High-profile Artists Ponder the Contested Meaning of “Home”

Ray Cronin reviews Lezli Rubin-Kunda's At Home: Talks with Canadian Artists About Place and Practice

At Home: Talks with Canadian Artists About Place and Practice
Lezli Rubin-Kunda
Goose Lane Editions / Regal Projects

Can you go home again? Or do you carry home with you wherever you go?

Is home where the heart is? Or the art?

These are the sorts of questions pondered by Lezli Rubin-Kunda, and which she discussed with 31 artists from across Canada. At Home, co-published by Fredericton’s Goose Lane Editions, chronicles Rubin-Kunda’s journey as she returns to the country where she was born and raised after more than 30 years living in Israel.

The related tensions of post-colonialism in Canada and Rubin-Kunda’s ambivalence towards narratives of home and belonging in the face of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict permeate this book, and the author does not shy away from the apparent paradox of seeking home in contested territories.

Structured into thematic groups of interviews, Rubin-Kunda acts as a garrulous tour guide, bringing us along on her journey and regaling us with stories of her life and art practice. Completed over two trips to Canada in 2012-13, the interviews vary widely in length and depth, with some comprising chapters in themselves and others being brief descriptions of single works or series that fill less than a page.

Where the interviews are in depth and engaged with the thoughts of the artist—such as in the excellent sections on Montreal artist Francs Morrelli, on Saskatoon’s Amelie Atkins and Halifax’s Lorraine Field and Susan Fiendel—the reader learns about an artist and their work. The discussion of notions of home serves as an interesting entry point into what are very divergent approaches. The imbalances between the treatment of the artists are jarring, however, as if the author felt that the visit had to be acknowledged, despite having relatively little to say about the artist in question. In a book stretched over 13 chapters with a foreword and afterword, some of the sections, frankly, feel like filler.

Where Rubin-Kunda seems most comfortable is in discussions of practices that are performative, and which align with her own art practice. Rubin-Kunda’s conversation with Edmonton-based artist Tanya Harnett, a member of Carry the Kettle First Nation in Saskatchewan, and her articulation of her sense of home as based in culture, history and biology is particularly engaging and thoughtful. As Rubin-Kunda records Hartnett saying, “I think the land has a memory that would transfer into one’s bones.”

As the only Indigenous artist interviewed, Harnett’s chapter stands out in a book about place. Canada’s history of colonization is addressed by many of the artists, and the author’s thoughts are rarely far from it, but more Indigenous voices would have made the book stronger.

At Home: Talks with Canadian Artists About Place and Practice is a book that doesn’t fit easily into familiar categories. Not a travel book, but not solely an art book either. In the end, Rubin-Kunda is very present in every discussion, which is both a strength and a weakness. When she is present as part of a discussion, as she is with Harnett, Frank and Atkins in particular, the book works well.

Where it is weak is best summed up by the way she begins the afterword: “When I reflect at the end of this journey on the question I set out with—what is the relationship between art practice and a sense of home—I am reminded of an early work of mine.” As a reader, at the end of this long journey to visit Canadian artists with the author, that is not exactly what I want to hear.

Later, she writes, “When I started, I yearned for a sense of belonging to a place I could call home. The closer I got, however, the more the unity of the inquiry unravelled into many disparate threads. The beauty and the interest lay in the uniqueness of each artist’s path, and not in any thematic commonalities. Every artist, it seemed, was a world unto his or herself.” Indeed.

And it is when Rubin-Kunda shows us those worlds that At Home succeeds.

Written By

Ray Cronin is a senior arts professional with over 25 years’ experience in multiple aspects of museums and creative industries. Most recently the CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Cronin led that institution for seven years.

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