Critical Distance

Mourning: Barb Hunt
October 29 – November 27, 1999

a response to the exhibition by Sheila Spence

To mourn is to show sorrow or regret over loss as defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Emotions surrounding loss are much more layered and complex than this definition. Sorrow and regret are magnified by visceral memories of touch, laughter, pleasure. Often what is no longer there becomes more real in its absence. A personal loss evokes for each of us the cycle of birth, growth, death, decay and renewal and calls upon us to engage in rituals or processes to ground us and comfort us.

In Mourning, Barb Hunt uses traditional women’s methods, often women’s groups processes as a metaphor for grieving, suggesting that this mourning is not specific to an individual, but rather women’s collective grief.

Entering the exhibition Mourning you are met with a funeral pall made of small hand-knitted pink squares, floating slightly above the ground. Each square remains separate and unattached, their loose threads leave them feeling raw and coarse. The texture and the colour is different in each piece and the shade of pink/gray graduates from dark to light. Hunt’s individual squares are reminiscent of the squares which school girls knitted for “the boys overseas” during the Second World War. Squares knitted for soldiers for who-knows-what purpose, by young women all over the country. Knitting or knitted together to help out, to keep busy and to forget. A knitted pall to fill the emptiness and keep the body warm.

Beyond a tiny room which contains only the weathered wooden fence from a baby’s grave is a quilt so transient in substance it vies with its shadow. Quilting, traditionally done by groups of women, began as a way of saving precious fabric for reuse. Hunt’s quilt is made of pieces of antique French black lace, which women have used both for veiling the face of the grief-stricken and as a symbol for eroticism and sensuality. Piecing together the fragile emotions and physical remnants of loss has historically been and largely remains work that falls to the hands of women. The quilt, like the task, remains unfinished.

Barb Hunt’s triptych, Cluster, Oval and Nebula hangs ceiling to floor, in a row, translucent black mesh with sea-washed quartz stones quilted into their centres. Like grief, the stones have been polished smooth by time revealing the fractures of their interiors. Layered, glowing in the low light these pieces evoke a journey to an unknown place made familiar by ritualistic processes of collecting and gathering remnants and tenderly giving them new life.

Finally, running the full length of a narrow gallery is a quilt of brightly coloured silk flower parts laid down (as flowers are often laid on a grave), and arranged according to colour in the conventional Victorian practice of bedding out plants. I am left with the feeling that these flowers would stretch as far as the eye can see if not for the limitations of the space provided. Many hands, women’s hands, were responsible in providing order to this chaos.

Mourning is about the regenerative process. Barb Hunt poetically reminds us that we have a history to draw upon. Women have come together over time to work, to tell our stories, to grow and to heal. “To do this kind of work takes a capacity for constant active presence, a naturalist’s attention to minute phenomena, for reading between the lines, watching closely for symbolic arrangements, decoding difficult and complex messages left for us by women of the past.”1

1. Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence

Sheila Spence is a photo-based artist and cultural worker currently working in Winnipeg. Spence’s photographs have explored cultural critique and social documentary. She shares her home in West Broadway with two orangemen.