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Jamelie Hassan

Boomerang Effect

Fuse Magazine, June 2001
[ 908 words ]


On May 15 the Toronto Star published 'Kudos for Phillips on Ipperwash' by Alison Blackduck. A reporter for Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Blackduck writes of her brief telephone interview with Gerry Phillips, the Liberal MPP for Scarborough-Agincourt, who has persistently demanded that Ontario's Premier Mike Harris call a public inquiry into the suspicious death of Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995. She writes that her interview with Phillips 'renewed her faith in politicians' and that 'it gave her hope that Dudley George will receive the justice and dignity that, ideally, should be everybody's due'.

The next day, The Globe & Mail published under the headline 'Nothing's sacred in the peyote tent' Sarah Milroy's review of visual artist Jane Ash Poitras and her exhibition 'The Shaman Experience' in Toronto (Globe Review, May 16, 2001). The review is more revealing of the writer than of the artist's exhibition for in no way does Milroy's writing substantially contribute to an analysis of this artist's work. A capable writer, formerly at The National Post, Milroy is dragging the excess baggage of the neo-conservative Alliance Party's mouthpiece into the pages of The Globe and Mail, pushing those 'white bread' attitudes which Alec St. Marc recently examined in his Short Fuse — 'Going Postal', Fuse, Vol. 23, #4. Alec St. Marc concludes his media critique of The National Post with this statement: 'It makes you realize how far away we are from having genuine diversity represented in mainstream print media.' This surely sums up the tenor of Milroy's review despite her recent move to The Globe and Mail.

Based on this review, Milroy can certainly continue The National Post's agenda and at the same time step into the boots of her predecessors at The Globe and Mail's cultural desk. Determined as she is, she may well outdo them — one of whom has made the toady-leap to Washington.

Let it be stated that Milroy's writing on Poitras can certainly sit among the best of those who cultivate a sometimes-invasive curiosity in the lives of artists. She describes her visit with the Edmonton-based Cree artist during the opening of a successful exhibition in one of Toronto's uptown commercial galleries, narrating in rapid succession the details of the artist's difficult early life with a breezy and dismissive style only to deliver her report card, (earlier she had stated that 'art critics are not in the business of handing out report cards for personal demeanour.') Only to later on make this pronouncement: 'All the ingredients of her experience are there, but it somehow doesn't feel like art.'

She finds that Jane Ash Poitras is a receptive interview subject who will accommodate the media interest in her work. Milroy describes this media interest as 'feverish'.

Let me give an example of their published exchange:

Sarah Milroy: 'I tell her I will be writing a review of the show and, at my request, she offers her cell number.'

Jane Ash Poitras: 'I always have it on even when I am in the peyote tent.'

Milroy: 'It's hard to describe just what it is that jars about this kind of statement which Poitras makes constantly.'

Why does this justify her making the artist an easy target? The photo caption for the 2" x 2" colour image of Portrait #9 accompanying the front page of the Globe Review sums up Jane Ash Poitras's commitments as 'boil-in-the bag politics'. The larger black & white is located on the inside pages with the caption: 'the show's centrepiece, entitled Prayer Ties My People: a simplistic inventory of suffering, redemption and displacement.'

Using the voice of the knowledgeable and caring art critic who respects and understands the work of other First Nations artists, Milroy assigns herself as protector of values: 'I feel offended for her community, who rightly hold these things dear.' Milroy is brazen (again I borrow from the writer's vocabulary — 'evident wit and brazen sense of colour' — in passing off Poitras's work with statements such as: 'If these paintings were made by a white artist, they would be derided as pandering both to stereotypes about noble savages and clichés about artists as spiritual seers.' Milroy's vehement barrage, let us not be mistaken, delivers a direct attack on the artist's identity and the historical trajectory in her work. Her language is riddled with the ugly, stereotypical verbiage that has often been used in the past to characterize First Nations peoples. The use of adjectives like 'lazy, garish and clichéd' positioned in the by line under the headline, to describe the artist's efforts boomerang against Milroy, exposing her Euro-Canadian values and her rigid ideas of what constitutes First Nations art. When will the outdated idea of the critic, cloaked in the claims of her 'sincerity', dispensing, through the power of mainstream media, the stamp and measure of 'authenticity' be finally put to rest?

Hey, you enlightened journalists and art writers — we are counting on you to cut through the prejudices of reviewers like Sarah Milroy and put the political questions that threaten Mike Harris back into the discussion of the cultural work of artists in Canada who are giving voice to their immediate, political histories — artists like Jane Ash Poitras — who deserve better than this.

Dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Rans, friend and supporter of the arts who died on June 6, 2001.

Fuse Magazine, June 2001

Text: © Jamelie Hassan. All rights reserved.

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