Imagine that one day your best friend gives you a mysterious package and makes you promise not to open it until she has passed. You open it decades later, and unbeknownst to you, there’s been a world-class photography exhibition lying in your basement all along. These are the kinds of stories that arise from the Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The story above describes Margaret Watkins, a prolific Hamilton-born photographer. Watkins was expected to get promoted at the photography studio she worked at, but her less experienced male student got the promotion instead. Having elderly aunts in Scotland, Watkins gave up art for care-taking after consistent disappointments from the art world. It was only when her friend Joe Mulholland opened the package Watkins gave him before she passed that he found his friend’s museum-worthy collection of photography.
Heart-wrenchingly, the theme of unseen artistic genius is a common one among the artists showcased in Uninvited.
Kathleen Munn, an artist from Toronto who experimented with post-impressionism, cubism and dynamic symmetry, was also vastly underrated during her lifetime. While alive, Munn only sold two of her works, and art critics largely believed that the public couldn’t understand art that was so ahead of its time. It was only after she passed that Munn’s work would gain national attention.
One of Munn’s most famous collections of work, the Passion series, is a completely modern take on traditional religious imagery. From the Last Supper to the Descent from the Cross, Munn’s graphite sketches are bold and embodied heavenly, glowing human figures using sharp lines and cubes. So, what prompted Munn’s departure from art? A combination of incredibly low artwork sales, deteriorating health and familial caretaking duties.
Crucially, the exhibit also highlights Indigenous women artists from Canada, who have historically not been included in national collections of this scale.
From Nunavut, Attasiaq’s Tuilik (Woman’s Parka) Panel stands out for its intricate beadwork pattern and richly pigmented beads. The panel was so gorgeously crafted that the settler artist Winifred Petchy Marsh added it to her personal art collection after getting permission to purchase the item.
An appreciator of Inuit life and culture, Marsh often made 2D recreations of scenes and culturally significant items from the Padlirmiut Inuit community. Especially in terms of Indigenous women artists, the rarity of being able to name the artist who constructs these artworks lends Attasiaq’s panel extra importance. This is made clear towards the end of the exhibit, where a vast stretch of patterned cedar baskets made by the Coast Salish peoples in British Columbia are on display. The hand-woven baskets bear no specific names, just general accreditation to the Coast Salish.
Upon visiting the Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment exhibit, one can only wonder what other remarkable works of art are hidden away. In focusing on women and Indigenous women artists in 1920s-1940s Canada, Uninvited touches on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Gender Equality and Reduced Inequalities. Decades after their passing, these women artists in Canada are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Proving women’s long-held mastery of their medium and sharing Indigenous art and culture that has long been stifled in Canada takes one step towards reducing the discrimination that both groups have faced in the art world. The exhibit also gives underrepresented artists in Canada the opportunity to look up to artists who they can identify with.
Most importantly, Uninvited showcases the integral role these women played in Canada’s art scene then, and now.
Cover image: Uninvited pamphlet and banner at the Vancouver Art Gallery by Nona Jalali. Image courtesy of the author.