VANCOUVER — In Soul Power at the Vancouver Art Gallery, history passes through Jan Wade’s hands transformed like an exhaled breath. Inspired by her foremothers’ recycling of materials, Wade creates altarpieces, shrines, and memory jugs out of found objects.
Wade assigns significance to discarded bric-a-bracs: tiny horseshoes become mementos of Emancipation Day picnics at her local A.M.E. Church; mermaids evoke the Haitian deity Lasirenn, who lead the enslaved back home across the Atlantic; and Scrabble tiles congregate to spell the old brag of the heart, the proud proclamation of survival: “I AM.” Buttons also pervade her assemblages, stacked compactly to suggest the inhuman condition aboard slave ships. Wade calls the buttons “swarms,” echoing but challenging the “swarm of gnats” that Kant uses as a metaphor for infirm principles and an absence of character. She embraces the buttons’ indistinctness and “consent not to be a single being,” in the words of Fred Moten and Édouard Glissant.
Jan Wade, “Memory Jug” (2016), jug, skull, acrylic paint, found objects, Collection of Surrey Art Gallery
Wade defies precious Enlightenment ideals, from which Black people have always been precluded. In “Spirit House”(2021), “HEAL,” “LOVE,” “OK,” “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” and “SOUL POWER” are spelt out on the roof and walls of the sculpture house as mantras, while tears drip down from Aimé Césaire’s quote: “they sold us like beasts, and they counted our teeth.” The installation references praise houses on Southern US plantations where enslaved people gathered after official hours of service to partake in the ring shout. During these orchestras of self-affirmation, energy flowed from one person to another, and participants carried each other’s voices all night long. In the words of Baby Suggs from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, “in this here place, we flesh.” Individualism was annihilated through the ring-shouters’ perpetual extensions toward one another.
Jan Wade, “Breathe” (2004-2020) (image courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery, photo by Ian Lefebvre)
The praise house is replicated in a gallery lined by “Breathe” (2004-2020), colorful, handstitched panels that mark the rhythm of Wade’s breath. The embroideries are material confirmations of her right to life, continually undermined by the murder of Black people, from Eric Garner to George Floyd. Wade borrows “Housetop” and “Bricklayer” patterns from the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend to create an aerial anarchitecture — a sanctuary improvisational as jazz and errant as water.
Jan Wade: Soul Power continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby Street, Vancouver) through March 13, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Siobhan McCracken Nixon.