The rebellious Albertan women of the 1980s

Joane-Cardinal-Schubert-photo by Charles Cousins
Rebellious: Alberta Women Artists of the 1980s
Art Gallery of Alberta
Until Feb. 16

By Caitlin Hart

Alberta has long been viewed through a masculinist lens, centered on narratives of the wild west, images of open prairie and mountains, and a vision of a never-ending flow of oil money. The reality of the province’s cold winters, boom-and-bust economy, and income inequality tell a less idealized story. Alberta in the 1980s and Alberta today have some easy parallels: an influx of eastern Canadians and people from outside the country seeking work in the province’s extractive industries, Indigenous resistance to ongoing colonial projects, and labour unrest. The province faces cuts in healthcare and public services, and decreasing union membership while cities continue to grow. Despite the four years of New Democrat rule, Alberta has returned to a right-wing government. In some ways it can feel like going back in time. However, the work represented at Rebellious: Alberta Woman Artists of the 1980s serves as a reminder of the power of art in troubling times, and the strength of solidarity in the face of austerity. 

The exhibition, curated by Lindsey Sharman and currently on display in the Art Gallery of Alberta’ second floor, does not represent exclusively feminist issues, or explore only women’s experiences. Women artists have always spoken to the broader cultural and political context in which they are situated, and this exhibit encompasses a broad swath of issues facing Albertans in the 1980s as well as today. Walking through the exhibit, you are taken through sculpture, textiles, video collages, pastels and oil paintings interrogating gentrification, labour, Indigenous land rights and displacement, alongside works that explore the complexities of sexual harassment, violence against women, and masculinity. 

Calgary-based artist Vera Gartley’s light-up sculptures borrow phrases from popular advertisements, isolated from their original context. The size and scale of the signs bring to mind billboards and retail shop signs, but the fact that the signs don’t point towards a product or store have an uncanny effect; the viewer is left to question why we take these slogans and advertisements for granted in the world, without questioning their motive. 

The most visually striking works in the exhibit are Joice M Hall’s photorealistic acrylic paintings exploring masculine identity in the context of the 1980s conceptions of male power and image. Male nudes, surrounded by signifiers of power and wealth (like Rolexes and gold cufflinks), take the aesthetic sensibilities of upper-middle-class wealth that are deeply tied to how we remember the 1980s culturally and question their power. The nudes are stripped of their symbols of wealth —Hall’s work asks, what is underneath? Where does masculine power come from? The overall power of both the visual and the question is disarming. 

Joane Cardinal-Schubert’s work, including oil painting and sculpture, acts as a form of protest against the 1988 Olympics and the Indigenous land torn up to make way for the festivities. Incorporating Indigenous motifs, Cardinal-Schubert’s striking works use vibrant colours and animal imagery, focusing on the natural in her work. Cardinal-Schubert resists the colonial gaze by centering Indigenous expressions and refusing to paint only facile landscapes, instead making evident the pain and violence of settler colonialism. 

Mary Joyce’s pastels depict labour struggles, including the Gainers Meatpacking strike, which happened in Edmonton in 1986, as well as working-class life generally. We see men holding signs on a picket line; we also see a parent boarding the bus with their child. Both the banal and the monumental are represented in her work, relying mainly on muted tones of grey, green, yellow, and brown. The slight abstractions of the figures function to bring together both the material realities and philosophical questions at stake in considering the status of working people in the late 20th Century, especially on the prairies. 

Teresa Posyniak’s Salvage: remnants of hope and despair is an unsettling and visually arresting set of sculptures. Posyniak created this work over 12 years, accumulating found objects that slowly transform the piece, and speak to the harassment and violence suffered by women as a cumulative process of trauma, not a single event. At first glance, the statues are more or less similar: white and grey melted wax. Up close, there are hints of blue and orange, textures from salvaged lace and doilies. 

Salvage: Remnants of Hope and Despair-Teresa-Posyniak- photo by Charles Cousins

Walking through the exhibit, you get the sense of not only women’s ascendence in art, but in the world of politics, in which they’ve always existed. These women are the chroniclers of resistance: against capital, against austerity, against colonialism. In a time of similar inequality and violence, art is uniquely positioned to speak truth to power and rebel against the conventions of what it means to be a woman in Alberta, in the 1980s and today. 

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