Amalie Atkins, Requiem for Wind and Water, 2018, 16 mm, color, 25 minutes.

Amalie Atkins, Requiem for Wind and Water, 2018, 16 mm, color, 25 minutes.

Amalie Atkins

By the turn of the twentieth century, the single largest migration to Canada had been that of a sect of radical pacifists from Russia. With origins in the seventeenth century, Doukhobors and Mennonites dissented from the Orthodox Church as well as the czar, staging nonviolent uprisings and opting for communal living. Persecution in their homeland would lead them to migrate to the Canadian prairies, where massive tracts of land had just been parceled out by the predominantly Anglo-Saxon government through a series of treaties with Indigenous nations (whose written and oral agreements remain contested). The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 prioritized settlement by Northern European immigrants, who were seen as hardy farmers who would till the land in the name of Canada. When the Mennonites and Doukhobors arrived, they continued to live and work communally, refusing to comply with the act’s individualistic terms. The groups were forced to disperse and resettle again and again.

Amalie Atkins’s recent show, “The Diamond Eye Assembly,” was based on the culture, sites, and mythologies of the Doukhobors and Mennonites in the prairie region—itself a landscape of unspoken traumas—but unfolded into a larger exploration of why communities flee their homelands and how they persevere. The three interrelated films that made up the exhibition represent the culmination of Atkins’s decade of research on female settlers. Shot mainly around the hamlet of Petrofka, near Blaine Lake, just north of Saskatoon, on Treaty 6 territory, the films do not feature any men. Women do everything—from building shelters to preparing meals—in silent, unsmiling gestures, moving in unison across vast landscapes. Here, the work women do is neither invisible nor forgotten, but appears naturally at the forefront of world making.

The three separate projections were divided by red-felt floor-to-ceiling curtains, so the viewer became immersed in the same hand-sewn fabric that repeatedly appears in the films in costumes and props. In line with the crux of craft, the fabric served both functional and conceptual needs while establishing Atkins’s aesthetic, which borrows from traditional Eastern European dress and decor.

The film cycle begins with the past. The Diamond Eye Assembly, 2019, opens with a soundtrack of traditional Ukrainian folk songs, which plays over a loose narrative about a band of women who traversed the plains on roller skates. The central characters, who move between worlds of folklore and fiction, are two sisters at work in their kitchen. They establish the motif of twinning that ran throughout the exhibition. Part two, Transvection, 2017, depicts a pair of female figures falling from the sky in an endless loop. This transition marks a shift from reality into the dream world of part three, Requiem for Wind and Water, 2019, where the same women play a game of cat and mouse with a witch who eats dirt and hunts the women for their braids. While the landscape appears to be the same as in the opening film, the music shifts into an ethereal soundscape (by the Saskatoon-based musician respectfulchild) that conjures another time and place.

The exhibition as a whole took on a fable structure unlike any conventional narrative or experimental assemblage. Driven by imagined footage tracing generations of Eastern European women as they work, build, and cook together for their community, “The Diamond Eye Assembly” presented an old-world order where women were leaders. Even as they are hunted by the witch, whose silhouette bears a strong resemblance to the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches, Atkins’s characters are resilient, eventually learning to stop fleeing in order to save themselves and their future generations from further persecution.

In foregrounding the experiences of the early settlers who arrived in the rolling hills and fertile lands around the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, Atkins inserts these stories into a national narrative that has not been interested in remembering inconvenient histories. “The Diamond Eye Assembly” is a much-needed reflection on origins as much as on futures.