Bearing Witness: Alicia Henry’s Witnessing at AGNS
It’s been a long time coming, but Alicia Henry’s exhibition Witnessing at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was well worth the wait. The exhibition, which opened in Halifax on March 12, originated at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, where it was on view in 2019. It was seen there by AGNS’s Chief Curator and Director of Programs Sarah Moore Fillmore who almost immediately expressed interest in bringing the show to Halifax. Of course, we all know what happened in the intervening years. “After a two-year delay due to Covid, we are ready to showcase and celebrate this impressive artist and exhibition,” says Moore Fillmore, now the gallery’s Interim Director and CEO. “I know her work will find deep resonance here.”
After touring the exhibition with the artist and guest curator, Vancouver Art Gallery Chief Curator Emerita Daina Augaitis, it’s safe to say that Moore Fillmore’s certainty is well placed.
Alicia Henry, born in Chicago, Illinois and living in Nashville, Tennessee where she teaches at Fisk University, makes figurative works of intense power and impact. As Augaitis has said, that power lies mostly in the faces of the figures, conveying a sense of presence and emotion that belies the seemingly simple forms. None of these figures are specific, none represent living individuals, yet every work seems to pulsate with life.
“It all starts with drawing,” Alicia Henry says. Explaining that all the works in the exhibition, whether made from leather, felt, recycled and new fabric, cardboard or paper, layered and worked with string and thread, begin as smallish drawings, where she works out the compositions. Her choice of materials, and the processes by which she manipulates them, start from there. The works are inspired from life, if not as a direct representation. “There is something about a face I like,” she explains, “or a stance or gesture.” Her sources are varied, from memories, from the people around her, or from the face in the mirror. “In other images, I recognize myself,” she told Augaitis, “because it’s just so convenient to look in a mirror and see how a face is constructed.”
How the space the work inhabits influences the composition is apparent in her multi-part piece Untitled (13 Females Figures) which takes up one side of the exhibition space. Originally conceived for the Power Plant’s clerestory gallery, a sort of long hallway with very high ceilings, the eleven-foot height of the AGNS’s Gallery One forced a reconsideration of the way the works were presented. The central figure in Untitled (13 Females Figures) is a monumental female head, flanked by the life-size figures of two small girls. At the Power Plant the central figure towered over the viewer, clad in a long red robe and surrounded by brightly coloured paper flowers. “It was a celebration of spring,” Henry recalls. In Halifax, at the end of a long winter, the tone is bleaker, the flowers lacking any colour, and the head is surrounded by a flock of black birds, crows or ravens, that somehow heighten the sense of power exuded by the monumental face.
Even with the amount of work in Witnessing, the installation feels spare; all the works have room to breathe. Which is important, because these figures seem to expand to fill the space, much like people in a room, they carry the weight of presence, have a certain autonomy that impacts on the viewer. Even alone, no one is alone in this space. The viewer is enveloped, drawn into a group or family unit. Henry’s work is often described, accurately, as evoking melancholy, but it is also remarkably generous and open. A certain sadness is present, certainly, but that is true of every human interaction, however joyous. An artwork, fixed in time, if only for a moment, can’t help but remind us that we all will fade. Nonetheless, “there’s something optimistic here,” Augaitis says. “These women are powerful.”
Henry’s surfaces bear the marks of much labour, of layering, staining, painting, cutting, sewing, and more. Like a much-loved article of clothing, they bear the marks of use, of repair, of accident. Like skin they bear the marks of age, of injury, of laughter and tears, what Augaitis calls, “the scars and marks of lived experience.”
Henry’s figures are mostly women, often shown in community, and they evoke the presence and experiences of generations of Black women. Despite not considering herself a ‘political artist,’ Henry concedes the social force of her works. “Creating large Brown bodies is seen by some as an act of politics,” she says. “In my work, that which is often on the periphery is large and in your face.”
“Drawing is at the heart of this work,” Henry tells me, and that is apparent in the works. The various materials are cut and sewn, layered and pulled apart, stretched and compressed, all for a graphic and expressive effect. Henry told Augaitis that her approach is “similar to drawing a line, erasing it, and then redrawing it, bringing it back…It’s a full engagement with the creative process.” Henry asks no more of the viewer than she demands of herself: “you have to be willing to explore,” she says. Those who do, who choose to be witnesses of Witnessing, will find rich rewards.
Witnessing continues at the AGNS until May 22, 2022.
Ray Cronin is a Nova Scotia-based writer, curator, and editor. He is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award, and former Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The author of eleven books on Canadian art, he regularly contributes to Canadian and American magazines, and frequently writes for gallery exhibition catalogues.