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15.50  Dancing in the Vaults: Examining Brendan Fernandes’ “Lost Bodies”

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11:00, Saturday 4 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

Bearing in mind the legacy of artist-history interventions, this paper will address one such project to consider how heritage collections can be reanimated by contemporary artists, as well as the impact of these initiatives as a means to rethink the role of Western heritage museums and how they structure representations of identity. I will focus my examination on the museum intervention “Lost Bodies” by Brendan Fernandes, which will be on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC) in Kingston in 2016. In this project, Fernandes—a Canadian artist of Kenyan and Indian descent currently based in Brooklyn, New York, USA, engages with and animates two key Canadian collections of historic African visual and material culture, the Justin and Elisabeth Lang Collection of African Art at the AEAC and the African textiles collection held by the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. Fernandes’ engagement is significant given the marginalized and contested history of exhibitions of African visual and material culture in Canada, including the controversial 1989 show “Into the Heart of Africa.” In approaching two distinct collections, Fernandes offers a reworking of the conventional display mechanisms employed for African visual and material culture. Significantly, the collections have also inspired Fernandes’ latest body of multi-media work, including video, print and dance. 

Through collaborations with professional dancers, the artist’s work is produced in—and draws viewers’ attention to—areas of the museum that are typically marginalized. For example, Fernandes employs dancers equipped with body-mounted video cameras to explore the vaults, engaging this conventionally restricted spatial realm. Here, the body is foregrounded as a key location of knowledge, in contravention to normative Western museum practices. “Lost Bodies” brings historic and contemporary objects together, functioning as a “soft” museum intervention that marks a new approach to African heritage in Canadian museums. Drawing on interviews with curators and the artist, this paper will seek to unpack the strategies employed by Fernandes in “Lost Bodies.” More broadly, I will employ the artist’s project as a lens through which to consider how contemporary artists can work within heritage museums while still critically reflecting on their role in society. Attending to the curatorial, institutional and material registers of this exhibition, I will suggest that it offers a new way forward for heritage displays.

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