instead, featured female artists of the time addressed themes such as human psychology, urbanization, industrialized resource extraction, Indigenous culture and displacement, environmental desecration, and immigrant experience.
“Female artists of this period basically looked at everything that their male colleagues weren’t,” says Milroy. “Settler women artists saw a nation in flux and went out of their way to respond to those changes.”
Carrying out such a vast survey of Canadian women artists was no easy task. Because few pieces were widely sold or exhibited in museums during the artists’ lifetimes, much of the work remained in private collections and, in some cases, literally under the bed. Take Kathleen Munn, whose work tells the story of Christ through a series of ink and graphite sketches that show her mastery and exploration of cubism and dynamic symmetry, among other art movements. His drawings were only found by chance when someone involved in the project visited one of his descendants.
Munn’s work was stored in their home, under beds, and stacked in closets.
“We see an advanced modernist engaging in the most traditional subject matter, it’s incredibly intriguing,” says Milroy. “And to say that we could have lost this woman’s work without this meeting. It’s to say how tenuous the ties are with these artists and how precarious their legacy is.”
By removing female settler artists from this precipice of memory, Uninvited also features the work of a number of Indigenous women of the era, including Attatsiaq of Arviat, Nunavut; Sewinchelwet (Sophie Frank) of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation); Bridget Ann Sack, Mi’kmaq feather box maker from Shubenacadie, NS; and Rose Runner of the Tsuut’ina First Nation near Calgary, Alberta. Incorporated throughout the gallery, Indigenous works reflect the geographic significance of where they were made and initiate discussions with the work of settler women.
A crate of Coast Salish baskets from several communities accompanies a wall of paintings by Emily Carr, which appear in the very last room of the exhibition. Carr’s work, which focuses on clear-cut landscapes and resource extraction, compares strongly to sustainably crafted Salish baskets. Milroy describes the baskets as a “condensation of generations of cultural knowledge” in relation to the land.
“What we’re trying to suggest to people is that this is a totally different way of relating to landscape,” she says. “The basket’s cultural knowledge creates an incredibly poignant contrast to Carr’s clearcut work.”
According to Milroy, these pieces and all the other works collected in the gallery mark the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way Canada views women’s work.
“How come this show hasn’t happened before?” she asks. “We are building a ram. We are putting together an exhibition that makes the need to look at Canadian art history in a different way irrefutable. It’s a huge boost.
Not Invited: Canadian Women Artists of the Modern Era is ohon view for a limited time from June 11, 2022 to January 8, 2023 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.