Essay: tagore and Mrs. E

The Canadian Galleries at the Art Gallery of Ontario are the 1970's answer to curatorial hermeneutics. A Jungian playground of mood-coloured walls, meditation pods, interpretive reading posts and early computer stations, they chart a seemingly immanent and teleological creep through colonial time.

In the Group of Seven Gallery, home to Canada's modern nationalist art project, Rachel Kalpana James inserts Tagore and Mrs. E into one such experiential opportunity – a pine cabinet of drawers containing artist's sketches (under glass).

In response to Portrait of Mrs E (1921), created by Group member, Fred Varley, James arranges a series of fictionalized diaries, maps and photographs. Mrs. E appears in the painting, installed across from James' intervention, as a vision of first wave feminist Bohemianism in purple cotton, sitting cross-legged with a dupatta loosely thrown around her neck.

James, sleuthing in the archives, learns very little about Mrs. E – but infers her admiration for the Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet, activist and artist, Rabindranath Tagore, an admiration shared with Varley. Through James' investigation, a relational cartography emerges, a series of flight-lines that dislocates 'modern' and 'national' frames of enclosure of the installation.

She traces a series of global drifts: of intellectual convergences (theosophy, landscape mysticism), trade routes, events such as Tagore's refusal to come to Canada in protest of its stringent immigration policies (1914) and his eventual visit to Vancouver at the invitation of the National Council of Education (1929), and imagined relationships between E, Tagore and Varley.

The work not only widens our geo-social references for the Group of Seven, but also enacts a modality for understanding the art gallery encounter otherwise.

In this, James' inter-disciplinary and performative re-distribution of attention is pedagogic, the staging of a different kind of learning. This is a reminder of interests shared by Tagore, and the Group of Seven, in self-education and critical, intellectual exploration as necessary aspects of colonial emancipation and the creation of post-colonial imaginaries.

Interacting directly with the interpretive strategy of the installation, James suggests that, while based on the Group's commitment to public encounter and intellectual experimentation, the gallery's articulation of 'interaction' is a programmatic approach that denies us the subtle organization of pathways, desires, political aims that are constituted by and constitutive of radical acts of learning.

Against this backdrop, James' textural pedagogy, rather, asserts the kind learning by suture, described by Gayatri Spivak as 'the non-coercive re-arrangement of desires'.

Janna Graham, Writer, Educator and Curator
PhD Candidate, Goldsmiths University.
Published in RKJ Catalogue, 2007

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Tagore and Mrs. E