Judy Chartrand: What a Wonderful World
At the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art until February 19, 2017
Judy Chartrand’s ceramic art initially attracts viewers with its beauty—its lustrous glazes, brightly coloured imagery, and appealing motifs. Then it grips us with its message, demanding that we recognize the brutal history of colonialism and the racist attitudes and policies white society still directs toward indigenous peoples. Her hand-built pots, bowls, and ceramic sculptures—many mimicking pop-culture forms such as soup cans, spray cans, and cereal boxes—are vehicles for explicit social and political messages. Her early work also pays homage to ancient ceramic traditions, such as that of the Mimbres people of New Mexico.
Chartrand, who is Cree, grew up in what she calls “the skids”, the area we now know as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The fourth youngest of 13 children, she was raised in poverty by a single mother who struggled to feed her family by working as a chambermaid. While guiding the Straight through her compelling exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery, Chartrand said that she was brought up with the expectation that she, too, would become a chambermaid. “As an Indian, you just assumed your life was going to be shit and if you worked, that was going to be shit as well,” she writes in the exhibition catalogue. “That is,” she adds, “if you survived long enough.”
Even when she broke the mould and was able to pursue her true calling as an artist, Chartrand continued to encounter racist attitudes and stereotypes, subtly when she was an undergraduate at art school in Vancouver, much more blatantly when she lived in Regina while earning her master’s degree in fine arts. Clay was the conduit through which she was able to communicate her respect for her indigenous predecessors, protest the conditions under which First Nations people struggle, and mourn her losses. The large bowl titled In memory of those no longer with us echoes Chartrand’s involvement with the annual Women’s Memorial March in the DTES. Its interior is inscribed with Mimbres-style figures and the names of women (including the artist’s sisters and cousins) lost to violence and substance abuse; its exterior is stamped with words and images related to their deaths.
As it tells aspects of her own history and that of her mother, Chartrand’s art-making is an assertion of her creative and psychological strength. Her ceramic macaroni boxes, for instance, allude to the kinds of cheap foods poor people must frequently eat. Indian Residential School Brand Porridge makes reference to the lumpy stuff that indigenous kids, torn from their families and cultures, were fed every day. By extension, this work demands that we consider the abuses and more brutally dehumanizing aspects of the residential-school system. Humour animates both the macaroni and porridge works, although the underlying message is darkly serious.
Also evident in her pop-inflected art, such as her sculptures of Campbell’s Soup cans labelled in Cree and English, is her culture-specific riff on Andy Warhol’s strategy of image-repetition to invoke the mass-production and mass-marketing of consumer goods. Chartrand’s art, such as her 2000-2002 lard tins, also reflects her interest in 19th- and 20th-century labels that employ stereotypical images of aboriginal people.
The seemingly ironic title of the exhibition, What a Wonderful World, is also the title of a troubling work Chartrand produced in 2014. A large bowl decorated with a sweet floral motif in lilac and orange, it is marked in black at its centre with the distinctly unsweet words, “GO BACK TO YOUR OWN COUNTRY!” The “wonderful world” reference is to the Louis Armstrong song, released in 1967 as an attempt to peacefully counter antiwar protests and race riots in the United States at the time. The “go back” quote refers to a recent, racially charged confrontation Chartrand witnessed between two motorists in Vancouver. It also more generally points up racist attitudes that whites all over North America demonstrate toward recent immigrants and people of colour. If anyone in Canada could legitimately lob the go-back-to-your-own-country epithet, it would be First Nations people to settler culture—to complacent whites, like so many of us, with an entirely unearned sense of entitlement.