Reclaiming identities in BMO 1st ART! Exhibition

Transitions, migrations and individualities. The theme of reclaiming identities appears forefront in this year’s BMO 1st ART! Exhibition. Drawing on personal histories and perspectives using a wide range of media, BMO’s 1st ART! brings together pieces seeking to situate identities within society’s ever-changing narratives.

Ontario winner Tian Cao, OCAD University, 2020 Surfing the Internet, Unity 3D Game Project

While the exhibition has moved to virtual format this year through BMO’s partnership with the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the impact of the exhibition is not diminished. Its accessibility, in fact, lends further to its effect reaching an audience that would otherwise forgo the need to engage with art in normal conditions. At a time when calls for social justice are ever more paramount, this year’s works act as a battle cry, asserting differences, subverting stereotypes, and reinforcing identities.

Alberta winner Jasmine MacGregor, Alberta University of the Arts, Anishinaabekwe (ojibway woman), video, 2 minutes 4 seconds

Among the exhibition’s most impactful works were National Winner Simone Elizabeth Saunders’ hand-tufted portrait It Matters. Using textile to embody Black culture, Saunders creates a powerful portrait of a Black individual imbued in colour, asserting the importance of Black life. Saunders’ work creates a double entendre for the act of weaving. In her discussion of the work, the artist contends that the act of intertwining individual threads to create a piece represents the journey of life itself, with each life experience contributing to the narrative it ultimately creates. One can view that the intricate threads that made It Matters explore the individual experiences which informed the life it powerfully represents. Saunders successfully conveys the urgent need to confront racial injustice, inviting its viewers to contemplate their own participation to racial discrimination.

National winner Simone Elizabeth Saunders, Alberta University of the Arts, It Matters, hand-tufted and punch needled textile, 32 × 23 × 0.75 inches

The influence and subversion of Hieronymous Bosch is not to be missed in Rey Francis Dominic B. Tatad’s Chosen Land. This year’s Saskatchewan winner sees heavy influence in the early Netherlandish painter’s complex imagery and use of vibrant colour, yet whereas Bosch overlaid his works with fantastic religious figures, Tatad diffused his with socio-political overtones akin to his Filipino identity, ultimately overthrowing the Western hegemony underpinning his work. In itself, the significance of religious and political Filipino narratives existing within a style informed by Western influences represents an encapsulation of Filipino history mired with centuries of colonial abuse. Tatad’s Chosen Land is masterful and electrifying for its ability to confront Filipino history while subverting Western artistic influences.

Saskatchewan winner Rey Francis Dominic B. Tatad, University of Regina, Chosen Land, pencil crayon on paper, 22 × 30 inches

The rest of the entries evoke equally powerful magnitudes. Quebec winner Mikael Lepage uses a white shirt in his dynamic piece, Dénué, in order to confront biases that fuel social structure and class differences. Manitoba winner Gabriel Roberts portrays the vulnerability and fear of coming out in A Closet Painted Blue.

Quebec winner Mikael Lepage, Université du Québec à Montréal, Dénué,oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in

Manitoba winner Gabriel Roberts, University of Manitoba, A Closet Painted Blue, cyanotype on paper, linen, denim, cushions, leather, digital prints, chair, overall 100 × 100 × 16 in

The 2020 BMO 1st ART! Exhibition arrives strong with its selection of works rousing its viewers to examine their own participation in the present revolution.

Maria Mendoza Camba

Images are courtesy of BMO 1st ART

*Exhibition information: BMO 1st ART! Virtual Exhibition, hosted by BMO and Art Museum at the University of Toronto, September 15 – October 16, 2020. For more information please visit

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