Tla-o-qui-aht artist Hjalmer Wenstob is celebrating his first solo show in Victoria.
The Victoria Arts Council recently opened up a new gallery space in the province’s capital and selected Wenstob as the first artist to showcase.
Wenstob told the Westerly News that the council reached out to him in December to see if he could put a show together to start off the New Year.
“With the quick turnaround, they knew that we could work fast and that we could set a high standard for the new showing space,” he said.
The show opened on Jan. 11 and will run until Feb. 16.
“Through humour and irony, Hjalmer tackles immediate social and environmental issues, combined with his cutting-edge contemporary artistic expressions,” the Victoria Arts Council said through a media release. “For Ground; Background hosts works of question, concern and education, in regards to environment, urban relationships to the land, and treaties.”
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Wenstob said the work he’s included is “mostly installations that are political and contemporary in nature,” and he worked with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations to create a visual representation of what Victoria is believed to have been traded for.
“The Victoria area was ‘acquired’ for the cost of 371 blankets and one wool cap,” he said. “The work was just to put a visual to understand what the acquisition of Victoria and how it came about through a small trade of blankets and one wool cap, which I think is a satirical kind of humour that falls in there, just based on that one wool cap that is on top, you wonder who that went to.”
He said his key goal with the show is to educate, generate interest and raise questions.
“When we look at gallery spaces and especially contemporary art gallery spaces, we have a certain demographic who is able to come through the space. We have usually middle class or high class people who come through these spaces…A lot of my work is meant to put questions and a little bit of knowledge in people’s minds or a thought for someone to go do the research themselves,” he said.
“One of the pieces in there is a totem pole made out of stacked oil barrels that have been carved through and that piece spoke really clear and concise to viewers during the opening because we were just a day or two outside of the Unist’ot’en and Wet’suwet’en camp raids, so people had that in their mind right away and the work kind of fell on people who were really aware at the time, which was really wonderful to hear.”
Wenstob added that his favourite art form is carving, but he has found installation pieces to be more effective at promoting discourse and pushing conversation.
“As much as I say I hate being a politician, I think that comes into my role in contemporary art right now. I think, first off, you become a historian and then you become an educator and you become someone with empathy who has the time to give that empathy to those who need to see a little bit more,” he said. “You take on this whole new role, an art historian, a historian, a politician, as much as I cringe at the word. But, at the end, you can hide behind the word ‘artist’…I find that my role is just to maybe disrupt everyone’s comfort a little bit but without being in opposition of anyone or trying to be in any way belligerent. It’s just to merely open people’s eyes a little bit.”
Wenstob has had shows in Victoria before, including an eye-catching installation of four long houses to recreate an Esquimalt First Nation village site on the lawn of the Victoria Legislature.
“It was to make a space where people had to think about what was there before. It wasn’t in opposition of anything it was just to make people know what was there before and have that opportunity to engage with it one on one, as an audience member or viewer of art,” he said.
“I’m not one who likes to stand with a picket sign on the grass of the Legislature or Parliament. I’m not one who enjoys the large crowd of frustration, though maybe I feel the same frustration. I find my role more is to engage the audience in a different way and art was just a gift I was lucky to be given.”