posted on Feb. 15: Carrying messages on the cross


Hamiltonian Jan Wade remembers her high school art classes with fondness. But she also recalls her experiences as a black youngster, attending grade school in the '50s: “For one year, at my school, I was the only black child in the class. I fought my way to and from school every day and I faced the most intense hatred from my teacher that you could imagine. For a child to feel that kind of hatred from someone who is supposed to be a nurturing figure is a profoundly horrible experience.”

During this period, Wade remembers the black churches as being the one place where people of colour could gather together and really feel comfortable, and she credits these churches as being the centres of major social change in the '60s and '70s. It is this spiritual presence that Wade celebrates in “Sanctified/Soul Art,” her exhibition now on view at the McMaster Museum of Art.

Wade finds historical and spiritual links between her own beliefs and the
religious traditions of people as far afield as Africa, the Caribbean,
Brazil, western Europe and the American south. For this reason, her art is
multi-layered and far-ranging in its references.

She adopts the cross as the basis of most of the artworks. This is a form that is usually accepted as a potent symbol of the Christian faith, but Wade says that she studied the symbolism of the cross, and found out that it was much older than Christianity: in India, for instance, it relates to ideas of the male and female; to native Americans it represents the four directions, north, south, east and west; to others it suggests fecundity as a sort of Tree of Life.

She constructs her crosses from wood, a material that is central to her
Canadian background. She then paints the crosses with geometric patterns and embellishes them with a variety of found objects — miniature horseshoes, skulls, butterflies, small plastic figures. (“Value Village,” she laughs, “is my favorite art supply store.”) Some of the symbolism of these objects is obvious to North Americans — the horseshoes for luck, hands forming black power salutes, skulls relating to death, and butterflies as a sign of beauty.

Others require more thought or explanation: painted eyes are Christian
symbols of omnipotence, black women with fish-like tails relate to the
“fishwomen” derived from mermaid figureheads on slave ships that African slaves began to worship. Little plastic men in black suits are prominently
featured. Wade characterizes them as “little white men,” examples of
“corporate America, the suits that rule us all.”

Often, the meanings of the symbols are made clear through text spelled out in Scrabble tiles. Wade says that this is not a thoughtless choice; the whole idea of using codes, games or symbolic objects to communicate was necessary to black people, who were seldom allowed to speak their minds in a forthright way.

Wade is asking us to think about symbols of spirituality, but her art must be
understood as much more than a dry parade of references. For while this is
an art of assemblage, it is also “installation art,” an art that gains much of
its power through its arrangement in a specific space.

Consider Epiphany, for instance, a work that calls to mind the manifestation of Christ to mankind, a dramatic piece in which a whole wall forms the backdrop for crosses in various sizes. Viewed from the entrance to the Gallery — the blood-red wall suggests a choir screen, the shadow on the ceiling resembles the pews of a church — the entire work is overpowering in its warmth and majesty.

In Our Home and Native Land, 20 identical photographs of a single cross line the walls like stained glass windows. In Heal three crosses form a triptych like an altarpiece. Size, boldness, repetition and rhythm produce an art that links us to the rituals of all religions. And the complexity and overlapping meanings of the references alert us to the basic similarities in all spiritual beliefs.

Wade's work is on view in the Museum until Feb. 18.

Elaine Hujer, a McMaster graduate in art history, is a Burlington-based freelance writer.