Trade Marks at Prefix ICA

Located in the heart of Toronto’s historic garment district is Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art. While this might seem at first an accident of geography, it gains significance in light of Prefix’s recently opened group show, Trade Marks, in which the featured artists explore textiles, their relationship as First Nation artists to trade, and the contested geographies and histories of Ontario.

Trade Marks, curated by Betty Julian, includes works by Keesic Douglas, Meryl McMaster, Nigit’stil Norbert, and Bear Witness in association with ImagineNative. Photographic works dominate the show. In one of the most striking images, McMaster freezes in time the cyclonic motion of a flock of birds twirling frantically around her head.

Nigit'stil Norbert, Fractured Origin, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Prefix ICA.

Nigit’stil Norbert. Fractured Origin, 2013; inkjet print; 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Prefix ICA.

For Norbert’s series of photos, the contested nature of Toronto’s geography is revealed in mundane, sometimes shabby urban spaces, devoid of people but inhabited by persistent vegetal growths. Sprouting from fractures in concrete and asphalt, these poplar and sumac seedlings defy the logic of the hard surfaces that typically characterize metropolitan infrastructure. Norbert’s meditation on these places redirects our urban gaze to reconsider histories whose roots extend below the hard surfaces, breaking these surfaces and interrupting the perceived logic of the city. As Norbert reminds us in her work, these non-space spaces are in fact historical locations of indigenous congregations.

The layering of histories and the corresponding visibility of these histories in Toronto also resonates in Keesic Douglas’s series Trade Me (2010). It is in these works that the echoes of Toronto’s garment district are the most apparent, as he explores the interconnected, fractious, and problematic history of textiles, trade, and First Nations in Canada. Douglas appropriates the Hudson Bay Company’s multicolored striped points blanket, staging reimagined sites of trade as well as studio photographs.  In the studio photographs, figures are positioned against a blank white wall, recalling government I.D. photo sessions. In two of the photographs, Douglas subverts the ability to identify the subject, depicting just a hand clasping a bottle of whiskey in one and in another completely draping the figure in the blanket. This unconventional, idiosyncratic head covering created by Douglas takes on another dimension in light of the recent Parti Québécois move to pass legislation that would ban public servants in Quebec from wearing religious symbols. As the debate over the role of head coverings continues globally, Douglas’s veiling forces viewers to confront indigenous histories of textiles and their relationship to deeper structural histories that continue to exert an influence on contemporary Canadian society.

Keesic Douglas, Trade Me #7, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Prefix ICA.

Keesic Douglas. Trade Me #7, 2010; Chromira print; 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy the artist and Prefix ICA.

Given the recent reopening of the newly refurbished flagship location of the Hudson Bay Company on Queen Street, just a few blocks east from Prefix ICA, the  points blanket appears to be on the verge of another resurgence in popularity.  Indicative of this is a website hosting photos submitted by users participating in “stripe spotting.” Photos of babies, pets, engagements, and cottages decked in the iconic stripes of the HBC jostle for attention on the site. Visitors would do well to visit Trade Marks in order to complicate this sanitized version of HBC’s history of trade in Canada. This way, viewers might earn their stripes by observing the subaltern stories bound up in the blanket’s familiar emblematic stripes.

Trade Marks continues Prefix ICA’s commitment to excellent curation, public programming, and challenging works.  With concurrent shows at the Ryerson Image Center and the ImagineNative 2013 film festival, the fall line up of exhibitions echoing the themes and issues raised in Trade Marks is particularly strong and the resulting dialogues are highly anticipated.

Trade Marks will be on view at Prefix ICA, in Toronto, through November 23, 2013.