“Soul Power” — Jan Wade
by April Thompson
“Jan Wade: Soul Power” at the Vancouver Art Gallery displays mixed media, textiles, and sculptural works from the last 30 years of Jan Wade’s practice, as well as new pieces made for this exhibition. There are installation pieces that span many years, like Breathe (c. 2004– 2020), a colourful abstract composition of embroidery on linen that runs the walls of an entire room. The scale of Breathe mirrors its durational process, each stitch indexing the movement of Wade’s hands over many years. Movement is also embedded in the work through the influence of various material cultures. The chain stitch Wade learned from her mother resonates with housetop and bricklayer patterns in Black quilting traditions of Gee’s Bend in the southern United States.
The durational nature of Breathe and other works like Prophecy (1993–2020) and Epiphany (1990–2021) replaces the rigidity of single dates with the open-ended timescale of the ongoing. Since their origins, museological systems have relied on linear time to designate and classify art and culture within a sequential colonial narrative. Wade’s focus on cyclical, curved, and meandering time places her work outside of this institutional paradigm. The circular is also evident in her constant revision of her works; often she will disassemble, paint over, or alternate new material into her pieces. This means that no two exhibitions of a certain work will look the same. In this way, the artwork remains autonomous, outside the stasis of institutional ownership through cataloguing or documentation.
Wade’s circular approach to found materials also runs counter to the obsolescence economy of capitalism. Drawing largely on items from thrift stores, Wade’s material repertoire includes plastic eight balls, horseshoes, bracelet beads, and figurines. In Wade’s repurposing of mass-produced items, she creates constellations that question the hierarchies of material culture. In Epiphany, the sanctity of the cross is complicated by its concurrent existence as a pop symbol. Wade layers it with found objects, from souvenirs of Indigenous masks and totem poles, to plastic Afro combs and tuxedoed white male wedding toppers. By placing these items in the shared frame of the cross, Epiphany reveals both the danger and the power in objects as icons.
Alongside found objects, text is also vital to Wade’s work. In Epiphany and Spirit House (2021) individual letters spell out words: “Holy Ghost,” “The Helping Hand,” “Stay Woke,” “Negro,” “Big Oil,” and “Black Lives Matter.” At times these words are bold and centred, and at others they are small and camouflaged. The amount of text across the exhibition overwhelmed me and it felt as though the more words I found, the less meaning they held. When I later reflected on this, I realized this response was an outcome of the way I have been coded to read. Wade was exposing me to a certain mechanism of viewership.
On social media, spelling words out has become a way to commodify selfhood and positionality. Our screen-based consumption of language as an extension of our opinions and our protestations has flattened the depth of certain words—including many that originated in grassroots activism. As these words gain currency, they become adopted through mainstream cultural capital and enter a process of abstraction. They reach full abstraction when they become a stand-in for action and accountability, or are politicized to dredge up adversarial fear and retaliation.
When language becomes rigid, it becomes dangerous. This linguistic operative has long been used by the white establishment to disenfranchise people of color. It is no surprise then that Wade turns to movement in her reclamation of the power of words. Through scrabble tiles, collage, and painted text on the verso of her artworks, Wade creates layers of notation. In works like Boneheads (2012), hand-painted text is included at the lower-right corner of the composition, reading “Bellagio. Boneheads. Bombs. Ballots and Bullets. Life. And. death and nature. ok.” Much like a musical score, these marginalia trace her presence through mark making, and assert her moods and free associations as coexisting dimensions to the visual plane. Like Wade’s brushstrokes and stitches, her use of notation is fluid and poetic. This play with language centres an autonomous self-expression, and resonates with the long tradition of improvisation in Black diasporic art forms like jazz and hip-hop.
“Jan Wade: Soul Power” is the first solo exhibition showcasing a Canadian Black woman artist at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 90 years. I celebrate the impactful presence of Wade’s work in the largest public art museum in western Canada, while also lamenting the enforced absence of Black women artists in the history of this space. Because of this, I want to ac- knowledge the need to re-evaluate our language when situating this exhibition. I resist calling it a “retrospective” because of Wade’s non-linear approach to her work. The word retrospective can also be a sneaky way for institutions to claim late paternity over artists previously excluded from their narratives. I also won’t call this a “solo” exhibition because that form is a hangover from the white male academy of 18th-century Europe. It has given the art world a fixation on singular talent over collectivity and intergenerational collaboration.
Jan Wade’s exhibition is not a “retrospective solo” because it is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back, and because it echoes a multitude of other voices. They are indexed in Wade’s careful layering of material culture—from the influences of the Black quilting traditions of the southern United States, to the mermaid symbolism in the Yoruba and the Mami Wata traditions of West Africa as well as in the Haitian deity of Lasyrenn. There is Cubism, abstraction, and jazz, and there are the names of people and the power of their lives, from Betye Saar to Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. In Wade’s exhibition playlist, there are voices and harmonies from Tracy Chapman to Erykah Badu, Oumou Sangaré, and the many Black musicians that Wade celebrates. To experience Jan Wade’s exhibition is to encounter the work of an artist who uplifts others through her centring of collective movement and polyphonic transformation. Her work commands a language of its own.