World Class Art in Kingston: The Agnes Etherington Art Centre

Written by: Michaela Cardo, M.A.

Conveniently located on Queen’s main campus is the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. It is home to a diverse collection of art, from Rembrandts to contemporary work by Indigenous and Black artists. With a rotating selection of exhibitions, it is a place you will want to visit more than once.

The Agnes has something for every type of art lover, and as a Ph.D. student researching dress history, I was excited to visit the exhibit The Fabrics of Representation. Located in the Bader Gallery, the exhibit pairs visual art pieces by European artists like Carstian Luyckx, Pieter Claesz, Constantijn Verhout and Jan van Noordt with material objects, such as a kimono-style robe, a cosmetics box, paisley shawls, and silverware. This allows you to get up close and personal with similar objects to those the painters were inspired by. The curatorial team has written descriptive labels that tell you the global history of each pairing.

Below is an example of the pairing between painting and dress objects.

Unknown Artist, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1625
Unknown Maker, Collar, early 20th century.

Walking through the exhibition, you are introduced to European luxuries, but also, to the historical realities that allowed the wealthy to obtain the goods they depicted. Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Rummer and a Shrimp (1646) connects the silverware displayed on its table to the silver mines of Potosí in Brazil, where the Spanish brutally enslaved Indigenous and African people. A Standing Woman in Profile, Facing Left by Jan Lievens (c.1670) depicts a woman wearing a Japanese style robe, and next to it is a Kimono-Style Dress from the 20th century. Both of these garments are Japanese inspired but made for Western markets because of their fascination with other cultures. The exhibit labels encourage you to think about how beautiful art can hide insidious truths about slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and loss.

Representation, though, is not just about acknowledging the ways in which one culture interpreted another. The Agnes, like many art centres, has interconnecting galleries. On your way to see The Fabrics of Representation, you pass through the Land Protectors exhibit, which displays works of varying sizes and mediums by Indigenous artists. I was particularly struck by Zero Hour by Robert Houle (1988,) a multimedia installation with sand art and photography. Its sheer size stops you in your tracks, and, like the objects in the next gallery, it reminds you that the materiality of art is central to understanding its meaning.

After you make your way through The Fabrics of Representation, you can visit Winsom Winsom: The Masks We Wear, a stunning and hauntingly beautiful piece about identity, healing, and spirituality. Some of the masks in the piece are sculpted from Winsom Winsom’s (Omiala Omo Yemaya) own face. She, unlike the colonized subjects of the paintings in the previous exhibit, was able to choose how she wanted to represent herself and her journey of spiritual healing.

Winsom Winsom, The Masks We Wear, 2018
Winsom Winsom, The Masks We Wear, 2018

Beside Winsom Winsom’s installation, in the Davies Foundation Gallery is Where Were You in ‘92? Pamila Matharu, a mentee of Winsom Winsom, turns to the 1992 youth-led uprising that gave birth to Fresh Arts, a Black-led artist program. In addition to screening footage from the uprising, Matharu and her collaborators examine the history of Black activism in Ontario and reflect on the inspiration and legacy of Winsom Winsom on Canadian art and Black culture. Intentionally or not, by drawing attention to BIPOC artistry and self-representation, Where Were You in ‘92? speaks to the long history of exclusion in the world of Western art.

On your way out of the galleries, you will see Collection Count+Care, a rotating exhibition that displays new works weekly as the Agnes prepares to move its collection. Do not miss Fugitive Rituals, located in the Etherington House (turn right at the entrance to the gallery, and take the ramp located again to your right.) This exhibit turns the Etherington House into a journey of self-determination and a rejection of colonial ideas.

Although there is only one exhibit with the word representation in its title, most of the Agnes’s galleries explore this theme through the lens of various artists’ personal experiences. On your trip to the Agnes, you will see how important the shift from representation to self-representation is, as you move through time and space to encounter artists who are/were involved with the process of depicting their own cultures. The history of Western art upheld colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, but by displaying the voices of BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+, and other marginalized peoples in examples of modern art, we can move towards a more nuanced understanding of representation.

When you visit an art gallery, do the faces on the wall look like you? Do you and the artists share something in common – your gender, ethnicity, religion…? The pieces on the wall may not always look like me, but it is just as rewarding to see how different people represent themselves. Moving from room to room in the Agnes, I saw the world, past and present, represented by artists who each had a different perspective to share. Kingston, a relatively small city, is lucky to have a place where we can go to see ourselves – whoever we may be.

The Agnes is open Tuesday-Friday 10am-4:30pm, Thursday 10am-9pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 1-5pm. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. It is located on the territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabek.

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