MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
JANUARY 9 – JANUARY 31, 1998
RECEPTION:FRIDAY, JANUARY 9, 1998 AT 8 PM
ARTIST TALK: SATURDAY, JANUARY 10 AT 2 PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
722, 11 AVE S.W, CALGARY, ALBERTA
During March 1993, the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artist Program commissioned Allan MacKay to document Operation Deliverance and Cordon – humanitarian aid missions carried our by the Canadian forces in Somalia. During his assignment, MacKay stayed in the now notorious military compound Belet Huen where a Somalian youth was tortured and murdered by members of the Canadian Airborne. SOMALIA YELLOW VIGNETTES investigates people’s intense struggle for survival within East Africa’s hot and desolate terrain while commenting on the humanistic and political scandals that have gained much media attention as the Somalia Crisis. Included drawings, prints, and videos demonstrate MacKay’s painterly aesthetic while providing a unique glimpse of everyday life mixed with war. However subtle, the soldier’s presence continuously penetrate the vignettes, but life remains pervasive.
The exhibition SOMALIA YELLOW VIGNETTES, will coincide with a related, collaborative performance event that is currently being planned by Allen MacKay and Denise Clark for the One Yellow Rabbit Theatre’s annual High Performance Rodeo event, January 7th – 10th, 1998.
ALLAN HARDING MACKAY graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art in Fine Arts and Art Education (1967). His thirty-year career features an extensive record of national and international solo and group exhibitions. In addition, the artist has worked as a Director/Curator in a number of Canadian galleries. He is presently a resident of Banff where he maintains a studio practice.
Somalia is a small country located in the Horn of Africa. It is the only country on that continent with a single language spoken by a single people. These factors contribute to the Somali’s unique sense of identity. Although there is an absence of ethnic warfare, ironically and unfortunately, clan rivalries result in civil unrest and war. Compounding this problem is the fact that the country is one of the world’s poorest and due to recurring droughts, mass starvation is no stranger.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the colonizing countries of England, Portugal, France and Ethiopia successfully imposed their colonial designs on Somalia. It was not until July 1, 1960 that Somalia gained sovereignty and independence from colonial rule. When extreme drought twinned with civil war in the early nineties, the United Nations “Operation Restoration Hope” went into effect with the landing of United States troops on Somali soil on December 9, 1992. The landing force was greeted on the beach by the surrealist sight of hundreds of western reporters, flash bulbs flashing and sun guns glaring for their TV cameras.
The last town to be secured by 200 US soldiers of the 87th Infantry and 40 Canadian Airborne troops was Belet Huen, a town located in the northern part of the country. Four months later who should appear in Belet Huen, and later in full metal jacket and steel helmet in Mogadishu, but the unlikely figure of Allan Harding MacKay. As video footage attests, Allan smiled nervously as he dismounted from an armoured personnel carrier.
When I first viewed Allan MacKay’s video footage taken from the top of that Canadian military armoured personnel carrier as it moved through the hot, dusty, bombed out streets of Belet Huen, Mogadishu and the surrounding area, for some inexplicable reason my mind flashed back to a frigid, crystal clear, snowy Saturday night on Third Avenue in Lethbridge, Canada. Allan was at the wheel of his dilapidated 1967 Dodge Dart. Mary Shannon Will was foolishly unbuckled in the front passenger seat and Jeffrey J. Spalding and I were shivering and semi-comatose in the back seat. Allan was passing around a bottle of lemon gin and as he pulled up to a stop light, he would roll down the window and challenge adjacent local cruising teenagers to drag races. When the light turned yellow, he would rev the motor to its maximum soliciting abusive laughter from the competition. As the light flashed green, Allan would pop the clutch and the four of us were catapulted backward into the moth eaten seats. Somehow the broken down rust bucket rocketed ahead of the astonished kids in their candy coloured Pontiac GTOs.
What does an insanely cold, white February 1979 night in Lethbridge, Alberta have to do with an oppressingly hot yellowed day in March 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia? Allan MacKay’s art over the past 30 years has spanned the media of drawing, collage, bookworks, video, audio, and I would like to think, “performance” pieces done either with no audience whatsoever or, at best, for small groups of friends in private homes, on the street, in bars or wherever MacKay’s fancy strikes him. Recently he kept me and a few others awake until 7:00 a.m. with a particularly extreme shaving cream piece in his room at the Banff Centre where he was a participant in the Media and Visual Art department’s residency, appropriately named “Apocalypso”.
Although MacKay’s involvement with the Canadian Armed Forces war artist program cannot be looked at as a performance piece, perhaps, in retrospect, his role as war artist, his subsequent production of art work, and most recently, his collaboration with the One Yellow Rabbit theatre’s production of “Somalia Yellow” places him figuratively and literally as a player in a political, social, military and journalistic situation. Like the audiences at his performances, Mackay was an “onlooker” in Somalia. Since his return from East Africa, he has been drawn into this particular drama/tragedy not so much as a performer, but rather, as a participant. This participation takes the form of the works produced.
The form conforms to traditional methods of visual esthetics but the context of the work enters an arena of political, moral, and social issues as well as one that raises issues of exotica, dis-location, loss and, as always, self reflection. All of this is compounded by the coincidence that while in Somalia MacKay was to confront the incident involving the attempted suicide by a Canadian soldier as a result of that soldier’s role in the torture and death of a Somali teenager. The death of the teenager and the attempted suicide by the soldier led to the Canadian government’s official “Somalia Inquiry” which in turn led to accusations of cover up—the whole mess being referred to as the “Somalia Affair”.
Since his return from Somalia, MacKay has produced and exhibited work that directly depicts Somali life and the role of the Canadian peacekeepers, (or as MacKay would prefer, “peacemakers”). Complimenting these drawings are collages, prints, photographs and videos. On the surface the work is objective reportage in the tradition of the British photographer Roger Fenton’s pictures of the Crimea War, Matthew Brady’s American Civil War and Richard Haeberle’s Viet Nam. As with these journalists, MacKay’s content solicits viewer reaction and interpretation.
The more traditional drawings reflect an interest that Mackay has ha since his days as a student and gallery director at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. His stay there spanned the time when the school went almost overnight from a nineteenth-century academy format to the most conceptually oriented, (and some would say the best), art school in North America. As a result then, MacKay knows hot to draw and paradoxically also knows and has been affected by the likes of Vito Acconci, Michael Snow, Simone Forti and Dennis Oppenheim. Mackay’s Somali works are, on one level, a result of information gleaned and on another level, information that is then put into a context and left open for the viewer’s participation and/or questions.
When MacKay’s drawings go from traditional perceptual works of Canadian soldiers and Somali people to ones that compare and contrast the two, a clash of cultures is implied but not editorialized. Facts are still presented as the artist sees them but these facts make us realize that different realities still exist in the world of CNN, Bill Gates, Preston Manning and a Somali mother who tends to her child.
The collage works up the ante in that they are no simply observations. MacKay does not align himself with any political camp, but he does pose questions. What about the killing by Canadian soldiers of Shidane Arone the Somali teenager? Was there a military/political cover up after Master Corporal Clayton Matchee’s attempted suicide? These events were something MacKay could not ignore. Hints of an opinion of a cover up might be read into these works but unqualified opinion is absent. In our age of information over-load, sound bites and the resulting confusion, MacKay simply steps back, observes and ultimately responds. These works do not point fingers, moralize or pontificate. Rather, they confront the viewer to reflect on the issues and events. Reality, history and one’s personal experiences are extremely complex, fragmented and layered much like they physically veiled aspects of these collages.
The veiling that MacKay employs with wax an/or tissue paper works as well as his manipulation of the electronic media reveals as well as conceals. These techniques might be interpreted as visual and esthetic devices and they may well be. But at the same time, they reflect reality and perhaps act as shields to protect our eyes and minds from what we may subconsciously want to experience vicariously. MacKay’s impressions come through but judgment and conclusion remains mute.
