Work-In-Progress (i.e. #WIP) is an AGGV podcast that offers some insight from behind the scenes to curatorial and educational projects and collaborations that could be seen as open-ended or process-based — highlighting some of the experimental and exploratory work that is taking shape both inside and outside of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s physical gallery spaces.
In this episode we will learn about the work of Trinidadian-Canadian artist Denyse Thomasos, and her important career and historic contribution to BIPOC voices in Canadian art. From December 2021 through March 2022 the AGGV was thrilled to host the exhibition Denyse Thomasos: Odyssey — a retrospective organized and circulated by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, with support from the Government of Canada.
During the run of the exhibition the AGGV hosted a Zoom conversation with the curators of the exhibition, Gaëtane Verna, Director of The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, and Sarah Milroy, Chief Curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. They were joined by Victoria based award winning novelist Esi Edugyan who contributed to the exhibition publication. This conversation with Gaëtane Verna, Sarah Milroy and Esi Edugyan was an exciting opportunity to learn about Thomasos’s works from a range of perspectives.
Learn more about the #WIP Podcast at: https://anchor.fm/art-gallery-of-grea…
This podcast series is generously supported by a Canada Council for the Arts Digital Now Grant.
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is located on the traditional territory of the lək̓ʷəŋən speaking peoples, today known as the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations. We extend our gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to live and work on this territory.
Video editing by Marina DiMaio.Work-In-Progress (i.e. #WIP) is an AGGV podcast that offers some insight from behind the scenes to curatorial and educational projects and collaborations that could be seen as open-ended or process-based — highlighting some of the experimental and exploratory work that is taking shape both inside and outside of the Art Gallery of Greater V …
The McMichael Collection
The McMichael Collection
The McMichael Collection
No Bodies Present
No Bodies Present
No Bodies Present
Use CTRL+F to find key words if it is a longer transcript.
Welcome to Work In Progress, an exploratory podcast hosted
by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where you will hear
from artists, curators, gallery staff, collaborators,
and even different hosts as you listen to each episode.
This podcast was produced on the traditional territories
of the lək̓ʷəŋən speaking peoples, also known as the Songhees
and Esquimalt Nations. In this episode, we hear from Gaëtane Verna,
Director of The Power Plant in Toronto and Sarah Milroy, Chief
Curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection as they discuss
the exhibition they curated Denyse Thomasos: Odyssey, organized
by the McMichael and on display at the Art Gallery of Greater
Victoria from December 11th, 2021 until March 13th, 2022.
Joining the two curators is Victoria
based award winning novelist Esi Edugyan, who provided a written contribution
to the exhibition publication.
We were thrilled to host this exhibition in Victoria
and provid an opportunity for our community to learn about the work of Trinidadian-Canadian artist Denyse Thomasos whose contribution to Canadian art was exceptional.
Her work often took the form of large scale paintings or murals
that were vibrant and layered, not only in their material application
but in their themes and content as well.
This conversation offers a window into Thomasos’s work
from a range of perspectives.
Verna, who had been following Thomasos’s career
from the early 2000s and had worked with her over the years
before her untimely passing in 2012 brought an intimate take on the trajectory of Thomasos’s artistic practice.
Milroy, as a curator and art critic, provides
the context of how Thomasos’s work stands out within the larger scope of Canadian art.
While Edugyan, who, it is apparent,
felt a strong connection to the artist, and her work had just been introduced to Thomasos through this project.
We hope you enjoy the following conversation. Wonderful. This is just… I have to say, what an incredible thrill it is
finally, to meet you Esi. It was this leap into the void
that Gaëtane and I were like, you know what would be really great?
Would be if we could get Esi Edugyan. And I was like, no way. But then it happened.
So we’re so, so grateful to you
for being willing to fit us into your life and your world
and your very, very busy writing schedule. It has made such a difference. It’s expanded so much
our understanding of the work and the public
that buys this publication have a real treat in store.
So thank you again. Thank you for inviting me to take part. I was so
surprised and so happy to be asked
because I really haven’t done anything like this before,
that kind of writing, and it just gave me an opportunity
to truly commune with Denyse’s work.
And I really feel like there’s, I just felt such a kinship with her work and even with her
life story which intersects with my own in so many ways.
And so it was a real pleasure to be a part of
this. It was just so great.
I thought it best, Gaëtane, to start
with a wonderful picture of Denyse
because you’re the only person here,
I think, on this call that knew her. And this picture seems to tell us a lot about her.
And I’m just curious how you see this picture,
what it tells us about this incredible lady?
Wow. Well, thank you, Sarah and it’s so nice to meet you Esi. And I can tell you that Denyse was a fierce woman.
She was an avid reader, and she would have been so proud
to have you pen such a beautiful text about her work.
With so much insight about, you know, some of the things she was thinking.
And you would have been fast friends and she would have given you advice on your entire life
because that’s the type of person she was.
So when I see her picture, I am filled with so much emotion, even to this day.
And so the first time I met Denyse’s
work was really… because it was around the year 2000
And there was all of these projects that the Canada Council had,
you know, created specific grants for.
And so I received a postcard
which had like this incredible abstract
painting with a lot of lines and different colors. And I don’t know if it looked like it contained cloth
or if it was a series of shutters
or I don’t know what I was looking at. And then I received this postcard and I pinned it to the wall
in my office, and I left for maternity leave
and came back a year later,
and the postcard was still on my wall and started thinking about, Okay, I don’t like a lot of painting that really speaks to me,
but I don’t know this artist, but this really speaks to me.
And the person who had replaced me during my maternity
leave says, Well, why don’t you reach out to her?
And then I start Googling a bit and I’m… actually I don’t know if we use Google at the time.
Sorry, but researching on Denyse
only to suddenly realized
that this incredible Canadian artist had such…
you know, had receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pew Fellowship.
I mean, you know, studied in Toronto
but then did an MFA at Yale.
And I was just like mesmerized by her. And basically I sent her an email, introduced myself
and told her that I wanted to do an exhibition of her work.
She emailed me back and said, Well,
I don’t really want to show my paintings. I would like to do a site-specific exhibition,
because she also understood from the get go that, you know,
there are works you do in a commercial gallery,
and then there’s works that you do in, let’s say,
in a museum setting. And so she very much wanted
to have the opportunity of working at Bishop’s University.
So she had done a show in Austria with David Hammons and Ed Clark and Stanley Whitney,
where she had done two walls.
She had done some walls in her commercial gallery in New York,
but she had never taken over an entire space.
And really what we started… and we have to bring ourselves back. We did the show in 2004, so you have to remember in 2001,
there was all the events around 9/11.
Denyse starts traveling at that same time. And then as shes traveling,
it seems that there’s constantly war and
you know, like war
and a lot of contention in the world.
And yet when we start thinking of what project we could
do, she’s thinking of home
and when she speaks of home, she’s thinking of Trinidad Tobago. She’s thinking of a house that was a shared home by her family.
Which all of her aunts and uncles and her mom would always talk about this house.
And so really we started speaking about what
could be a project that was suitable for Bishop’s University.
And this project became a two-part project. One part was at Bishop’s, and the second part was at Mount Saint Vincent University.
And so our part was 30 years in Canada. And 30 years in Trinidad.
So on the one hand,
we had a painting, the whole walls of the gallery,
a section that really presented the floor plan of that house
imagined by each member of the family.
Then you had a rendition of the structure, architectural
structure of the house where, chairs the TV, the radio,
all of these very familial objects, you know, from interviews
she had done with her aunties and her uncles and her mom and her.
And then on this space that we see,
which brings so much emotion to me. She had the backdrop of the architecture.
And then it was her free flowing painting in that space
and showing us how…
And for those of you have seen the exhibition,
it is that same emotion that you see all around
the walls of the galleries. Everybody was so taken by the work
and was mesmerized by the words.
And everybody was like, why are you painting over these walls? You must keep them.
And it’s like, well, no, this is part of the idea
we have to let them live, you know, the walls are the palimpsest.
And I always think whenever I go to Bishops,
because my daughter is there, I like touch the wall and think oh,
somewhere in the layers there is that work,
you know, that inhabits the space and stuff.
So it was a really important show for her. And we did a small publication
where I did an interview with her.
We had Franklin Sherman, who’s now the director of the PAMM,
Pérez Art Museum. We also had, oh my God, now I forget her name, a
famous Trinidadian author but sorry, it will come to me. We had different authors, you know, writing about…
about Denyse and Franklin and myself.
