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Q&A: Victoria Dickenson, author of “The Good Lands”

Victoria Dickenson is former Director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Toronto, as well as President, McMichael Canadian Art Foundation. She has curated numerous exhibitions and has written extensively on documentary art and the visualization of landscape in North America. Her new book, The Good Lands: Canada Through the Eyes of Artists is available in stores now.  

Why did you decide to call this book The Good Lands?

My fellow curators and I agreed that Canada 150 might be an appropriate moment to create a book about how artists have depicted this land. But at the same time, we realized that not everyone was celebrating this moment. Fifty years ago, in 1967, Chief Dan George spoke a “Lament for Confederation.” He spoke of how he knew the land –

For I have known you when your forests were mine; when they gave me my meat and my clothing. I have known you in your streams and rivers where your fish flashed and danced in the sun, where the waters said ‘come, come and eat of my abundance.’ I have known you in the freedom of the winds. And my spirit, like the winds, once roamed your good lands.

He also spoke of how he looked to a future in which like the thunderbird of old, his people would rise and take their rightful place in this land. We had all been touched by the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the important work being asked of all of us at this time. We wanted to acknowledge Chief George’s vision and aspiration for this place.

How easy was it to select the images?

Almost all decisions on this project have been consensual, and rarely have I had the pleasure to work with such a congenial group! We knew each other well, which facilitated our interactions that were almost entirely online. Each curator chose a set of images, those that spoke most strongly to each of us. We uploaded the images to DropBox, and Richard Laurin who acted as Project Co-ordinator, brought them onto our shared WordPress site. We met by Skype and “shared screens,” reviewing almost 500 works of art. In many cases, we all selected the same image.  How can you not include Jean Paul Lemieux’s The Noon Train with its snow swept horizons? Or Tom Thomson’s Northern River? and Christi Belcourt’s Wisdom? While we all championed our particular favourites, we agreed that we wanted to be as inclusive as possible, though in the end we made our choices based on how each work resonated for us and with the other works.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

We wanted to bring together the works of artists long gone with those of contemporary artists, to show the way in which they have depicted the country coast to coast to coast, and to ensure that the way in which Indigenous artists see the land was privileged.  We were all agreed we wanted to produce a book for a wide audience. We limited our own contributions to short statements about why we chose the works we did. But we wanted to underline the importance of the Indigenous view of this land; so, we invited Senator Murray Sinclair to write the foreword, and we sought other voices whose words would resonate with the images.  We were delighted that the well-known poet and author Lee Maracle, Chief Dan George’s granddaughter, and Naomi Fontaine, the author of the award-winning Kuessipan (“to you” in the Innu language), agreed to write essays in English and French, which spoke to the ideas of land and territory.

We also hoped that readers would appreciate the work of museums and art galleries of this country, who hold so much of the art we know and value in public trust for generations to come.

The thing I love about Canadian art is…

…what I love best about all works of art – the ability to make me see the world through a new lens.  I wrote about the idea of “companionable looking,” the wonderful privilege to stand, as it were, shoulder to shoulder with the artist, and look on the world they see, and to learn to see anew. We hope that The Good Lands will provide that opportunity for the readers, and encourage them to visit a museum or gallery and stand before the new world the artist gives us.

Photo credit: Marilyn Aitken

December 11, 2017
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