On Jan. 14, the Canadian Clay & Glass gallery concluded their Voices exhibit with presentations from interdisciplinary artists Behnaz Fatemi, Heidi McKenzie, and Jonah Strub. They then engaged in a roundtable Q&A session, moderated by Aaron Francis, where they expanded on the importance of diversity and representing lived experiences through art.
The first presenter was artist Behnaz Fatemi. When she immigrated to Canada from Iran in 2018, her artwork was impacted by shifting tides in her own life. Changes in language and culture reshifted the artist’s lens through which she saw the world. “[Being an immigrant] altered my perspective and worldview, driving me to think about how human rights, social justice and freedom within Canada and abroad are interrogated,” Fatemi said.
Her artwork, previously focused on people at large using patterns of repetition and reproduction, also grew more personal after immigrating. “I started by thinking about myself as a woman who was living under a dictator regime, moved to Canada and faced new challenges I had to figure out.”
Under an oppressive and patriarchal regime in Iran, Fatemi was unconsciously used to censoring herself, her feminine character and body. Art allowed her to undo the constraints she was so accustomed to, or at least gain solace from recognizing them. She began using triangle shapes in her drawings and pyramids in her sculptures as a “shelter to hide myself, express myself and be myself [in].” The triangles’ sharp edges represent the brutality of the regime. Even the decision of what material to use — graphite for paper drawings or ceramics for sculpting — was an artistic statement in and of itself. She liked clay for its duality. “It’s beautiful, understandable, but it shows different concepts [like] violence.”
The violence in Iran is one Fatemi closely watched through reports, videos, and photos that kept pouring in online. Civilians in more than a hundred different cities across the world continued to protest with chants like “Women are freedom” as Iranians met brutal, bloody repercussions at the hands of the regime. Civilians, including children, were being detained, forced to confess, and killed under Iran’s Islamic regime. “Watching the news[…], I felt guilty and I was thinking that as an Iranian, I have to do something for the people in Iran.”
Fatemi contacted Clay & Glass and asked if she could have a chance to redesign her sculptures to respond to the current moment. “Generously, they accepted,” she said.
She added more pieces, all of which portray the mental and physical brutality of life in Iran. There’s a white canvas upon which red, blood-like paint is splattered to represent Iranians who have already been killed. It’s a simple image, but a powerful one that forces the observer to confront the violence we so often distance ourselves from. “Iranians, including me, want to show the world that Iranians do not want anything more than a normal life in which the free will and dignity of humans are respected.”
Fatemi has since had her work featured in various local galleries and was the 2020 recipient of the Emerging Artist Award in the Waterloo Region. She currently studies at the University of Waterloo as an MFA student and continues to investigate themes of politics, power, gender, religion, and other institutions that interrelate and shape human behaviour on an individual level. While she can occasionally get exhausted from the painstaking work of researching and creating, it’s ultimately a self-healing process that she describes as “a remedy.”
Second presenter and artist Heidi McKenzie had a slightly different approach to identity art. In her case, the personal became more political overtime. “I had the opposite to Benaz [where] I started with myself and then moved outside myself.”
McKenzie thus began her presentation with an in-depth overview of her own family lineage. Her mother grew up in the United States with parents from Canada and ancestors from Ireland (the latter of which had immigrated to North America during the Great Famine of the 1860s). Similarly, during the 1860s, her father’s ancestors left India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan for plantations in the Caribbean. Her father was born and raised in Trinidad, and met and married her mother in Hamilton, Ontario during the 1950s.
One of the first portraits McKenzie completed at Sheridan College, where she earned her thesis, was titled “Family Portrait” — a multi-coloured and multi-textured piece which encompasses “the various strands and shades and cultures of my family.” It acknowledges her family’s diversity of backgrounds both ethnic (Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Indian, Caribbean) and religious (Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant).
McKenzie continued her artistic studies at the Guldagergaard International Centre for Ceramic Research in Denmark, where she began working with photographs via white 3D porcelain structures. Her ceramics collection Boxed in captures “the feeling of being boxed in my own body” due to health issues.
This idea of charting the human body similarly comes across in a later project about her father, whom she described as a “really good amateur photographer.” When his health and body began to rapidly decline, she asked him if she could honour him by photographing his body up-close. She wanted to document him before it was too late. He agreed.
McKenzie then compiled a series of sepia-toned photos, showing his frailty, as well as his various scars from surgery and physical abuse. One sculpture, a house of cards, fragile and poised to fall, is one in which “multiple layers of meaning around fragility” are explored. Each photograph, made of porcelain foam substrate 0.02 inches thick, employs faded sepia — a clear representation of aging and time passing.
After exploring her family, McKenzie lands on herself as the individual. What does it mean to have grown up as a brown person who lived in a small town in New Brunswick with a sense of wanderlust? What did it mean to be an artist in a country that is “saturated with white settler-colonial values and aesthetics?” Her sculpture “Postmarked,” created during Canada’s 150, interrogates these ideas by presenting images of quintessential Canadian imagery to subvert them.
“I like how myth-busting this is.” She pointed to one particular photo in which her father stands outside a truck which transports a canoe. “Brown people don’t shovel snow, brown people don’t ride canoes,” she continued, in reference to the stereotype of brown people not being adventurous or athletic enough.
