Walking into the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) newest exhibition, Faith and Fortune: Art in the Global Spanish Empire, you might expect to see the usual displays of grandiose artwork hailing Spain’s colonial might. Instead, the two of us found a carefully curated exhibition that celebrates the cultural roots of art across Spain’s colonies.
The culturally diverse nature of the exhibition shaped our personal experiences of it, leading us to strangely similar conclusions, despite our different backgrounds.
The art of the exhibition
For me, the exhibition was an introduction to a part of history that I had not previously had the opportunity to explore. Its unique format incorporates various mediums, from tapestries to pottery, and showed me that artwork does not have to be limited to paintings.
In an interview with The Varsity, Assistant Curator Adam Harris Levine shared that he wanted the pieces displayed to push audience expectations beyond the traditional exhibition.
The diversity of mediums breaks out of the colonial narrative that only traditional Spanish artwork has value. Meanwhile, all around the world, sculpture and tapestry were being created. As an artist with deep roots in Toronto’s Filipinx community, Guest Curator Tahnee Ann Macabali Pantig wanted to use these pieces because they tell the story of people’s everyday lives.
For example, in an interview with The Varsity, Pantig shared that pieces of “embroidery [are] such a big part of how [my Filipinx family and community] live their lives… Maybe it’s looked down upon because it’s not in a gallery, or it’s not framed [but] it is functional art, it’s creating something that’s beautiful.”
Levine and Pantig put that same care into every aspect of the exhibition. Even the plaques for various artworks used the term ‘Artist Once Known’ instead of ‘Artist Unknown’ as most galleries do because, as Levine said, the team “wanted to centre the fact that every single object in the show is an incredible work of art that was made by an artist.”
“History has privileged some of those artists such that we know their names, and we know tons of details about them and it has completely ignored others,” Levine added. The exhibition is, as a result, constructed to raise the voices we do not typically have the privilege of hearing.
Community comes in
The exhibition raises voices both figuratively and literally. To ensure that it recognizes those harmed by colonialism, the curators consulted community members with close ties to the countries represented for their stories. These were integrated into the audio guide, and the final product is a powerful perspective on the artworks displayed.
After listening to the audio guide, I could no longer see the artifacts displayed as Spain’s triumphs, but instead I saw them as evidence of the cultures from which they were taken.
For example, in the sixteenth audio file, the associate professor of dance at York University, Patrick Alcedo, speaks on Catholicism and queer identity. Alcedo describes how people from the region of Cebu in the Philippines make Spanish Roman Catholicism resonate more with their identity through a ritual of putting ash on their body to make it darker. This ritual celebrates their skin tone and cultural identity instead of symbolizing death and rebirth as the Roman Catholics intended.
The community consultations show how much the history of Spanish colonialism still affects many communities, hundreds of years later, by bringing to life the pain and perseverance of colonized nations.
– Madeline Szabo
Culturally conscious exhibitions
On the other hand, hearing stories of pain and perseverance from individuals affected by Spanish colonial rule compelled me to learn more about the exhibition’s aim to decolonize art by focusing on Filipinx voices.
The immense amount of effort put into creating this culturally conscious exhibition was hard to ignore with every community member’s story tied so deeply to the history of the pieces presented. When asked about the inspiration behind creating this exhibition, Pantig spoke of her closest family and friends.
“I hope that Filipinos from all walks of life, recent migrants, longtime residents, people who are young and old, feel like this is a space that they can come to on a weekend or on an evening,” said Pantig in an interview with The Varsity.
The exhibition’s warm atmosphere and carefully curated rooms embody a culturally diverse and welcoming space for individuals that have been historically overlooked in the artistic world. While I was touring the exhibit, many of the art displays felt strangely familiar to me. I realized that many of the pieces were marked by the same intricate carvings and designs I had grown up with back in India.
While Spain never colonized India, the many similarities to my culture in the art being presented provided insight into the global impact of colonization, especially on art, textiles, and trade goods. As a person from a country with a history of being colonized, seeing Faith and Fortune brought back a sense of pride and satisfaction in my own culture’s artistic diversity.
The empty daguerreotypes
Arguably, one of the most interesting rooms in the exhibition was a collection of rare daguerreotypes from the Philippines. Daguerreotypes are considered one of the first commercially successful photographic processes, and the ones presented at AGO’s Faith and Fortune are one of the earliest sets of photographic images of the Philippines in recorded history.
While each of the selected images are beautifully presented, they remain strangely absent of human life. The images lack any evidence of human activity while depicting external environments that would usually be teeming with life in both urban and rural areas. To Pantig, the absence of humanity in these images acts as a tool of colonization, erasing the history and culture of the Philippines.
By backing these daguerreotypes with deeply personal stories from members of Toronto’s Filipinx community, AGO’s Faith and Fortune breaks the colonial narrative surrounding these images. “Something that was important to me in the show was to bring back Filipino voices into these images,” shared Tahnee.
– Rhea Jerath
Ultimately, looking back on our experiences at AGO’s Faith and Fortune exhibition, we can confidently say that its deviation from traditional art led to a comprehensive and refreshing approach to colonial history.
We can only hope that future exhibitions continue to focus on cultural diversity and community voices to provide an honest picture of our cultural and artistic heritage.