DREAMSCAPES WINTER 2021/2022
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HALIFAX ON DISPLAY
 
(2021 - Winter Issue)

Writer: BRUCE W. BISHOP



One intrepid globetrotter who once spent five years in her 30s as governess to the Thai royal family must have wondered if she made the wrong turn when she settled in Halifax back in 1878.

At the age of 47, Anna Leonowens, a prolific travel writer and author born in India, arrived as a new immigrant to this garrison town on the Atlantic. Leonowens, whose own life story spawned the Broadway musical hit and feature film, The King and I that was based on the epic novel, Anna and the King of Siam, was always a keen, dynamic self-promoter, who later decided to “stimulate and contribute” to the city’s cultural life. She is one of the founders of today’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University (a.k.a. NSCAD).

Now 134 years after NSCAD was founded, Halifax remains an ever-changing metropolis with a thriving art scene whose tentacles have spread across the province. (The municipality has less than half a million people but continues to grow.)

As a writer myself who was born and raised in Nova Scotia, walking the streets of this naval-rich city has allowed me to get a whiff of Haligonians’ creative temperament, which is as easy to inhale as breathing the salty sea breezes here. Just listen to the playful notes in the Acadian rhythms and the tongue-twisting humour, and see an array of artful renditions splashing scenes in the whimsical Maritime folk art, which are all common here.

In my opinion, Nova Scotians are a proud lot. They want to be known for more than the bountiful crops they harvest and the rich seafood they extract from the sea. They want to embrace and brag about their famous sons and daughters, such as the late Maud Lewis (folk artist), Anne Murray (singer), Robert MacNeil (novelist, journalist and broadcaster) and the late Rita MacNeil (songwriter), among many others.

But back in 1908, when the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts opened with 200 works of art owned by the province, the art on display arguably imitated British colonial life. Now known as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, its permanent collection is home to 18,000 works from local, national, and international artists.

INDIGENOUS AND AFRICAN NOVA SCOTIAN ARTISTS

As the city evolves, so do the recognition and accolades that Indigenous Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian artists are receiving. For example, Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett won the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award in 2020—Nova Scotia’s largest award for any work of art, in any medium. The same year, Afua Cooper, an African Nova Scotian author of 12 books and one of the founders of dub poetry in Canada, won the Portia White Prize. (Portia White was the first Black Canadian concert singer to win approval across North America in the 1940s and ’50s.)

Two Indigenous and two Black artists are also deserving of a mention here. Alan Syliboy paints in acrylic and mixed media and is inspired by Mi’kmaq traditions in rock drawing and quill weaving. Also a curator and children’s author, his work is in the permanent collection of the AGNS. Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq visual artist originally from Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland), lives near Halifax. He paints, silkscreens, and sculpts while exploring the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk visual culture of Ktaqamkuk. His work, particularly murals and façade paintings, can be found across Canada.

Letitia Fraser, an NSCAD alumna, is an African Nova Scotian interdisciplinary artist who draws inspiration from her community’s quilting history. Her evocative portraits painted in oil on quilts are decidedly memorable. Clara Gough of East Preston, N.S. is a sculptress and basket weaver whose artwork honours her late mother, famed basket weaver Edith Clayton. Ms. Gough is a descendant of Black Loyalists who arrived in Nova Scotia in the late 18th century. She can sometimes be found at the Halifax Farmers’ Market weaving baskets from red maple—a craft she has been perfecting since childhood.

Halifax, or K’jipuktuk, which is the Mi’kmaq term, is a welcoming city for artists of all disciplines and from all ethnic backgrounds. No longer mired in its colonial past, it is emerging as the destination of choice for immigrants arriving from around the world, and like the city’s earliest immigrant resident Anna Leonowens, they too are leaving their indelible mark on this side of the Atlantic Coast.

Bruce W. Bishop is a writer and novelist whose latest book, Uncommon Sons, is available for purchase at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca, and on Rakuten Kobo.

HALIFAX ART TOUR

While a visitor to this safe, walkable city can find plenty of public statues in its downtown core, let’s assume you can do some exploring outside the city proper.

First stop: the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower completed in 1985. Located in Fort Needham Memorial Park in the city’s north end, the large monument pays tribute to the 1,900 residents of Halifax and Dartmouth who were killed in the 1917 Halifax explosion. On that fateful day, two ships (one of which was carrying munitions) collided in the Halifax Harbour. Situated on one of the highest points in the area, the park offers terrific harbour views.

Next, you head south to the downtown. A walk along the Halifax Harbour boardwalk is an excellent way to get a feel for the varied statuaries permanently on display. Pass by a statue unveiled in 2018 that honours the influx of Lebanese immigrants to Canada in the 1880s. See a more-than-life-sized statue of Samuel Cunard, a native Haligonian born in 1787, who is the founder of the world-renowned Cunard luxury ocean line company. Cunard’s statue and two others, which are devoted to women war volunteers and immigrants, are found in the waterfront’s Halifax Seaport area. The Seaport is the most southerly area near Pier 21. Now a museum, thousands of refugees and immigrants arrived to this former immigration centre including nearly 70,000 war brides and their children during and after the Second World War.

While walking in the city’s south end, you’ll encounter numerous colourful murals that brighten the urban landscape.

On the waterfront, spot the Got Drunk, Fell Down and Fountain lampposts, a cheeky art installation by NSCAD alumni Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg. Along the way, you can’t miss the most photographed modern art sculpture—the Blue Wave, designed by another NSCAD alumna, artist Donna Hiebert. It’s a popular meet-up spot midway along the boardwalk. A short walk up the hill from Lower Water Street is the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which has a rich collection of contemporary and historic Nova Scotian and Atlantic Canadian artists.

Travel Planner

For Halifax travel information discoverhalifaxns.com

Self-Guided Downtown Art Tour downtownhalifax.ca/arttour

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia artgalleryofnovascotia.ca

Anna Leonowens Gallery, NSCAD University theanna.nscad.ca/about/ 

Stay at the new art hotel, the Muir, which has an extensive private in-house gallery.

Every guest room showcases an original local landscape painting. muirhotel.com

 
 
 
 
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