Dusty sparkles that cover and muffle the city have been falling for the last three days. This is about as aesthetically magical as Calgary gets in the winter. Well timed for the season, Earthlings at the Esker Foundation is a welcome companion to these particular environmental conditions. An exhibition of contemporary artists from Nunavut – Roger Aksadjuak, Shuvinai Ashoona, Pierre Aupilardjuk, Jessie Kenalogak, John Kurok, and Leo Napayok – plus Toronto’s Shary Boyle, it is appropriately strange and wonderful in both quality and circumstance.
Pierre Aupilardjuk & Shary Boyle, Facing Forward, 2016
At first glance one might think that the wildly surreal ceramics, carvings, and large-scale drawings on display could be an absurdly ambitious collection by a single artist. The lack of tombstone labels perpetuates this feeling; the gallery instead opts for commercial-style number pins. As one moves through the exhibition, distinct visual vocabularies emerge and it becomes apparent that this gathering isn’t a monologue but a conversation between artists. The works were all developed collaboratively starting last fall when Boyle, Kurok, and Aupilardjuk went to Medalta in Medicine Hat (Alberta’s fascinating, yet little know “historic clay district”) for a residency to develop a collective body of art. Boyle and Ashoona have also drawn collaboratively (the former in black pen, the latter in colored pencil) to produce compositions that are among the most affecting images in the exhibition.
The results are spectacular and suggest a kind of surrealist baroque. It’s easy to get swept away in the delicious weirdness of it, but with sustained attention to the figuration and endless narrative play the art turns poignant and pointed. It addresses memory, trauma, loss, family, and cultural difference. While individual works might at first appear otherworldly, the artists are all wrestling with issues that are very much of this all-too-real world.
The public programs associated with Earthlings look especially good: film screenings, talks, and tours promise to dig deeply into the extremely fertile ground laid by this exhibition. And then there’s the mystery of Medalta. Road trip, anyone?
Esker Foundation: http://eskerfoundation.com/
Earthlings continues until May 7.
Sarah Todd is a curator currently based in Calgary. She has previously worked at Western Front, InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre, XPACE Cultural Centre, and The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. She has also produced projects with a range of organizations including Vtape, Kunstverein München, The Goethe Institute, The Pacific Cinematheque, Glenbow Museum and The Illingworth Kerr Gallery. She is Akimblog’s Calgary correspondent and can be followed on Twitter @sarahannetodd.
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