And I think that the day Denyse died,
because unfortunately she passed away in 2012
and with her gallery, we did a small memorial. And my emotion when I saw that the book we did was the only
solo publication that had been done on Denyse and believe me
when I was at Bishops we had no money. And so this was really pulling resources with my colleague
Ingrid Jenkins and making it happen and providing an artist with some kind of documentation of the two projects.
The McMichael Collection
So the beat goes on because then all these years
later, Gaëtane, I came back and asked you to help me again.
We had just acquired this very, very large scale
and beautiful work for the McMichael’s collection
and nothing like it in our collection. Needless to say, there is nothing like it anywhere on earth
and it just seemed to me to capture
the kind of incredible spirit in the work
that is both this kind of… everything’s barely holding together,
but there’s also a sense of momentum, like it’s going somewhere.
And there’s a kind of just
I think, sheer force of the creativity in it, that sense of imagination and creativity.
There is this sort of feeling of of hope
I think that, you know, that you get from that. And we in part of our courtship dance with Esi
I will disclose that we sent this painting to her in Victoria
to live with as part of the enticement
for joining us in the book.
Not something she asked for needless to say,
but it just seemed to me, how can you appreciate this painter
if you don’t get a chance to experience the tactility
of the thing in the way the painting is put together. So
maybe, Esi, you can tell me about living with this. And kind of where the journey took you?
So I mean, I was delighted to be asked to take part of this. Denyse Thomasos was not an artist whose work I was
very familiar with when I was asked. So I was really happy first of all, to be introduced
to a new painter, but that the work was so powerful for me.
It really spoke to me,
and I remember being sent at first JPEGs for pieces
and getting the JPEG of Odyssey
and just being so blown away by it.
But, you know, in receiving this piece in the mail
and unwrapping it and I have to admit, initially I had set it down
and it was the wrong side up
and you know, I recognized immediately
this, you know, that I had to turn it and and that
there was this sense of a great tension between a kind of status in her work,
but also a powerful sense of movement.
And you feel this immediately when you’re in the presence
of one of her pieces, you’re struck by this
this strange tension. And I mean, when you first look at it,
it’s a series of lines,
the abstraction really stands out, the sense of color,
a sense of balance,
and then your eye is immediately seeking to make
to make sense or to shape things into something. And what is it that you see? And initially,
what I saw was a coffin,
like a really old sort of handmade kind of 19th… century
Back of the cart.
Yeah. Yeah. Back of a cart that you would roll the coffin, you know, onto the carriage and then… And so I had this
sort of more, I guess, a darker, a more sort of morbid,
a more kind of sense of reaching deep into history.
All of these, I guess all of these sensibilities
and all of these meanings were coming at me.
But then also, you know, the longer I stared at it the more
I could begin to feel a kind of transformation taking shape.
And what I saw then was a kind of like a boat
like a fisherman’s boat.
And I could see suddenly up in the left hand corner,
I could envision, you know, that
we have a sort of abstract stripe
that could be a bird in the blue sky there.
And that what we are seeing is something that has movement. And that’s something that comes out of,
you know, if we think of… I’m from the West Coast, so when I think of boats, I think of leisure.
And that’s something that’s,
you know, quite a bit lighter than the coffin I was envisioning. And so I loved that.
I loved that there was this aliveness and this life
and this movement
that was kind of, I guess, counterbalanced by a sense of,
you know, of weight… Gravity, yeah, gravitas. So that was something that kept shifting for me.
It sort of depended on my mood, you know,
sometimes I’d see a boat and sometimes I’d see a coffin. And her work is so just replete with so many different meanings.
And so much of what you see, I guess, is… It’s all there.
I think all of these meanings are intentional and love to coexist.
And that’s something that is very unique about her work
is that you have these very disparate things
that are constantly in tension.
No Bodies Present
I think one of the things, too, you mentioned in your essay
that I know Gaëtane and I both we’re really struck by,
that felt so clear, it’s right there and we sort of had realized
it is the fact that she’s dealing with
with, you know, certain themes in Black history
like the Middle Passage and so on. But there’s no bodies present.
And you made a really interesting point about that. Can you talk about that for a minute before we move on?
