It’s closing time for Theo Sims’ brilliant art gallery pub


Arts | by Gregory Beatty

Last Call At The Candahar
Mackenzie Gallery
Friday 23

I don’t know if the time-worn catchphrase “Last call for alcohol!” will actually ring out when Theo Sims’ installation The Candahar closes at the MacKenzie on Sept. 23, but to commemorate the exhibit’s end, the gallery is hosting a special performance by internationally-known Indigenous artist Rebecca Belmore.

Born in Ontario as a member of the Lac Seul First Nation, and currently based in Montreal, Belmore was the first Indigenous female artist to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2005, and in 2013 won the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. So a performance by her is a great way to close out what, for the MacKenzie, has been a popular show.

“Rebecca’s art, whether it’s her installations or performances, definitely challenges us to question what we know and invite us to reconsider our ways of looking at the world and how we engage with notions of history, memory and absence,” says MacKenzie associate curator Michelle LaVallee.

Pub Crawl

Despite the innocuous appearance of Sims’ installation (The Candahar is a fully-functioning pub complete with an oak bar, brass rail, beer taps and a shelf of liquor bottles), it contains many thematic parallels with Belmore’s focus as an artist.

Born in Brighton in southern England, Sims took an unconventional route to becoming an artist, electing to do his MFA at the University of Ulster in Belfast. As anyone who is familiar with Irish history knows, the English and Irish have a fractious relationship dating back centuries, with the English viewed by the Irish as a colonizing power.

During his stay in Belfast, Sims had a potentially hostile encounter with an Irish man at a party, but through talking with each other the tension was defused and they ended up becoming friends. That led Sims to consider the value of dynamic social spaces where people can interact with each other in comfortable surroundings and break down stereotypes that too often inhibit our understanding of each other.

Named after a Belfast street, and modelled after two pubs Sims frequented in Belfast — The Blackthorn and The Garrick — The Candahar was hand-built by the artist, and was first exhibited at the 2007 Montreal Biennale. Between then and its Regina showing, it’s had stops in St. John’s, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary.

If you’ve seen The Candahar during its five-month run at the MacKenzie, you’ll know the pub is installed in a 12 x 20 foot trailer. You’ll also know that the walls are covered with all sorts of art and artifacts reflective of Irish culture and history.

Venue to venue, those elements are consistent. But because Sims designed the pub to be a portable space, each time it’s exhibited in a different location its character inevitably changes.

To begin with, Sims always ensures that instead of the Irish staple of Guinness, which you might stereotypically expect the pub to serve, local craft beers are on tap. In Regina, that honour’s fallen to Bushwakker and Nokomis Craft Ales.

Every Thursday, the MacKenzie has also invited individuals from the arts and other creative disciplines to host social evenings. “There’s been people from many different professions hosting, and I think it’s been very successful at bringing in different crowds as everyone has their own network of friends, colleagues and followers [on social media],” says LaVallee.

While at the MacKenzie, not only did visitors have an opportunity to socialize at The Candahar, they could also, if they chose, take in other gallery exhibitions. “It paired up well with the Tammi Campbell exhibition which featured trompe l’oeil paintings,” says LaVallee. “Because that’s kind of what Candahar is. It’s not a real pub, it’s an installation, and when you walk outside you see it’s just a shipping crate.”

Indians Only

Belmore’s performance will have special resonance for Regina (and Saskatchewan as a whole) too. But it’s not her first engagement with The Candahar. That came during its Vancouver stop, which coincided with the 2010 Winter Olympics, when it was installed at Playwrights Theatre Centre on Granville Island, and Belmore hosted an event where, for the first few hours, the bar was designated “Indians Only”.

Some potential patrons didn’t take kindly to being excluded based on their ethnicity, but in the context of the Vancouver Olympics, and Canada’s broader history of colonization, it was a subversive masterstroke by Belmore.

“Every place that Theo’s installed Candahar it’s activated the community for sure and many artists have participated whether through contributing art that hangs in the pub or simply visiting,” says LaVallee.

“But definitely one of the ones I still hear about most was Rebecca’s engagement in the context of the Olympics and looking at notions of privilege and what it meant to have the games in Vancouver and the [historical exclusion] of Indians — which carries over into today. So I anticipate some of those same conversations will be happening here.”

During her performance, Belmore will be joined by friends from the local art community, says LaVallee. “I won’t say who at this point, as I’d like people to come and find out for themselves. But they will be renowned individuals, and I think it will be an exciting way to close The Candahar here to challenge stereotypes around drinking and presumed notions of privilege and prejudice, and look back at the history of this place where the installation is now.”

As anyone who’s been following the news in Saskatchewan over the last few months knows, conversations on those and other ethnically-rooted issues are desperately needed.

“The current climate, what we’ve seen in media, is extremely telling but also so sad and disheartening,” says LaVallee. “So it’s a good time to think back about some of these policies and attitudes that prevail. What does this mean, and how does art react to this and impact on this and challenge us to look at how we’re all implicated?”