A building full of worlds

A day away from crowds and daily chores is a perfect day for me. I recently took a Saturday as my own day, a day for exploring the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Not long ago, I moved to Halifax from India and working hard to build a new life here often leaves little time for exploring my new city’s treasures. So I spent the whole day at AGNS, surrounded by the peace and quiet, enriched by the million happy vibrations left behind by the art lovers who came there before me. What a gift, indeed!
Dating back to 1908, AGNS attracts some 46,000 visitors every year. With its permanent collection of 17,000 exhibits and rare art works, it’s the biggest art gallery in Nova Scotia. I was amazed at the various ways the art gallery captured the nuances of Canadian life through the portrayal of the artists’ intense feelings and the variety of art forms.
The major attraction on the ground floor of the south wing is the collection of paintings by Maud Lewis and her restored home. The acclaimed folk artist took everyday scenes of rural Nova Scotian life and created masterpieces. She’s the best-known draw, but there are lots of other treasures in the art gallery that are worth spending time with.
I found the two paintings of Hangama Amiri in the hallway very interesting. “View in Gaff Point” explores her immediate surroundings and the sublime Canadian landscape. “The Shore Wind” captures the unrelenting fury of nature. I felt as if I could actually see the trees swaying in the wind!
The exhibition on the second level celebrating Autism Arts touched me deeply because I have worked with children with autism. Autism Arts reflects the philosophy that we must accept all people. The exhibits fascinated me. The paintings show a different way of perceiving nature, people, animals, and everyday objects. A whole different private and personal world is revealed in those simple yet multi-layered pictures.
The 2nd level also has Earnest and Alma Lorenzen’s delightful mushrooms in glazed clay. They show the essence of folk/funk art. Some folk/funk artists are professionals and they purposely create clay objects with premeditated imperfections, like the funk artist David Gillhooly’s “Victoria, Bathing with the Beavers,” which is carefully crafted. I spent quite some time admiring how cleverly Gilhooly achieved what he wanted.
In the north wing, the lower level had the Here We Are Here exhibition, showcasing Black Canadian contemporary art. It is an installation of sound, images, and objects exploring interlaced themes of history and experience. I could feel the frustrations and heartaches. Charmaine Lurch’s “Being, Belonging, the Grace” challenges stereotypes of Black women with beauty and grace. It was a pleasure to listen to the figures speak to me.
“Miss Chief’s Wet Dream” by the acclaimed Cree artist Kent Monkman is a large, imposing painting that attracts many viewers. The raft represents the European power and religion. The canoe, filled with powerful people representing First Nations, encounters this raft, while Miss Chief lies dreaming. I stood there for a long time totally absorbed, admiring the artist’s gift of storytelling.
I was happy that the exhibition Shifting Ground gives importance to contemporary Indigenous art across Canada. Jim Logan’s “Appetite,” Bill Reid’s “Raven Banner,” and “Clear Cut to the Last Tree” by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, all have strong resonant messages.
Inuit art often shows traditional activities of Northern communities such as hunting, fishing, and spiritual gatherings. But Annie Pootoogook is a chronicler of her times and paints scenes of contemporary daily life. “Man Talking on CB Radio,” “Living Room,” “Three Men Carving a Seal”—all are paintings of Inuit in their modern settings, and give insight into how technology has changed life in the North. She includes a clock wherever she can, showing the passing of time and to emphasize the changes it brings.
Finishing my day and sitting on the bus home, I thought about what attracts people to art galleries. Is it our inherent nature that makes us seek beauty, freedom, and happiness? Pablo Picasso, the Spanish-born exponent of modern art, said “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Are we seeking to wash away the unpleasantness of life and find truth and reality through the eyes of the artists? Does art transport us to a different world where we meet our true selves?

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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