Global Voices 2012 Catalogue Launch

Global Voices 2012 Catalogue launched at Research In Art, 2013. 

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The Global Voices 2012 Catalogue was launched at the Research In Art Artist Project Room  May 11, 2013. During the event, Sherry Tompalski spoke about her paintings from the Global Voices Project during the period 2008 – 2012.

Artists Graham Thompson (media) and Sherry Tompalski (painting), create videos and portraits that draw attention to human rights issues and organize multimedia events that celebrate diverse communities in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Their last event was held in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Canada in December 2012. See the Global Voices Board at Pinterest and at the Global Voices Page on Facebook.

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A catalogue was produced for this occasion with an essay by Petra Halkes, “Shaping Identities in a Turbulent World.” Although Tompalski’s paintings were featured in Thompson’s videos, this will be the first time the painted, collaged and drawn portraits will be shown, on the walls of the RIA Artist Project Room.

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Sherry Tompalski writes: Talking Portraits is a series of videos and portraits of people whose lives have been derailed by and engulfed in trauma. These deeply personal narratives were recorded while their portraits were being painted. Narratives bravely spoken aloud that beg to be mirrored back, so that what was once in pieces, often hidden and dreamily disorganized can become known, experienced and integrated…so that the unburdening can begin. The reassembling of the fragmented self experience becomes the foundation of the portrait and the culture they reassemble in symbolized as pieces of sheet music, helping to hold together, patch and harmonize the sharp edges as they knit together.

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I wanted to bring to life with humanity the different adaptations to trauma and deprivation. I hope the participants feel the work is a honest reflection of their experience and furthers their own healing. Moreover I hope it is a catalyst for further inquiry and dialogue about trauma and recovery. I have had two career paths. I started in Fine Arts in Saskatoon in the 70’s only to segway into medicine and psychiatry in Vancouver in the 80’s, and then continue with both of them in Ottawa over the past 18 years. Each has informed, enriched and given voice and meaning to the other. In both I strive to be helpful, emphasize beauty and facilitate the mystery of healing. Sherry Tompalski.

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Shaping Identities in a Turbulent World – An Essay by Petra Halkes

In one way, Graham Thompson and Sherry Tompalski’s ongoing collaborative project Global Voices holds a mirror to personal lives lived in a tumultuous globalized world of interconnection and dispersion. The project includes painting, drawing, collage, video and organized events with invited speakers, dancers and musicians: it presents a fusion of sounds, images and voices. Bright patches of paint, repeated photo-images, words and musical scores vie for attention in Tompalski’s portrait paintings, while Thompson’s videos cover a myriad of film formats, from quiet, straight monologues with abrupt beginnings and endings, to kaleidoscopic montages, jump cuts and tracking shots against a range of background music; Global Voices reflect the world we live in.

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In another, more pertinent way, Global Voices goes beyond representation, and demonstrates how people build personal identities within a frantic world. Thompson’s videos were recorded in Tompalski’s studio during the portrait sittings. Their process of listening to and looking at the sitters and consequently recognizing and validating the storytellers’ experiences through representation in video and painting, illustrates in a concrete and artful way how identities are constructed in everyday life. As the renowned cultural theorist, Stuart Hall wrote:  “Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.” [i]

Global Voices includes videos and paintings of people from a wide range of backgrounds, but the majority of participants have had to overcome traumatic experiences brought on by forced migration from strife-torn countries, or, in the case of First Nations people, internal displacement.  The importance of telling stories has long been recognized as a personal way of healing, and as a way to re-build a communal identity, augment official history with deeply personal stories, and prompt socio-political action.[ii] Thompson and Tompalski’s focus is not on political systems and histories of who did what to whom; what comes through in their unstructured recordings and in the paintings is the effect that ideologies and state institutions have on the personal lives of individuals. This is felt most intensely in politically troubled areas of the world, but also in post-colonial countries such as Canada.

Global Voices provides a site for ordinary people to speak about the personal horrors inflicted on them by impersonal powers. Hawa Kaba, an artist from the Republic of Guinea, landed in jail through an activity as innocuous as applying for a passport; it changed her life forever. Fatima Parween from Afghanistan tells us, through translation, that she has “really bad memories from the time of the Russians and the Taliban,” and she flatly lists the names of the young men in her family who were killed.  In Canada, a cold political decision to assimilate aboriginal people, made in nineteenth-century colonial times, continues to reverberate in the personal lives of many to the very present. For Maggie Jefferies of James Bay, the governmental policy caused the loss of a brother. For Irene Lindsay from One Arrow, Batoche, Saskatchewan, it led to a troubling estrangement from her father.