Because it was just a great insight. Yeah. I mean, you see it in this piece, but you also see it… if we could
look at Odyssey again, that would be that would be great. Yes.
Yeah, so this is a piece where, you know, when I looked at it,
I saw kind of like a shipping vessel of some sort
and whatever it is, like containers. But then I also could see within it
something more static, which was like a neighborhood.
Then, you know,
these are buildings within a very congested neighborhood. And I was struck by the way that
we have a sense of, if it’s a neighborhood,
we have a sense of the homes and the businesses and everything
that, I guess give structure to our lives,
but that it’s completely bereft of people.
There’s never… I mean, she’s not a figurative painter, so her subject is not the body,
but we feel the resonances of that absence.
Like, you know, for instance, when she’s painting something that resembles sort of the prison industrial complex
or something that resembles a slave ship, you know,
what we’re getting is the structure. The thing that contains us.
And that thing is sometimes something that offers refuge or solace
you know, you think of burial grounds
and sometimes it’s something that is very oppressive
and that seeks to, you know, imprison us. But we don’t, you know, we don’t have…
We don’t have the slave, we have the slave ship. We don’t have
the prisoners we have usually what looks like blueprints. And I thought that was really remarkable.
We have, I guess, these very… what’s the way to put it? We’re seeing what’s been made by the human hand,
but we’re not seeing the human.
And so there’s been so much of, you know…
I was looking with the Massey Lectures the history of Black
representation, specifically within 18th and 19th century
portraiture and how that changed going into the 20th century.
I mean, initially we sort of had
these figures who were mostly slaves or when they weren’t actual slaves, just,
I guess, ideas of… represented ideas of slave life
and, you know, figures who are connected to Christianity
in some way. We have Magi. We have these very sort of specific
sets of figures, which are repeated throughout these centuries.
And it seems like Blackness is reduced to certain tropes.
And as we come into the 20th century, that starts to shift,
especially with the end of the 20th century. When you see artists like Kehinde Wiley, for instance.
I guess he’s a 20th or 21st century artist.
Just kind of taking those tropes and subverting them.
But I think Thomasos is also subverting those tropes. But how she’s doing it is by showing us,
you know, the structures that contained these bodies
rather than showing us in a kind of more… literal way.
Yeah, literal way. But also I think the word I’m looking for
is like exploitative way… or exploitative… of these bodies.
And so here is a piece that we’re happy to say
is going to be shown at the Whitney
Biennial in April. It’s an epic work
that is… I don’t know. How big is it Gaëtane?
Even 20 feet long. Yeah, it was… Yeah, it took like the entire wall in your gallery.
And I would say that Esi what you…
when Denyse started working,
first of all as a person
she was very politically inclined.
When she was at university,
she did figurative work when she was at Sheridan College.
And she was always… so the body, the Black body in her early works
was very, very present.
And then when she goes to Yale,
she removes the body because she really wants to use structure
and color to express the presence and containment
without having to represent the body,
which is really interesting when we look at now
the fact that it seems that, you know, every day
you discover another amazing African or African-American painter.
And every gallery has these incredible painters
that are, you know, representing the Black body in a different way
than how it was represented before.
But, Denyse, you know, much like artists like Stanley Whitley or Ed Clark,
they were that group of artists who chose abstraction
as this way of gaining a certain freedom
in what you can express without showing,
without like this exploitation of the Black trauma
or the Middle Passage, without having to show these bodies,
without having to show how a jail or a ghetto or how all of these structures of containment oppress your soul, your body.
Yet with her, you know, masterful way of painting and expressing,
and then also the poetry of the title,
because Displaced Burial or Burial at Gorée I mean, you know, whether you understand what that means
and what it represents,
you feel like you’re,
you know, in layers and layers of history.
And even though the bodies are not present, it’s like
the painting is haunted. Like through Denyse’s way of painting
she’s expressing those presences.
Can I ask a question because you knew her?
Was there kind of like a moment where like a strong schism,
like she just sort of felt very intensely that she was not going to paint
Or was it a more nuanced transition
where she sort of had an in-between period or…?
I’m kind of curious. I think that it really happened when she went to Yale, you know, because Denyse was very driven,
she was focused.
She wanted to be an artist.
