The West Coast, GTA and Quebec all have their distinct cultural charms, but as art scenes go, there is perhaps no place with more creative punch per capita than the Prairie region. Earlier this week, a midwestern cultural invasion of sorts took over Ottawa and Gatineau with “Prairie Scene,” an omnibus arts festival featuring the best in music, film, food, literature and art from Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It’s the fifth instalment of the National Arts Centre’s biennial “Scene” festivals, which in past years have focused on British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and the Atlantic region.
There are plenty of big-name acts in the “Prairie Scene” lineup, from classic rockers Bachman-Turner Overdrive to comedian Brent Butt. But much to the organizers’ credit, visual artists are given specific spotlight treatment, particularly with the festival’s opening-night “Swarm” event on April 26 that bused audiences to galleries and art performances across the National Capital Region. Also of note is the fact that many of the exhibitions featured in the festival are co-productions between galleries in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ottawa, adding a welcome boost of funds and exposure to programming both at home and away. “Mind the Gap!” at the Ottawa Art Gallery amasses works by 27 Saskatchewan artists curated by Amanda Cachia and Jeff Nye during Cachia’s time at Regina’s Dunlop Art Gallery. The wide-ranging show aims to re-address the stereotyped view of the province as “the gap in Canada’s consciousness and geo-cultural landscape.” For the group exhibition “Winter Kept Us Warm,” which was co-organized by Plug In ICA and the University of Manitoba’s Gallery One One One (and will also travel to Paris this summer), Winnipeg artist, filmmaker and exhibition curator Noam Gonick puts perspective on the notoriously harsh climate and relative geographic isolation of Winnipeg in a display of what he calls the city’s underlying “psycho-social and sexual landscape.” Playing on similar psychogeographic concerns, curator J.J. Keegan McFadden from Platform fills AXENÉO7 in Gatineau with “Quelle dérive,” a group show that maps Winnipeg’s past, present and future through the low-tech, high-concept aesthetic seen in works by local favorites the Abzurbs, Daniel Barrow, and Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, among others.
Other “Prairie Scene” exhibitions delve into even more complex social-historical territory. At the National Arts Centre, Saskatoon artist Adrian Stimson’s Re-Herd draws critical attention to the massive loss of aboriginal identity in the west with an installation of 4,000 hydrostone bison that over the course of the festival will be painted by audiences and positioned on a giant map of the Prairies. And in “Pimâskweyâw” at Gallery 101, artist Leanne L’Hirondelle and Urban Shaman director Amber-Dawn Bear Robe assemble works by five First Nations and Métis artists who look at the dire consequences of colonialism for aboriginal women. (Various locations, Ottawa ON & Gatineau QC)