As a former psychiatrist who has worked with refugees and soldiers, artists, couples and families, Tompalski is deeply aware of the power of such stories. Silence condemns victims to an unbearable, inhuman loneliness that precludes healing. Speaking out can facilitate a process of re-building a life of normalcy, transforming the horror of the past into the creation of a new strong identity. “Basically,” she writes, “I’m trying to understand the processing of loss and the tendrils of hope that allow us to survive.” [iii]Building on her professional experience of immersing herself in the lives of others, Tompalski became a prolific portrait painter. Her painting style of brightly coloured patches shows identity formation as a dialectical process of breaking-up and coming-together of personal and communal experiences. Although the faces are tightly cropped to foreground the individual subject, what is left of the background is filled in, in some paintings with words picked up from the video and in others with multiple photographs of the sitter. The portraits themselves are often multiples: the young Bahara Parween is painted eight times, Tito Medina, a musician from Guatemala, appears several times. Identity is not a singular truth; the paintings suggest that an ongoing multiplicity of events and choices shape and reshape our identity.

The past, and the places where the sitters came from, are signified in the culture-specific symbols and patterns that make up snippets of their clothing: a collar here, a bit of a shirt there. The paintings (and videos) do not deny that cultural heritage forms a vital part of people’s identity, but the exotic lure that such heritage could have provided for the viewers is denied. In some portraits, the artist adds scraps of paper that came from her own place, from her own collection of sheet music and paper cuttings: a gift to be taken into the mix of cultural influences that become part and parcel of building an identity. To the degree that we all live with such a mix, we are brought face to face here with people like us, people in our neighbourhood, and we get to know them just a bit better.

Identities are formed in a process of loss and renewal, but the personal control we have over this process depends to a great extent on the happenstance of the place and time of our birth. For over one hundred years, aboriginal children of Canada were taken away from their parents to attend boarding schools that were often overcrowded, underfunded and unhealthy. The children were not allowed to speak their native languages and sometimes did not see their family for up to a year. “For Canada,” Justice Murray Sinclair, the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada writes, “this is a shameful story.”[iv] Much of this shameful story is still coming to light, thanks to the work of people such as Irene Lindsay, who is featured in Global Voices. A grandmother of nine, she runs a Residential School Outreach Program in the seniors building she lives in. Among the stories she tells is one of her own eight years in residential school. She talks of becoming so estranged from her father that she couldn’t grieve for him when he died. Only years later, when a friend’s father was dying and she witnessed the warmth and care of the family that surrounded him, was she able to shed tears. It is not just the physical and sexual abuse, and the high death rate that turned the residential schools into such a disastrous failure. It is, as Lindsay says, “the other things, in between,” such as languages and traditions that can only slowly be relearned, and bonds between parents and children that can never be recuperated.

Lindsay is one of the heroes in the story of the Residential Schools in Canada, heroes who “continue to do the heavy labour of sharing their stories, and, by so doing, educating their children, their communities, and their country.”[v] At the events organized by Thompson and Tompalski, Lindsay shares a virtual stage with heroes like her, who have arrived in this country from elsewhere fleeing from other disasters. The people in Global Voices talk not only about what has happened to them in the past, but how they shaped their personal history of responses and choices and create an identity that continues to evolve. They show that self-identity is constituted, as Hall writes, “not outside, but within representation.”[vi]

Global Voices shows a world that continues to spin around us, influencing our thoughts and our feelings, never stopping to let us “find ourselves,” never providing a static identity. Through their videos and paintings Thompson and Tompalski have acknowledged and validated the life stories of others, and have provided a site for viewers to do the same. They have shown us a process of representation and recognition through which the past can be transformed and tentative new identities can emerge.

Petra Halkes, November 2012

[i] Stuart Hall: “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In Jonathan Rutherford, ed.: Identity: Community, Culture, Difference.  (London: Lawrence & Wishart 1990) pp 223 – 37 (p.222)

[ii] The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum maintains a database of oral history testimonies: http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/oralhistory/search/

Oral histories have played an important part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa 1995 – 2006, and in the TRC commissions that followed in many countries, including Canada.

[iii]  Sherry Tompalski, exhibition proposal 2011, unpublished.

[iv] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: They came for the children: Canada, Aboriginal peoples, and residential schools. (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012) p. 1  Electronic resource: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/cvrc-trcc/IR4-4-2012-eng.pdf

[v] Ibid p.86

[vi] Stuart Hall, ibid p. 236

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