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Wednesday, November 30, 2022
RiverBrink’s ‘Power’ exhibit explores Niagara’s history

Debra Antoncic
Special to The Lake Report

As we slowly emerge from the various stages of lockdown and the attendant levels of anxiety, amid a sense of time suspended, many in the arts community are reflecting on the future.

Questions such as how we can re-engage with audiences and reinvigorate the connection to visual art, how we can emerge stronger, are uppermost in our minds.

One of the more pressing challenges is balance: how to balance the need for joy and pleasure that viewing and experiencing works of art can bring against a climate of social reckoning and a desire for critical engagement and deep learning.

In the exhibition “Power,” on view now at the RiverBrink Art Museum until Oct. 23, artist Elizabeth Chitty successfully achieves this balance. The work reminds us of the beauty and riches of the natural world while challenging us to reflect on the history that has brought us here.

Visitors to the exhibition will encounter a three-channel video and four-channel audio installation in a gallery space overlooking the Niagara River. Given the location, RiverBrink is an optimal site, providing views across to Lewiston, N.Y., beyond the invisible barrier separating Canada from the United States.

The national border drawn down the river, an imperceptible line on the water, carries profound implications into the present. The separation of Indigenous communities, and the division of water, power and industrial activity, flow outward from this artificial barrier.

Within the exhibition, the artist has included video footage of three women walking separately along a different section on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. The women each live in Niagara and have ancestors who came here, or close to here (in the case of the Six Nations Grand River Territory), following the creation of the invisible barrier – Kanyen’keha:ka, United Empire Loyalist and Freedom Seeker.

The women share their histories, of family and memory, of connection to the river, of how they came to be living in Niagara. They remind us of the shared and multilayered history of this region, one with its own history of slavery and conflict over land and resources.

Each extends a hand – a gesture of greeting, but also a reference to the promises and responsibilities, of gifts and mutual aid, pledged by the alliance known as the Covenant Chain.

Images of hydro-electric power generation and river remediation alternate with the footage of the women. The sounds of the river, the sounds of spoken excerpts from historical documents and the sounds of the women’s voices compel the viewer to pause and listen, to heed the words from the past as they resonate in the present.

The video component of the work brings the viewer in direct contact with the water, not only at the edges of the river, but physically out into the shallows. In her practice, the artist has had a long engagement with water, specifically water infrastructure and governance.

“Power” is the most recent iteration of this engagement, the culmination of a body of performance, photography and media installation works about local water.

As suggested by this list, Chitty’s practice is interdisciplinary, but her primary medium involves movement. And so visitors to the exhibition are propelled by movement, pulled along by the camera, passing barriers and swift-flowing water and verdant wetlands to emerge downstream at the mouth of the strait.

Within the exhibition, sound pulls the viewer from speaker to speaker, prompting the movement of bodies in order to attend to the details of the historical texts, birdsong and personal reflections. It is by way of this movement that the artist performs a gentle activism on the viewer.

A critical starting point for the exhibition is the Niagara Treaty, negotiated at Fort Niagara and the Indian Council House at the mouth of the Niagara River in 1764.

This treaty, together with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, established a familial and shared relationship among sovereign nations and is increasingly important today as Canada faces the necessity of nation-to-nation negotiation.

RiverBrink’s proximity to the fort is a poignant reminder of this history. More than two centuries later, the artist challenges us to examine our individual histories and to seek a way forward.

Debra Antoncic is director and curator of RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston.