Dancing with Ché: Enter Through the Library

Category: arts 169

Yellow Box Gallery shares newly acquired work by Barbara Astman.

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Photo: Matt Carter

Last week, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery opened a new exhibit at St. Thomas University’s Yellow Box Gallery. Dancing with Ché: Enter Through the Library features newly acquired work by Canadian photographer Barbara Astman.

In recent years, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery has taken steps to grow its collection of photographic works, a move applauded by Senior Curator and Yellow Box Gallery Director Jeffrey Spalding.

“Photography and photo-based art are clearly the dominant media of the 20th century and contemporary art,” said Spalding, “yet art museums generally lag behind in building comprehensive collections that trace the history, evolution and most inspiring examples of photography. Public art galleries tend to be primarily painting and sculpture collections. The Beaverbrook has made some important gains in the past years through the support of donors and enthusiasts of the art of photography. This year alone we will add over 200 photographic works. It’s a good start.

“Although I am a painter and remain dedicated to its attributes, I nevertheless must acknowledge the wisdom of a comment by my associate, senior Canadian artist Iain Baxter who suggests that, ‘The camera is the new canvas’, said Spalding.”

Barbara Astman has gained international renown for her politically charged body of work that spans the past four decades. Dancing with Ché: Enter Through the Library highlights a series of self-portraits that catch the artist in various stages of movement, wearing a t-shirt featuring the famous Cubin revolutionary turned cultural icon. The nature of the work paired with the technique used to capture the images effectively limits the usual personal nature of the self-portrait, and instead shifts the focus toward the iconic image, resulting in a haunting series of photographs that appear to bring the screen-printed guerrilla leader to life.

Spalding identifies this action as a major theme of the work noting, “Clearly people who proudly wear a t-shirt emblazoned with an image of Ché are outwardly forging a public identity, no less than those touting a Blue Jays cap, or needing to drive a special status-symbol automobile,” he said. “Humans struggle to develop an authentic expression of their personal identity.”

The exhibit also includes The Newspaper Series, a pair of large photographs that bring attention to various newspaper headlines among a mass of piled dailies. Both works offer strong social commentaries, a theme that has defined much of Astman’s work dating back to the 1970s.

In keeping with the Yellow Box Gallery’s focus on pairing education and art, the BAG has taken the theme one step further, tasking Ventia Williston to curate the exhibit and write the accompanying essay. Williston is one of two curatorial interns at St. Thomas University.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree from the school and is currently completing her Honours designation.

“The Astman show is the very first exhibit I have curated,” said Williston. “It has been a very exciting opportunity to have the first show I have curated to be that of a prolific feminist artist. After the pieces by Barbara Astman were generously donated to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery by Dr. Stephen Brown, an exhibition started to be developed. I was asked to write a piece on Dancing With Che and The Newspaper Series as well as Astman’s extensive career.”

In her essay, Williston challenges the viewer to consider Astman’s intent by asking, “is it images of her solitary figure in a lighthearted solo dance, or does it in fact reveal Ché to be her shadow dance partner?”

These are just two of an infinite amount of questions posed by these fascinating photographs.

Dancing with Ché: Enter Through the Library runs April 28 – July 1, 2016 in the Yellow Box Gallery, located on the third floor of McCain Hall, St. Thomas University.

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