She wanted to be a professional artist. She wanted to teach. And I think when she leaves
Toronto goes to Yale being in that context,
you know, a top art school
and wanting to understand conceptual art, conceptual painting,
wanting to move away from representation
or feeling that she needed to move away to expand
her understanding of the world or of her own practice.
It’s really at that moment that the shift happens. So was there a particular teacher that she studied under that,
you know, that sort of
would have helped her to sort of understand
that this is the place that she wanted to move to?
I think that from what I remember
and in talking with different people who knew her,
because Yale was so competitive, she kind of observed the others, you know,
and was also reading a lot, and then I think decided that…
I don’t want to put words in her mouth
because actually I never asked her that question specifically.
So I’m just telling you what I’ve been able to recollect. It was kind of this thing like and probably
you have to think that you know, a Black woman painter
at Yale and also,
figurative painting in those years is probably not
where it’s at. Because remember,
there was the shift of the death of painting and all of that.
So I think she really very much thought,
I need to be a conceptual artist. I need to be an artist that goes beyond the representational,
you know? But how does…
and to use forms and shapes to express a presence, but also to
create a production of works that cannot be just boxed in
to a simple reading to expand the reading of her work,
outside of the scope of I’m representing…
You know, so that there’s multiple readings which in a sense also
enables us, enables her, to expand the reach of her work. And so there’s a sense of staying underground.
Right? You love the abstraction of this work,
but do you really know
what you’re looking at? And not having to reveal inside of a painting, you know, everything.
You feel it, but you know, the difference between this piece
lying on the floor and this piece up on the wall…
I mean, when Gaëtane and I were installing this,
I think both of us felt like we’d never really been in a situation
where when the work is moved from being flat
or tipped against the wall to be up on the wall,
that it was like a complete… you had to kind of step back.
It was like the force of this thing
made you feel actually like you couldn’t quite get your footing.
It was such a vortex of a movement,
and it was really, really visceral.
And right after this, she starts looking at these works
that suggest weaving and cloth,
and Gaëtane’s mentioned Kente cloth before and her interested
in Caribbean textiles from her Trinidadian background.
But it quickly like starts to move
and there starts to be this sense
of a kind of cyclone type of feeling
that we’re swept up in something.
And you know, at home in Tianjin around this point,
she started to travel as Denyse…
as Gaëtane has told us after 9/11, she had this kind of moment of,
oh my God, I don’t understand the world at all.
I need to get out there. And she did, traveling in China,
and I can’t remember all the places she traveled. Gaëtane maybe… like Eastern Africa, China… Africa…
And I would see say… Peru… because she’s from Trinidad
and because her family has Indian, Black, Chinese… I mean, she sets out to connect with all the parts
that are you know, she is the sum of those parts
and I think you feel that movement. You feel that she’s on a quest.
And one thing I want to tell you, Esi, is between… to answer…
to go back to your question, that I forgot to mention is
she’s living in Philadelphia teaching and she decides that
she wants to live in New York and she wants a job in New York.
And that Burial at Gorée is part of a whole series of large scale
black and white paintings
that she makes going,
this is my ticket to leave Philadelphia and to go to New York.
So she imagines already in her mind, sets a course for herself
and starts within a few months to just produce
these large scale paintings… And they’re massive
all of a sudden. All of them, you know,
and there’s a sense of urgency,
but there’s also like a sense of wanting to be… ambition. Ambition
and this empowered artist that is like, I’m
setting my goal for New York and this is what’s going to get me
to New York. So that period of the black
and white is definitely also a shift.
And now she is going to be in New York
in the most major, major way. I mean, it’s just so very sad that she’s not here to see her
paintings go up on the wall of the Whitney Museum.
But we’ll have to just go down there and shout to heaven
for her but, you know, this is typical of the kind of confusion
you were talking about, Esi, about is it, you know,
are these coffins or are these huts?
You know, are these containers like what are we looking at here? Yeah. And it’s interesting just flipping through the slides
because we have this sort of style that’s informing
places like this is the Dogon Caves,
but a similar sort of stylistic
blueprint, look to the Tianjin piece and the Jodhpur rooftops,
which kind of maybe suggests that this sense of claustrophobia and the sense
of human structures as being something maybe…
just that this is a global feeling. This feeling… Do the structures in society
and architecture maybe as metaphor for that
Are they shelter?
