The Scotia Bank Contact festival is Canada’s largest photography festival, with over 1500 participating artists and 200 exhibitions taking place through the month of May. It sprawls throughout the entirety of the Greater Toronto Area. This year, the festival focuses on Canada and recognizes the 150th anniversary of the confederation; explores both documentary style pieces that capture an ever-changing Canadian landscape and images that challenge our notions of the medium.
Novella had the privilege to speak with renowned artist and 2016 Scotiabank Photography Award winner, Suzy Lake.
Lake is a veteran photographer, video maker and performance artist. Her works deal with body image, ageism, beauty, as well as gender and identity construction. She explores the effects of social convention and power dynamics: “About forty to fifty years ago I started working with issues of identity and realized that, as one is trying to find one’s voice, one becomes aware of what the resistance is and so that continued as my visual journey until now.” Although her work is highly politicicized, Lake isn’t interested in preaching, “the thing is, I create work where I’m asking a question and raising discussion. It’s not agitprop. I’m not trying to convert someone.”
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1947, Lake grew up in a politically tumultuous era where racial tensions ran high. She became politically active in her young adulthood. She studied painting at Wayne State University, but felt the medium did not help her reconcile what was happening around her. She began experimenting with photography and performance art on her own accord. Witnessing the Detroit Race Riots first hand, she and her husband were forced to leave her hometown, and ended up in Montreal, Quebec.
Lake quickly realized that Canada, too, was fertile ground for the exploration of identity and power dynamics. For example, when she moved to Quebec, she discovered that she was technically her husband’s property under the Quebec Civil Code. The FLQ, a political party who violently advocated Quebec’s separation from Canada, was also active in Montreal at the time of Lake’s arrival. She sought progression through her artwork. Lake cofounded a forward-thinking, artist-run space in Montreal called Véhicule Art Inc, in 1972. Many consider it to have been at the helm of contemporary art.
Lake’s interest in the dynamics of power flourished. As she described it, there were: “Identity issues that were being addressed and they were politicized and there was resistance to them and I was very interested in that because it was very much similar to the civil rights work that I was doing in Detroit. So really, power dynamics are power dynamics. The story might be different, but the dynamic is the same.”
Lake moved to Toronto in the late 1970s. She began to create work concerning both identity and landscapes, these were a testament to how she felt about deeply Canadian issues. Her installations, “Desire and the Landscape” and “Authority is an Attribute, Part I and Part II” explored Canada’s convoluted relationship with landownership. In “Desire and and Landscape” she juxtaposed the pride of a community in a rural, industrial paper mill town in northern Ontario, with the fallacious expectations of cosmopolitan tourists.
“Everyone really identifies with their surroundings if they have been in a place for a long period of time. Living in Montreal for ten years — that was a length of time where I learned about its history the nuances of personality so and so forth. We have a pride in that comfort of where we are and what it looks like. It becomes part of who we are,” she said. “If you’re a tourist, you kind of idealize what that is and it’s not necessarily on the same terms as the caretakers of that land.” For the piece, Lake created wall drawings with colored graphite pencil and intermittently hung photographs of tourists.
Canada’s historical power dynamics, clearly fraught with injustice, were incorporated into her work, she explained, “The Temagami land claim was living on a tremendous amount of Ontario, they’re hunters and at the same time desire of all the cottagers of the Temagami area had desire over the beautiful vacationing landscape and the soft wood lumber industry Goulard assumed desire and ownership over the pine forest and hydro and so you know there is a different kind of investment by others than those who are really the caretakers of the land.”
Her piece “Authority is an Attribute Part I and II” further explored the relationships between First Nations people, the provincial government, and the logging and tourist industries. In Part I, we met the figures of desire and issues of appropriation, each colonial figure had a set of binoculars because their gaze holds the power of decision-making. For Part II, the Teme-Augama Anishnabai Band Council asked Lake if she could create an exhibition on Bay Street that non-Indigenous people in Toronto could see. The Council wanted the exhibition on Bay Street (Toronto’s equivalent of the infamous Wall Street in New York), “because that’s where important decisions are made.” Lake said, “They wanted their side of the story told so every decision, every visualization that I did, I would go up to Teme-Augama and present it to and have it approved by Band Council so it really was a collaboration, but I visualized it.” The photos consist of triptychs of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai Band members smiling on their rightful land and home. She also included photos of the previously identified authority figures with binoculars from Part I as well as in cut out installations to really accentuate their taking of space. There is also a small series of silver gelatin prints entitled “Game Players” of businessmen in suits playing chess on the Augama Anishnabai land. The businessmen also represent aspects of neo-colonialism.
Whether Lake is dealing with beauty ideas, ageism, or other societal constructions, her work sparks conversation. Her work is a visual manifestation of how we may feel about social injustice.
CONTACT is celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday—yet many see little reason to celebrate our colonial foundations and the ongoing disempowerment of indigenous groups. Lake’s Attribute I and II function as an important reminder of the many injustices that Canada has perpetrated over those 150 years.
You can see Suzy Lake’s exhibition is on from April 29-August 13 at the Ryerson Image Centre.