Searching For Mother

Artists examine relationships between caregivers and the cared-for

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Are You My Mother?
Dunlop Gallery

Until March 24

The first work you see upon walking into the Dunlop to view Are You My Mother? is by Saskatchewan artist Heather Benning. It consists of four fibreglass resin panels with bas-relief replicas of family photographs. The top two show a young woman standing proudly in a well-appointed kitchen, and a girl standing awkwardly in a sparsely furnished living room.

The label identifies her as Rosalie, and coupled with the exhibition’s title, the works invite a reading where Benning pays homage to her mom’s humble roots.

But the expectation that sets up for the rest of the show, especially in a mother-daughter sense since all six of curator Jennifer Matotek’s artists are female, is instantly disrupted by the bottom two panels where Benning depicts her father, Larry, in a similar photo pairing — sitting on a horse as a boy, and standing by a stylish car as a young man.

Matotek took her title from a 1960 P.D. Eastman children’s story about a duckling who hatches while the mother duck is out foraging for food. Alone in the nest, the duckling goes looking for its mom, asking various animals it meets along the way if they’re its mother.

While parenthood figures prominently in the exhibition, the actual subject Matotek is intent on exploring is caregiving — which can take many forms.

In a second work — you can see it in the photo — Benning displays two ghost-like sculptures of an elderly Rosalie and Larry lying on cloth draped “beds” with pillows under their heads. They could just be sleeping, but the work is titled Sarcophagi, which suggests death, or at least aging, and the role reversal that often occurs as adult children become caregivers for their parents.

That theme is present in Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s work, too. Her mother passed away in China in 2016 while Dong was living in Montreal. She sought to process her loss by travelling to China and photographing herself with 14 of her mom’s female friends and relatives.

The photos were taken in each woman’s home, and with the range of furniture, clothing and décor on display, we get a sense of what life was like for Dong’s mother.

Structurally, the images set up a binary, with Dong and her subject sitting/standing with a small table or other household object between them. The women are dressed alike, and in each photo Dong mimics her subject’s pose.

For me, that evoked thoughts of how when a girl is growing up, she naturally follows her mom’s lead in learning how to dress and behave. There’s also the related idea, which is often played up as a joke, about how young women come to resemble their mothers as they age. Genetics and environment play a big part in that, certainly. But it speaks to the life journey we all take as we move through different stages, from infancy and childhood to adulthood and old age.

Michèle Pearson Clarke explores similar emotional terrain in her three-channel video installation Parade of Champions where three black, queer subjects discuss the relationship they had with their late mothers.

The odd thing is as we hear their voices over the speaker, they aren’t shown talking. Instead, they sit silently in their homes staring out at the camera. It’s almost as if we’re able to read their thoughts, which generates a sense of intimacy. That’s enhanced by their honesty in addressing the sometimes conflicted nature of the relationship, which was complicated by their queer identity. Although they all speak warmly of their moms and mourn their passing.

A sense of loss pervades Emilie Serri’s work, too. Her three channel video installation No Time For Tomorrow is styled like a home movie with footage of a Middle Eastern wedding celebration, followed by a desert journey and encounter with a camel caravan. The video concludes with footage of a violent explosion in a city that sends dust billowing into the air.

Another video by Serri mentions Damascus, which for me as a Westerner, knowing Syria’s seven year history of civil war, suggests a tragic narrative. That’s reinforced at the end of No Time For Tomorrow where Serri dedicates the video to her beloved mother.

Sandra Brewster and Tanya Lukin Linklater, the two remaining artists, also reference parental bonds — but with a twist where they explore links between land and caregiving.

Linklater is of Alutiiq descent. In the two-channel video installation The Treaty is in the Body, she shows a woman in a sleeveless dress from behind. The woman is gesturing with her hands, as if telling a story. Overhead, audio plays where Linklater coaches her young daughter to recite a text associated with treaties: “As long as the sun shines, the water flows, the grass grows, and the wind blows.”

Brewster also highlights the importance of land to life and survival, but from the perspective of a daughter whose parents immigrated from Guyana. In one large-scale print Hiking Black Creek, she depicts her mother and father getting their first taste of Canadian wilderness. She contrasts that woodland scene with a second print, again from the family archive, of her parents’ native Guyana. Taken together, they dramatize the geographic dislocation her parents would’ve felt upon arriving in Canada.

Are You My Mother? closes on March 24. But the show also includes a performance by Chun Hua Catherine Dong on March 30. I Still Look For You In Crowds, In Empty Fields and Passing Clouds features Regina dance artist Johanna Bundon, and will further explore Dong’s grief at her mother’s death and the passage of time.