Critics’ Picks

  • Kara Hamilton, Slippery Progress, Low Tide, 2018, brass elevator panel, silver-plated tuba, aluminum duct, concrete, LED, 30 1/2 x 32 × 55".

    Kara Hamilton

    Art Gallery of Ontario
    317 Dundas Street West
    December 15–June 23

    Kara Hamilton’s “Water in Two Colours” consists of three biomorphic sculptures, a delicate human-size crown, and a takeaway text by writer Raimundas Malašauskas, each of which explores what the artist calls “jewellery for architecture.” Hamilton draws on her training in both architecture and design to pose questions about value and its representation; her works are made of brass, aluminum, silver, gold, fool’s gold, diamonds, pearl, and concrete. The large-scale pieces are fleshly: Two brass elevator doors are reconfigured into forms reminiscent of cetacean tongues in states of repose (Purple Dialect Surge and Mother Tongue [Whale], both 2018). Their bent and crinkled metal shows signs of having been heated and reworked by human hands using traditional silversmithing techniques. Across the gallery, in Slippery Progress, Low Tide, 2018, a silver-plated tuba bell emits a milky LED glow. Another sculpture pivots toward the idea of cultural value—the room’s diffuse illumination can be traced to a glass case that contains Crown for Ina after Beyoncé, 2008, a headpiece featuring gold chains, name plates, and phrases like “I want I want I want,” “I love Jesus,” and “I love beer.”

    Together, Hamilton’s works frame value as a conspicuous yet ineluctable property. Lustrous metals surely cannot be so precious when they are large and mottled; nevertheless, these works retain a sibylline mystery, containing light, implying sound, and evoking baroque-cum-pop nobility. The artist’s unconventional sourcing methods—of working with pre-smelter gold-picking assembly lines and acquiring brass instruments discarded by Ontario school boards—only enhance the enigmatic qualities of the resulting objects. In creating “jewellery for architecture,” then, Hamilton shows us an ornamentation for the spirits.

  • View of “Basma Alsharif,” 2019.

    Basma Alsharif

    Museum of Contemporary Art
    February 14–April 14

    Basma Alsharif’s exhibition in Toronto presents four installations with film and video that weave shades of imperialism into repetitive, quotidian activities. In Girls Only, 2014, a woman seated in an empty stadium performs a rhyming exercise. Her image is montaged with interludes of heroic, cinematic music, to the tune of celebratory nationalism. These themes extend to Trompe l’oeil, 2016, which is set up as a living room, complete with a carpet, divan, sofa chair, and flat-screen television that shows people performing everyday activities. Within the installation are two large-scale prints of actual living rooms, one of which includes three reproduced photographs of Arab slaves from the collection of T. E. Lawrence (of the 1916 Arab Revolt and the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia) tacked over the divan. This visual interruption in the domestic scene conveys how cyclical, violent histories are preserved in social memory, especially among the oppressed.

    In The Story of Milk and Honey, 2011, the protagonist describes his desire to write a fictional love story set in the Middle East but “devoid of political context.” Toward this end, he compiles Arab love songs and reads an article about Italian cinema. The other photographs and texts in the exhibition can then be viewed as the results of his unwritten story. A Philistine, 2018, is a novella in five movements; twenty-five reading copies are available in the gallery alongside ten related prints. Presented in both English and a Palestinian dialect, the work shares the radical qualities of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s novel A Dream of Something (1962), which, like many of his texts, he wrote in Friulian to preserve the dialect during Mussolini’s Italy. Beginning with a failed romance between a furniture store clerk and an ineffective political agitator with literary aspirations in Cairo, Alsharif’s story keeps the political context intact.

  • Nep Sidhu, Medicine for A Nightmare, 2019, cotton, wool, jute, zari, hair, steel, 18 1/3 x 9'.

    Nep Sidhu

    Mercer Union
    1286 Bloor Street West
    February 9–March 23

    In “Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded),” Nep Sidhu's dazzling and gutsy show at Toronto’s Mercer Union, the artist (who identifies as Sikh) stares into the epistemological void created by Operation Blue Star. This 1984 military attack against India’s minority Sikh population was purportedly aimed at punishing a separatist Sikh leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had occupied the Golden Temple, the religion’s most important holy site. The campaign and the subsequent waves of violence resulted in a death toll of at least five hundred (according to official Indian estimates)—or, more likely, thousands (according to independent sources).

    Reckoning with Operation Blue Star's atrocities of erasure, including secret cremations and the destruction of a Sikh reference library, Sidhu offers new monuments, making use of materials (soil, jute, hair, cotton, zari), techniques (metallurgy, weaving, and embroidery), and a Sikh script that all predate the foundation of the current Indian nation-state, thereby speaking to a longer history of India. Such an effort is, as the title suggests, medicinal, particularly so for Sikhs, who comprise less than two percent of India’s population; their narratives have been undercut by the state. 

    The titular tapestry (Medicine for a Nightmare, 2019), which measures more than eighteen by nine feet, is, like the show itself, epic, mournful, and exuberant. An explosive golden print frames part of a Sikh temple while a garland of jute and human hair hangs from the tapestry's base, footnoting the divine significance of hair in the religion and indexing forcible hair removal, a tactic used to harass and torture adherents. Another work, Formed in the Divine, Divine of Form, 2019, takes the task of exhuming history quite literally: A 2,800-pound Brutalist concrete sculpture is sprinkled with mud sourced near the Golden Temple, where Sikhs were massacred during Operation Blue Star; many had attempted escape by jumping into the waters surrounding the structure.