McKenzie’s art, which continues to bridge the gap between perception from the white gaze and personal truths, is still expanding in scope and style. She offered the audience a quick glimpse into an installation she is preparing for the summer. It contains contemporary photos of people carrying life-size photographs of their ancestors, as well as a video component “where they get to speak their voice and situate their ancestors.”
Absent are the sepias that became a staple in much of her previous work. “I’m working with colour [now],” she said with a laugh, in reference to her increased use of saturated pops of red and brown. She and her art are changing in real-time. In the last picture of the installation she presented, there is a picture of her in a kayak, holding another photo of her ancestor Rouniya. It felt like a full-circle moment: a brown woman on a boat, at peace in the present, acknowledging the many who came before her.
The third presenter, artist Jonah Strub started off by speaking about his upbringing in a tight-knit Jewish community in North York, which he jokingly dubbed “the crown jewel of Toronto’s amalgamated boroughs.” While he grew up in a supportive household, happily immersed in Jewish culture at school and summer camps, he always felt that there was a piece missing because his community was ultimately a gendered one.
“Boys like sports and girls liked Aritzia, and there was no deviation from that,” he said. “I wasn’t enough of a boy to be a boy, and I wasn’t a girl so I couldn’t be a girl.”
While studying Studio Art and Psychology at the University of Guelph, Strub didn’t relate to the culture he was exposed to, which was largely white and heteronormative. “I really didn’t feel like there was much of a queer community or Jewish community at this school,” he said. “I was one of three men [in my program] and the only gay one.”
Strub turned to identity art for answers, attempting to carve out his own visual culture. The Jewish art he was exposed to — Judeaca art about rituals and art on the Holocaust — wasn’t work that he felt particularly interested in. In a similar vein, the queer art he saw growing up was often overly sexual or about AIDS, which he also felt wasn’t for him.
Instead, Strub felt an inexplicable pull to kitschy art since he “was drawn to things that are considered by the general community as low-brow.” He also was drawn to camp, a visual subculture that celebrates exaggeration and extravagance. Through camp and kitsch, he had found art that spoke to him in the form of silly furniture and musical theatre.
Still, even the world of pop art was still often a hyper masculine and gendered one. “I really felt that there was a huge missing spot of people using camp and kitsch in the fine arts world as a means for creating queer art,” he said. So Strub decided to make art as an unapologetically flamboyantly gay Jew.
As an undergrad student, he uplifted the “silly and banal” nature of kitsch using traditionally high-brow oil paintings. He also created tongue-in-cheek paintings like “Girl Toys” (a consideration of gender roles in the toys that are “only meant for girls”) and “Gaybies,” in which two cartoon babies are shown dressed in a Ms. Piggy and Kermit the Frog costume.
“I wanted to explore gender and gender assignment through Miss Piggy and Kermit who are a couple on TV,” Strub said. “They are accepted as a pig and frog in love and you still can’t see queer couples to the same degree,” he couldn’t help but dryly note.
A similar sense of humour carries through in the rest of his work, from his drag alter-ego Loxanne Creamcheese to the final painting he created during his undergrad degree titled “Women Who Made Me Gay.” The latter set of paintings is an homage to Jewish women in pop culture from Idina Menzel in Wicked to Ashley Tisdale in High School Musical since Jewish women in TV and musical theatre “have historically exemplified the aesthetics of camp.” In the collection, he also included a painting of his mother “since she literally made me gay.”
“I did!” she called from the audience.
Strub also has a collection of ceramic cats, called the Katzes, who sport cowboy shoes, body hair, fake eyelashes and cheetah print. Form-wise, he’s still experimenting. He wants to continue making more kitschy ceramic sculptures, a medium typically understood as “high-brow,” that physically demand space. He is here, and he is ready to challenge people’s perceptions.
Finally, during the Q&A session portion of the event, moderator Aaron Francis prompted the artists on their thoughts when it comes to creation and representation in a changing world.
How did they feel about the potential impact of artificial intelligence on art? Afraid? Excited? All three expressed openness towards AI as something artists could wield to their advantage. “It’s a tool,” said McKenzie. It was a matter of who’s the one using it, and for what purposes.
One man from the audience, whose daughter was an artist, was interested to know how they each balanced the desire to pursue passion projects with the need to create commercial art that supported them financially. Fatemi recommended having a side job. McKenzie emphasized the need to “create from your heart” while still having a variety of pieces where some were for yourself and some were for sale. Strub added that he felt that the art he had the most fun making were those people wanted to buy the most. He enjoyed hearing stories of his artwork being conversation-starters in other people’s homes.
When asked by Francais about the political nature of their artwork, all three artists spoke about the need for representing lived experiences for not only themselves, but those around them who strived to be heard.
“It’s not just about Iran,” said Fatemi, reinforcing the universal nature of pain and suffering. “It’s about Afghanistan, it’s about Ukraine.”
“For every one of us that’s expressing that identity in our work, we’re reaching a thousand different people,” said McKenzie. “I know when I’m saying something in my art, it’s not just me, it’s for someone.”
“I want to create things for people with experiences like me who are really flamboyant, maybe never felt like they fit in throughout their lives, and for that to be my political statement,” said Strub.
A digital recording of the Canadian Clay & Glass Museum “Voices” roundtable discussion can be accessed on their Facebook page.