I had a chance in February to see “Beyond the Ordinary,” an exhibit of photos and watercolour paintings at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Ottawa, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The subjects were all familiar and simple—basically leaves or blossoms—yet each image was alive with vivid colour and sensuous lines. I left feeling buoyant and refreshed, ready to take in the world with wonder again. That’s what art is about, I think: adjusting our perspective, regaining our appetite, reconnecting with the creative forces in ourselves, our communities, our fragile planet.
The artist is a friend of mine. Chinh Nguyen landed in my life almost four decades ago when we were both still teenagers. She arrived in our little prairie town with her father and three brothers; her mother and sisters arrived many months later. I don’t know a lot about her escape from Vietnam. In the early days, we had no shared language for that conversation. In our current lives, we have too little time to unpack memories that are so freighted with pain and fear. I’m curious, though, and as my own life experiences pile up, my admiration for her grace grows and grows.
From the beginning we saw Chinh’s determination to take root here, to learn things and connect with people. She did it, too. She studied hard to finish high school in new language, then she got a university education (Gold Medal in Fine Arts) and buckled down to decades in a dependable job. An unceremonious downsizing a couple of years back threw open the door to a renewed commitment to her art and now here she is, in her mid-fifties, with her first exhibit, a solo show of arresting beauty and finesse. Beyond the ordinary indeed. (Curious? Facebook: Chinh Nguyen Art Studio.)
A month before Chinh’s show, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York with my teenage daughter, herself an accomplished artist. We were in an exhibit curated around the idea of migration, and both of us were transfixed by “Woven Chronicle,” a multi-media work by an Indian artist, Reena Saini Kallat. A huge world map, made entirely from loosely-knit coloured electrical wire, covered the wall. Crisscrossing the map like flight lines were dozens of strands of colored barbed wire, and the floor in front was littered with balls of barbed wire stabbed with oversized knitting needles. This is a world perpetually under construction.
Kallat’s installation invokes the global movement of contract labourers, asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. She has literally created a wired world, implying the enormous potential for connection—but much of this wire is barbed. What do we protect, and whom do we welcome?
We are living in a time of tremendous change, and tremendous charge too. Everything is cast as a potential threat, and it’s a struggle not to be overwhelmed with fear, exhaustion, anger, sadness. I think here in the middle of the prairies, we have tended to wring our hands with worry (or judgement) because the action is always unfolding somewhere else. But now, as men and women—and even parents with babies—are clambering over snowbanks to set foot in Canada, suddenly we are centre stage.
Are we going to string up barbed wire and exclude these newcomers from our communities? Or can we open ourselves and look with their eyes? Their resourcefulness and insight may very well refresh and renew us all.