Do they provide shelter to us or confinement or both, you know? But in all societies, which is interesting.
And she was always interested in vernacular architecture,
you know, so there’s a sense of of you know, there’s this humble dwelling
to the skyscrapers, to the, you know, the ports. You know, these paintings
that she’s done of different ports.
But there’s always that shape. And
I always feel that because,
you know, if you analyze her work from beginning to end
the coffin or the containment,
the structure is really the key to everything, you know,
and it’s as if
you think of what is the origin of the Black experience?
Or if we go more precisely,
what is the origin of Denyse’s experience in the world?
It goes back to somebody being taken away from Homeland
in Africa, you know, put on a…
put first in a prison or in contained space
then on the slave ship
and then you know plantation and all of this. So it’s as if this is what permeates everything that she’s
thinking of, you know, and then there’s this idea that she moves
from the slave ship to the ghetto.
And then if we think of the narrative of the Black body
of how there are more, you know, let’s say
you know, after the end of slavery,
there are more Black folks in jails.
Then, you know, then during the time of slavery,
how America has constantly, you know,
hunted, you know, Black bodies to contain them,
whether it is physically or in their minds.
And so she’s constantly searching at this. And I remember when she started
this whole research on military… not military, but mass incarceration
I was thinking, why is she going there? Like just me thinking, you know. And to see how,
years later, we see all these movies
that are really documenting
how this was another way to contain Black bodies.
You know. And just to point out to the audience that the picture we’re looking at here from 2003
is based on this idea of the panopticon or the
the prison structure that is designed for surveillance of in many
cases, Black bodies that are imprisoned.
And she turns it into this kind of cyclone spin
that she then infuses with all these extraordinary colors.
But, you know, it’s there’s a number of works like this
in the exhibition. Like Surveillance is another one.
But, you know, I understand, Gaëtane, for you
that she would do extensive research on incarceration
of Black men and women
and she would go down these research rabbit holes. And the solution or expression of it
would come to be very somatic. Yeah.
And I think also what’s really interesting with Denyse,
she would work in her studio she would work simultaneously on large scale paintings
and small scale paintings. All of them aligned together.
And is that… Did she talk about that
as being something that she really needed to do, that
that balance needed to be there for her to create? Or was it just like… why do you feel she did that?
Or did she speak… Oh, this is her studio.
One of her studio assistants that I interviewed
she just told me this is how Denyse worked. So. And also, you have to think, as an artist who was thinking of
I need a practice, that’s my, let’s say, my own.
But also I need to think of,
what I can sell in a gallery. So to constantly think of how to be strategic
while still expressing that same emotion on different scales.
Right. Sorry, is it more difficult to sell
or to have a gallery take a larger piece?
Is this… Well, I mean, large pieces. Who’s going to buy those pieces?
And then if people want to live with the work. So you think… In her shows you always had some large pieces, medium’s pieces, small pieces.
So this balancing act. But when I found out that when she did a series,
she would work on different scales,
I was like, oh, my God, she’s so smart. It’s like she’s really thinking… But you know,
The little ones
I think the incredible thing is…
and we looked at the very beginning, Esi, when we’re looking at the painting
that you lived with for a while,
and there was one other little slide after that
where the black boat shape is going up into the corner… I can tell you like walking through the show and looking
at those paintings, the little ones, they pack a punch.
Like it’s that formal capacity
that she has coupled with the skill with color.
It’s almost like she’s trying to see how much, you know, explosive dynamite she can pack into the smallest
possible container because they’re not
less impactful than the big works.
I mean, something like Burial at Gorée is environmental in scale.
So obviously that has a kind of vertiginous effect on you. Where you can’t even kind of get your bearings,
you know. I would fully agree.
Writing vs painting
And maybe it’s kind of… if you think of it in terms of writing,
it’s the balance between like writing a short story
which has certain principles and tends
to move more swiftly than a novel.
And you know, can still pack a whole world in,
but in a much more contained way, whereas a novel has more…
kind of has maybe a little bit more space and more languorous
and takes more time. And so I’m curious, having made that analogy,
just how long it would have taken her to complete for instance, the piece,
the smaller piece that I wrote about versus something like
Burial at Gorée? Like did she spend years on that massive canvas? Or like how… what was her process like in terms of…?
I think that series, as I said, the Burial at Gorée,
it was part of a slew of works that she did
because she wanted to get a job in New York, you know,
but I would say that she could work really fast.
And also the type of painting that she uses is very liquid,
you know, so she’s not working in oils.
So it’s really… it dries fast. And then also, she always has layers of work.
And then she would, her studio
assistant was saying that how sometimes like the piece,
which unfortunately I forget the title, the piece that’s at
U of T, that piece she had in her studio for many, many years.
And then sometimes, you know, she would add stuff to it. And it’s a very colorful piece. Right.
So that one, I would say, is kind of like a world in itself,
which was present in the space
while she was doing other series of work. I’m just really curious too, Esi, having,
you know, stepped back to write the Massey Lectures and considered,
you know, Denyse in the context of so many other artists
that you were thinking about, do you have a sense now of what’s distinctive about what
she’s given, what she’s given us?
I mean, probably what I mentioned earlier, just this sense of
dealing with the Black body
or with Black experience in a way that is
not wholly abstract, but anti…
It’s non-figurative, non-figurative, not abstract. Yes, exactly.
That is exactly how I would have put it
if I wasn’t at a loss for words. That’s exactly right.
And I think the thing is too that… Gaëtane and I talked about this a little bit in the interview that we did, that there is
this feeling in all of these works really about rootlessness,
you know, these cities seem to sort of be suspended
and not really… can’t drive their pylons down into anything fixed.
And I wondered aloud with Gaëtane if that maybe
spoke to some aspect of diasporic
experience? That everything is floating and contingent
and could change and could move, you know? Yeah, a sense of un-rootedness. Or in Germany
They would say unheimlich. Like a lack of homeliness, or a sense of home,
which I think is very much
kind of at the heart of diasporic experience.
So yeah. Because we never quite know where we’re from. Our names are not our names because, you know,
our names were given names. I mean people whose family are,
you know, from diasporic like tradition,
you know, like my last name is Verna, but I come from Haiti.
So where’s that Verna? You know, my ancestor was brought to Haiti,
so Verna is probably not
my real name, you know. Or my mom’s last name is Lenny. And Lenny was the name of the plantation owner.
So what was the name…? So you kind of even a name that’s your name… except Gaëtane
which I know my parents gave me, but the last name is not.
There’s nothing that grounds you in certainty of who you are. And where are your roots.
You know, when people say, where are your people from? I mean,
I can say Haiti, but then again, you know, what came after.
And I’ve always found that… And even in Denyse’s work, this yearning to search,
to go to India, to go to China, to,
you know, to go to East Africa, to, like try to set forth
to figure out what she can tease
of what she thinks, makes who she is
without formally being able to like pin down.
And so I think that when we think of
her search for identity
in a certain sense, and we couple that with the works,
there is that sense of floating.
You know, you never know. You’re always between seas because somehow
you were taken away from one shore and brought to another.
And then you also have to think that not only did she leave,
you know, that history, but then she leaves Trinidad
and then goes to Toronto,
you know… And then goes to Yale and goes to New York…
So there’s this constant you know… she’s not African-American, and she’s of the Caribbean.
And with everything that that entails,
you know, this archipelagos of identity
And then you add the layer of Toronto,
which is another transition. So I think that it feels like all of that is,
you know, part of the type of painting
she does where nothing is fixed. It’s always kind of floating,
even though she’s talking about structures.
Yeah. But they’re not rooted No, I agree. There is this… I think initially you’re hit with the sense of claustrophobia.
You’ve got those strong, powerful lines
and you’ve got the chaos of them as they’re intersecting.
And sometimes this is done a little bit off kilter. And so it’s, you know, it’s… Disorienting. Really disorienting.
But then, you know, as you settle into it
and you really start to notice things, there just seems to be
in a lot of the paintings that I observed, a kind of exit
point in each of these structures and whether that’s,
you know, a series of buildings that seem to not have roofs.
And so there’s a sense of of being able to escape,
whether that’s you know, a coffin
that seems to have an open lid… like these kinds of things where you have both the sense of containment and oppression,
but also the possibility of an exit.