The video footage and slides that MacKay shot in Somalia we’re initially done to expeditiously amass images to be utilized on his return to Canada. This strategy was in keeping with his earlier methods of working. The constant mobility of the Canadian military necessitated use of a video and 35mm still camera to capture information about the psychical facts of Somalia as well as material related to the military presence there. Besides, MacKay didn’t particularly want to set up an easel in a minefield.
After returning to Canada, MacKay began producing drawings using slides as the sources. The video footage provided an opportunity for a different working method. When first viewing his footage, MacKay immediately realized that the potential existed to use these “moving” images in a more immediate way, that is, to make tapes that were by definition, temporal. Some non-temporal works (ie: the lithographs) resulted from the tapes, but in total, his numerous video vignettes serve as testimony to both a difficult military exercise and at the same time to Mackay’s impressions of Somalia village life and cultural contrast. On a more general note, they affirm the extreme differences between Lethbridge and Mogadishu, between serenity and chaos, between white and yellow.
Charlotte Townsend-Gault commenting on MacKay’s earlier work SOME CRITICAL COUNTENANCES – On Extended Drawing (1986-88), a 545-by-five-foot drawing of portraits of the Canadian art establishment states: “…MacKay’s authority derives from the sociological fact that as a maker of images he is an insider…But he also understands that as a maker of images he wields a power which is much harder to locate…”. (1) In Somalia. MacKay was definitely not an insider. Surrounded by the envelope of military and therefore excluded from much direct contact with Somalis, he is neither a soldier nor an African. As a result, questions of “authenticity” of work, esthetic exploitation or colonial voyeurism might be raised. MacKay makes no claim to expertise in Somali history or culture not any pro or anti feeling as to military necessity. (2) Be it Sudbury or Belet Huen, he cannot but be affected by his surroundings. Perhaps this simplistic observation begs the question of cultural appropriation, but if it does, what are we to do with the work of the Cubists, of Emily Carr’s totem pole paintings, of Leon Golub’s pictures of mercenaries, od Elvis Presley’s use of the Blues, or for that matter, of any writer of Science Fiction who has never actually been in outer space.
Having accepted the offer from the Canadian Department of Defense to record his experiences MacKay has simply made pictures and tape that record that experience. In this day of political correctness, he may be challenged by some in relation to his right to or responsibility for depicting situations outside his own cultural milieu. As previously mentioned the work is documentary in nature, yet it is more than illustration, in that it reflects on the implications of destruction and the destruction’s effect on the environment and the people. Seeming helplessness and despair is contrasted with hope and pandemonium with the solace of everyday life. The Somali child being bathed in calf’s blood at the local abattoir suggests cleansing and hope against a backdrop of sadness. A symbol of healing and hope is reflected against a sense of intense heat, desperation, dust, danger, violence and the general insanity of a war coupled with drought in a world that can ill afford conflict and should not tolerate hunger. The blood running down the child may be an unpleasant sign to western eyes, but more to the point, may be an action of ceremony of religious and visceral beauty in a war-torn and drought-plagued land whose people, despite all hardships, assert and reaffirm their ancient and ongoing culture—a culture much older and perhaps richer than our own.
In the Stride Gallery’s exhibition of MacKay’s work, drawings, collages, prints, a photograph and a waxed bookwork on the wall in silent testimony while the video images are rear-projected onto the storefront window creating a continuous visual presence on the street at night. Both commuting oil executives and the street people who use this stretch of MacLeod Trail S.E. get a glimpse of the moving images. These images are probably foreign to them, but in an ever-shrinking world the flickering yellow images may, in some small way, cause them how wonder how to act or react.
(1) Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. SOME CRITICAL ANNOUNCEMENTS –An Extended Drawing (1986-88), Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, 1989, p. 53.
(2) John Will in conversation with Allan Harding Mackay, December 1997.
JOHN WILL is a Calgary artist who recently retired from the University of Calgary’s Fine Arts Department. Like Allan, much of John’s own artistic practice addresses unique or controversial world issues represented in the media. He has been an essential member of the Calgary arts community for over twenty-five years who has built an extensive international and national network for exhibitions, lectures, screenings and performances. Last seen, he was wandering the streets of Albuquerque.