Remember that book you read once, the book that opened your eyes even wider? Was there a photograph somewhere that made it all clearer? Is there music on the shelf that gives you the beat of your heart and feet?
Two new exhibitions in town raise these questions, and more: Library of Infinities at SAW gallery on Nicholas, an installation by Shaya Ishaq; and Souriez, on vous regarde (Smile, we’re looking at you), the work of Gail Bourgeois and Pira Pirani at Voix Visuelle on Beechwood.
Walk into the big gallery at SAW. You enter the Library of Infinities. Here you will find a crowd-sourced assemblage of Black books and Black music from everywhere. One room is for reading, the other for music. In the reading room, large, freestanding sculptures of red, yellow, blue provide comfy places for bookworms and books to hide away. Angles, triangles, and rectangles are the stuff of which these structures are built, not unlike (come to think of it) the shape of a book being opened or a record removed from its cover. That large, curved, green structure? Of course. A veritable leap of the imagination! A dance of delight! It too provides a place for the reader to sit and be sheltered within.
The music room has a sound system, a turntable, and vinyl LPs aplenty everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to Miles Davis, Miriam Makeba, Sun Ra, and much more. Cushioned modular seating enables a good many people to sit comfortably. From time to time, it is also a room for performances.
On the walls of both rooms are large, Africa-inspired design motifs constructed of circles, rectangles, hard angles. Each is different from the other, yet all are built of the same interrelated shapes, colours, thematic, iconic proportions. They are the library’s source and raison d’ tre. Just as no one reads the same book as another, or hears music the same way twice, Shaya Ishaq’s work opens many possibilities to all. So too, the peoples of Canada’s Black diaspora are a multiplicity of voices, story, origin.
In 2017, Shaya Ishaq, then an artist-in-residence at the Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax, pulled together a crowd-sourced collection of Black music and literature, a collection she entitled “Black Libraries Matter.” She has brought much of this material back to Ottawa, where she grew up. The collection grows daily. Anyone may contribute. All may sit, read, and listen.
Not far away in Lindenlea, is le Centre d’artistes Voix Visuelle, a small second floor gallery on Beechwood, next door to Clothes Encounters of a Second Time, east of the big Metro store. Walk up the stairs. There you will see a thoughtful, black-and-white exhibition of small photomontage studies by Gail Bourgeois and Pira Pirani, Souriez, on vous regarde. The subject matter is set by four editorials displayed with their work. Three are by François Brousseau, one by Christian Rioux. All were written in the last year for Le Monde or Le Devoir. The subject is the same: Covid-19 and what is being done about it. The headlines speak of “democracies in peril,” and the “new cold war.”
The artists’ photomontages delve further into this new cold war by reminding us how little was known at the time about the last Cold War. The photograph of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin at the Yalta conference may be well-known today, but who knew then that those three men had just divided up Europe? Above this image, the artists give us a series of images of hands, each a signalling system. For what? Below the photograph is a line of Morse code. And, behind the three seated men? Missiles are pointed.
Another photomontage displays a letter from Japanese women to the women of the world. Beside it? The original Blonde Bombshell, Jean Harlow (1911-1937), clad in her bikini. Bikini? Oh yes. The Bikini Atoll, a coral ridge of the Marshall Islands, that nuclear test site from 1946 to 1958. Too far away? The Rideau Canal photomontage of Winterlude skaters is paired with the cautionary warning: “This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.” What is that all about?
In both exhibitions, the artists open doors to matters that still matter much to everyone today.
Shaya Ishaq: Library of the Infinities. SAW Gallery, 67 Nicholas Street, saw-centre.com/
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Free. Continuing to October 30.
Gail Bourgeois and Pira Pirani: Souriez, on vous regarde (Smile, we’re looking at you). Le Centre d’artistes Voix Visuelle, 67 Beechwood Avenue. Upstairs, voixvisuelle.ca/
Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Free. Continuing to October 12.