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Ways to approach stan douglas art
Installation view, Stan Douglas: Revealing Narratives, 2022, PHI Foundation. Stan Douglas, 20 June 1930, 2020; 20 June 1944, 2020. Digital C-prints mounted on Dibond aluminum. Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

Ways of Approaching Stan Douglas’s Art

  • Interview
  • Arts
  • PHI Foundation
By  Adrienne Johnson  &  Marie-Hélène Lemaire

Theme: Bodies in space

In conjunction with the exhibition Stan Douglas: Revealing Narratives, Adrienne Johnson, art historian and guest collaborator, and Marie-Hélène Lemaire, Head of Education at the PHI Foundation, teamed up in a Co-creation process to conceive and facilitate the video conversation Movements: Stan Douglas – “Bodies in Space”. Through it they reflect upon Stan Douglas’s most recent photo series, Penn Station’s Half Century (2020), with a specific focus on how Black bodies and women’s bodies interact and move within Penn Station’s architecture as it was reimagined by the artist. Through this dialogical essay, Adrienne and Marie-Hélène discuss their Co-creation process and invite all visitors to find their own ways to approach Stan Douglas’s art.

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Marie-Hélène Lemaire and Adrienne Johnson

Marie-Hélène Lemaire: For Movements in Co-creation: Stan Douglas, I invited you, Adrienne, to include your voice within our team of educators in order to invigorate and deepen our reflections about Stan Douglas’s exhibition. Given your research and writing, I knew you would highlight crucial dimensions of the artist's work, but I also felt that we had a kinship in terms of methodology: how we engage with contemporary art by ‘thinking in movement’ in multivocality. When you learned about this Co-creation project, what sparked your interest and made you want to collaborate?

Adrienne Johnson: As noted by the name of this educational segment, the opportunity to connect and create with other art professionals was too exciting to miss! I received your invitation to participate in this Co-creation project as reopening and COVID-19 mitigation restrictions were lifting, which facilitated a few in-person (masked, distanced and sanitized) meetings; from the vantage point of a graduate student, the isolation induced by the pandemic seemingly heightened the sense of isolation that can be felt during the writing phase of doctoral studies. Moreover, as my research interest (my passion) focuses on Black Canadian and African Diasporic landscape artists active from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, the opportunity to ‘go deep’ on contemporary work—in this case, Stan Douglas’s photography—is a welcome shift.

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Adrienne Johnson

Marie-Hélène: Were there any highlights for you while producing the Co-creation segments?

Adrienne: One highlight was the collaborative aspect of the production. In general, I really enjoy conversing with different people and hearing their views and experiences (in many ways it's also why I’m obsessed with an ‘international translator’ like the one they used in the Star Trek franchise for interspecies communication to be invented); perspectives matter, and conversation with people of different backgrounds is invaluable to all aspects of being. There is such magic in those moments of connection no matter the context or ‘seriousness’ of a discussion.

Marie-Hélène: I couldn’t agree more! For me, one of the highlights of Movements in Co-creation was your great openness to the fact that we have different perspectives and that they are complementary. Poetic inquiry and feminist perspectives on embodiment are always my angle when approaching contemporary art, and it was certainly the case when I was conversing with you about women’s embodiment (Amelia Earhart and the numerous mother nation figures) within Penn Station’s patriarchal architecture. With your critical art historical perspective, you focused on Black bodies (the red cap porters and the WW2 Black soldiers) in relation to Penn Station’s architecture, and I learned so much from it. It strikes me that you are a critical art historian who is also interested in somatic approaches: where artworks and our bodies are made out of a shared vibrant materiality.

Translation (or transmission; of concepts) is a core part of our fields. In relation to the exhibition Revealing Narratives and our respective approaches, how do you think this is achieved? What considerations are made?

Adrienne: A very big question! Effective articulation and conveyance of ideas is imperative no matter what one’s field is; it’s critical to human existence. From the perspective of an emerging scholar and art historian, a core consideration is simplicity in language. I think both having clarity of one’s topic, and using wording and phrasing that makes concepts approachable and easy to comprehend eliminates a lot of potential hurdles. Communication, whether written or spoken, is ultimately a craft of ongoing practice.

Marie-Hélène: Yes, I see this in your work and writing: clarity of language and approachability of concepts, which do not negate the complexity and depth of ideas, on the contrary! I aim for a similar approach to words via my poetic inquiry methodology. You were extremely open in welcoming my poetic relationship to concepts within your own constellation of ideas stemming from your art historical perspective. Organically, through our unfolding dialogue, we found shared concepts that were zones of contact for us: bodies in space; the phenomenology of space; the imagined and the actual; architecture of light and shadows; verisimilitude, documentary and imagination, etc.

I would like to thank you Adrienne for this amazing collaboration. It has been a joy to work with you!

Adrienne: Marie-Hélène, I am so incredibly moved to have had this outstanding opportunity to work with you and your amazing team! I am a huge fan of the PHI Centre and the PHI Foundation for its inclusivity, seemingly fearless exploration and engagement with a host of issues from incredibly diverse perspectives, and its strong support of local and international researchers. In many ways, this experience—and particularly connecting with you, Marie-Hélène—encapsulates why I hold reverence for the arts: art facilitates exploration of contexts beyond our respective experiences. It facilitates not only meeting, but connecting with new persons, and it generates exchanges with others that generally expand one’s understanding… To quote the late Montréal-based artist, poet and author, Anthony Joyette, “Thanks for the moment.”

Following your visit of Stan Douglas: Revealing Narratives, here are a few ways to further explore the key concepts in this exhibition:

Write a poem or a fictional story about one of the nine photographs found in Penn Station’s Half Century. Then do some research on the context of the original event which inspired Douglas’s photograph. How does your piece of writing enter into dialogue with your subsequent contextual research?

Conduct an art historical research about one of the nine photographs found in Penn Station’s Half Century, and the event it relates to. Then, exploring this material, imagine and write your own wall text that would accompany it within the exhibition (it can be of whatever form).

Movements in Co-creation

In the beginning of last fall, the PHI Foundation’s Education Department launched Movements in Co-creation, an initiative related to our pedagogical approach based on movement in all its dimensions (affect, emotion, physicality and mind) as a way to encounter contemporary art. For this project, we invite special guests to collaborate with us on our educational tool called Movements, which has taken different forms over the years—essays, videos, audio recordings, and more—and highlights key concepts in relation to our exhibitions. Inspired by cultural theorist Mieke Bal, we call these key concepts ‘traveling concepts’: they have a resonant and vibrant quality, as well as an intellectual and reflexive dimension.


Adrienne Johnson
Adrienne R. Johnson holds an MA and BFA in Art History from Concordia University, and is currently a PhD student in Art History at McGill University. Passionate about early Black Canadian life, Adrienne’s dissertation project focuses on Black Canadian and African Diasporic landscape painting from the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is generously supported by both the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC). Launched in 2011 with Dr. Alice Ming Wai Jim, Adrienne is co-founder of Ethnocultural Art Histories Research (EAHR), a student-driven research community based in Concordia University’s Art History Department that facilitates opportunities for exchange and creation in the examination of, and engagement with, issues of ethnic and cultural representation within the visual arts in Canada. Her chapter, Authoring Belonging: Early African Canadian Fine Artists George H. McCarthy (1860–1906) and Edith H. McDonald (c.1880–1954), was published in, “Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance,” edited by Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson, which is the first book to consolidate the field of African Canadian Art History; and as of April 2021, Adrienne is also founding member of the research initiative, Black Art History Montreal.

Marie-Hélène Lemaire
Marie-Hélène Lemaire is Head of Education at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art. She has over twenty years of experience as a museum educator for contemporary art in various galleries and museums, such as the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies at UQÀM (Université du Québec à Montréal), as well as a Ph.D. in Communications Studies at Concordia University that focuses on developing a movement-based pedagogy for guided group visits in contemporary art exhibitions. Using a feminist pedagogy of embodiment, new materialist and poetic inquiry approaches, she aims to privilege and validate sensorial, sensuous and affective engagements with contemporary art. She has published in The Journal of Museum Education (2021), the Canadian Review of Art Education (2021), and Muséologies (2018). She also nurtures a poetic writing practice for developing, facilitating, and interpreting curricula for guided visits, as well as to express her own personal aesthetic engagements. She is committed to epistemic justice in the arts.

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