Sometimes trying to navigate through an exhibition alone can be an impenetrable task –so many ideas and symbols to absorb. This is the overbearing feeling of walking through Ydessa Hendeles’ The Milliner’s Daughter at the Power Plant. Hendeles blends artistry and curation - she creates an immersive space for contemplation to the notions of perception, representation, appropriation and the idea of the “Other”. She does so through exploring and re-appropriating her own personal narrative through found objects. This exhibition is so dense in symbolism and metaphors that we thought it would be worth noting a few key ideas running throughout.
Central to the show and spanning throughout all 4 galleries is the notion of the “Other” and their exploitation. The “Other” developed during the nineteenth century through colonization and imperialistic tendencies. It attributed that certain cultures were inferior due to their mythic or ritualistic practices that didn’t allow for change and progress. This, therefore created a hierarchy of cultures and allowed the ruling people to dictate, rule over and exploit. The notion of the “Other” can be relayed to many cultures and is prevalent throughout our history - take your pick!
Hendeles’ family being of Jewish-German descent migrated to Canada following the World War II and the annexation of Jews in Germany. This personal narrative is woven throughout all the galleries and through the viewer’s gaze, they should be able to connect the dots (allowing the see Hendeles personal narrative and make connections with their own histories).
From Her Wooden Sleep is a darkly lit room, sombre in feeling. Eerie music plays quietly in the background as we walk through a vast number of wooden mannequins sitting in rows while distorted mirrors and banjos hang along the walls. Vitrines interrupt the space and hold mannequins trapped in awkward poses, uncomfortable scenarios and objects (vitrines with Dutch fables, insect models, creepy dolls etc. etc.). With all this in play, it creates a dialogue between viewer and artwork.
The music playing “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” is a composition created between 1906 – 1908 by French composer Claude Debussy. This music was influenced by America’s black culture music movement “ragtime”. The banjos lined against the wall may refer to black cultures re-appropriation and gaining popularity within white culture (banjos were once a prominent musical instrument during the time of slavery but later attributed to what is now representational of a country buck from the south). It also creates a derogatory tone since the music also refers to the book “Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog” in one of the vitrines.
The book follows the adventures of two dolls and their friend a black boy rag doll (the Golliwog). This story alienates the Golliwog through the colour of his skin. Initially, the Golliwog is met with apprehension and ridicule. With time, he is accepted and embraced. However, the history of the book situated in society is not as redeeming. In 1934, it was banned in Germany for it’s “content” and later would be used for ridicule and to promote blackface. Again, the theme of inferiority and distortion of people and cultures takes prevalence with all these found objects placed together. The distorted mirrors running through the sides of the walls act as a symbol of self-awareness, self-knowledge, self depiction and how these realities can be distorted and misunderstood.
Another prevalent theme running throughout the galleries is the idea of the power struggle. This is embodied perfectly in the gallery titled Blue Beard. Blue Beard is a French fable about a mystical ogre (with a bluebeard obviously) that marries a young girl. Upon marrying her, he gives her six keys. He forbids the young girl to use the smallest key and warns her to never open the door. Naturally, out of sheer curiosity, the girl opens the door to find a horrific sight of his previous wives hanging against the wall. Blue Beard finds out and in rage says he will kill her as did the others. Fortunately for the girl, her two brothers come to the rescue and kill the ogre. The young girl, who once was in a sense a prisoner, is now freed from her keeper, gets all his money and retains the struggle of power.
Entering the gallery, the viewer comes into a small, narrow, intimate room with two vitrines holding a male and female mannequin standing back to back of one another. To the side lay the keys hanging reminding us of the fable. The female mannequin (first mannequin we are confronted with) holds an amputated head in her hand. This might embody the young girls defiant nature and her willingness to confront destroy the ogre. The male stands defiantly, yet looks less powerful. The viewer walks between the mannequins, interrupts the space and is a passive viewer to the “stand-off” we see.
I take this as the representation of the “Other” taking back their identity. It’s a powerful statement that has a redeeming quality. A woman, historically, has been attributed as inferior. Male dominance and patriarchy has dominated throughout the centuries. Here, the young girl (or the embodiment of the “Other”) takes on her keeper defiantly to keep her freedom and thus changes her representation as a timid girl whose fate is destined by her husband.
As a viewer walking throughout the space we become an integral part of the exhibition. This I believe is two-fold. Henedeles makes us aware of our passive state - unable to change what is put in front of us. Thus reiterating passivity for change for the injustices we have had or still have because we cannot physically take part with these objects. Henedeles does this, but also draws upon the viewers’ own personal history in order to come to his/her own conclusions and making the exhibition speak to someone on a more personal level.
There is so much to explore in this exhibition. We have only touched on two key aspects. The show runs until September 4th, so be sure to mosey down to the waterfront have a look and you’ll probably need a drink afterwards ;)