And I think that that’s something
that’s so beautiful in her work. You have all of these resonances,
but the possibility of hope
is what remains. Yeah. And I would say, to second that, that
even if you look at the work like Burial at Gorée and,
you know, there’s a light somewhere that feels like
there’s something that’s taking you out of the frame.
So it’s not like a gloomy… I mean, the title says it
but at the same time there’s a sense of a light
that lives beyond it, as if regardless of the condition,
there is the soul that goes beyond the frame of the painting.
And so in her works, as you know,
you never quite know if you’re in a realistic space
or you know, or in an open landscape. But there’s always this play with light that pulls the eye
of the viewer to a corner and there’s this sense of escape.
You know, there’s always a diagonal
that’s like pulling you outside of the frame of the painting. And that could be what creates to the viewer
the sense of hope, you know? And momentum. And using the term humanity
And I think, you know,
one of the things that’s so powerful about her work is that obviously it’s coming
very much out of this experience of the Black diaspora.
But when we look at the kind of forced migrations, whether it’s because of climate change
or political unrest,
in parts of the world, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.,
the world is just on the move. And there are no pylons driving down into the rock
you know, it seems.
And so it just with each passing year,
her work becomes more and more profoundly urgent
for us to understand how we move into this 21st
century of ours and, you know, preserve our humanity
and preserve our way of life and safety and shelter and so on.
So, you know, it comes out of a very specific personal history,
but it speaks, I think, really broadly.
And I think also that the sense of hope, I mean, if you think, you know, of the experience,
the lived experience of the enslaved people,
you know, you have to have hope to like,
you know, make it every day, then have children not knowing if they would still be your own,
they would be taken away.
And then still, you know, we think of people like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass this notion of hope, of wanting to escape
and of creating your own imagination,
you know, whether it is through songs, dance
you know, finding kingship in a very brutal atmosphere, you know, and still, I always think the idea of bearing
children still, you know, there’s a sense of hope.
You give birth not knowing what tomorrow is made. And then you risked your life escaping to the north
to freedom because you believe there’s something else for you
no matter what. And so I always have so much respect for all of these people.
And even, you know, I was looking at the…
when you look at the images from people fleeing Afghanistan,
it’s like these people know the urgency of needing to leave, yet
bringing their children
not being, you know, they’re afraid, but they know
that this is part of the humanity, the sense of survival
no matter the fact that you don’t know
what’s in front of you, but you push through.
And I think that’s also those types of emotions
that are very evident in Denyse’s work.
You know, and then, Sarah, I think it was your son
who said when he was looking at Burial at Gorée… Yes.
He said it reminded him of Guernica
It’s just about the same size. Right. The main panel of it.
And that sense of like everything’s upside down
and everything’s moving. And it’s black and white,
but it still manages to have all this incredible expressive force
and the graphic component in Picasso, in that work
to create this kind of nightmare world
that is also so visually compelling.
You can’t sort of tear
your eyes away… Representative of a great human injustice.
I thought I was really impressed. I was like, wow, okay. I started taking notes.
I thought that was such a… like even though we’re referencing Picasso but I think the way your son put it,
it’s like Denyse does this painting by the title,
it speaks of enslaved people and the tens of millions
that were, you know, had the same experience, yet
they’re not present. And yet it’s a testament to those 400 years, to those,
you know, those years.
And to me, when he… when you told me that, I’m like, wow, like
this is another reading that just brings it all back together.
You know, this painting in itself
feels like the testament to this trauma, right?
And in a subtle way,
without taking advantage of the bodies,
but yet expressing everything in it, you know? Yes. And it sounds like brilliant kid you have.
He’s looked at a lot of art in his life. Well, and let’s hope that her work
and maybe that piece in particular
gets brought into the scholarship and the conversations enough
that it gets the mileage that Guernica has had
and the impact, you know, like get it
into that… into that conversation, into that dialog.
Thank you all for taking the time
to listen in on this insightful conversation. And much thanks to Gaëtane, Sarah and Esi
for expanding the conversation around this exhibition. And the life and work of Denyse Thomasos.
Work In Progress is generously supported
by the Canada Council for the Arts Digital Now Grant.
For those who want to learn more
about Denyse Thomasos: Odyssey, visit aggv.ca
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