In the 1800s, thousands of Mennonites faced with forced military conscription in Russia arrived on the Canadian Prairies. In want of settler farmers, the Canadian government made them the appealing offer of farmland, cultural autonomy, and exemption from military service. It turned out that, besides being stolen from Indigenous people, much of the land the government gave to these new comers was wetland filled with migratory birds and bulrushes and not particularly arable. So, the immigrant farmers set to work changing the land. They drained the wetlands to create fertile farmland and, in the process, altered relationships between the area’s Indigenous people, animals and plants. Among these agrarian immigrant Mennonites were Emily Neufeld’s grandparents, who arrived in Canada in 1874. She spent her childhood amid Alberta’s tall prairie grasses with the legacies of her ancestors.
For her exhibition held at the Richmond Art Gallery, Prairie Invasions: A Lullaby, Neufeld travelled from her current home, in the mountains of North Vancouver, to the farmland of Alberta and Saskatchewan with her husband and their ten-year-old son. There, they explored, altered, and photographed abandoned farmhouses. The resulting photographic and sculptural arrangements that make up Prairie Invasions are a study of manipulations of natural, agricultural, and domestic spaces. Neufeld physically reconstructs these prairie homes to acknowledge and link environmental, political, and social stories of the prairies to which she is connected. The exhibition is also a story of displacement. Neufeld’s ancestors left Russia because of the Russification policies of the 1800s, which eliminated Mennonites’ exemption from military service and their right to culturally and religiously specific education. They came to Canada, where they inadvertently participated in the dislocation of Indigenous people and land practices. Now, large farm conglomerates are replacing the family farm way of life. Each displacement has left fragments that Neufeld used to create this body of work.
Grass appears (or is at least suggested) in every image and sculpture in the gallery. An eight-foot-tall woven grass wall abuts a photograph in which grass appears to grow out of a dilapidated bedroom floor and waves outside the windows. A wall of cyanotype silhouettes of bouquets contains the outlines of individual blades of grass. It also sprouts from short pillars of soil. In the gallery, as in the prairies, it surrounds us. But in the middle of the exhibition stand three round tables, each topped with a photograph of an old farmhouse amid a vast meadow. Each photograph is curved into a cylinder and illuminated from the inside—flipping the experience of the landscape by allowing us to surround it. They remind me that we hold the landscape in stories, the kind told around a kitchen table. Neufeld altered the architecture of each farmhouse before photographing it. She removed pieces of siding and stuck them upright in the ground to resemble giant blades of grass, cut out a sizable chunk of the side of a house, and filled holes in walls with grass and rocks. Her labour highlights that those fields of wheat are not there by chance, they are a species introduced to this land, and they are planted and cultivated year after year to the great benefit of Canadian colonization. The wheat fields live alongside some native plants and have displaced others. I’m reminded that the landscape is affected by our actions and stories as much as its realities affect us.
On a brass-plated light fixture, now removed from its domestic context, are two small nests made of mud and grass. The same kinds of nests appear miraculously suspended in the grass wall and as ghostly casts in plaster, resin, and wax. These pieces of bird-made architecture belong to barn swallows, a species whose population grew with the arrival and expansion of European immigrant farms in the 1800s. Barn swallows live all around the world and make their homes out of the mud and plants of each region; each is an animal architecture specific to its area. Like the prairie
farmhouses, these nests are a confluence of the area’s natural topography, hard work, and opportunity afforded by colonialist expansion.
Neufeld’s work reminds me that we’re all connected to the land, one way or another, and that our connections to it and its history are often complex.
Barn swallows return year after year to the same nests, repairing and rebuilding. Unlike the nests, the farmhouses are abandoned, along with domestic furniture and objects rotting within collapsing rooms. The houses are breaking down, leaving their structure and materials exposed. This decomposition might sound like a natural process and suggest that the prairies are re-wilding, but they are not. Though the farmhouses are decaying, the farmlands are still active as parts of larger conglomerates. What we’re witnessing isn’t the rebirth of some utopian world in which nature reigns but the detritus left behind as another way of life is pushed out in favour of a new form of capitalist expansion. I wonder how the barn swallows will adapt.
Neufeld makes her labour evident throughout the exhibit in the jagged edges of digital photographs stitched together, visible seams in the wallpaper, exposed beams, and unfinished plywood. She joins her Mennonite ancestors in interaction with the land and the hard labour of altering these prairie places. In the style of a farming family, Neufeld put her whole family to work during their return to the prairies. She gave her son the task of taking video footage. His video is composed of gathered clips of the natural and human-made details that catch his attention. It offers a portrait of the prairies that includes his parents discussing and working out their manipulations of the abandoned homes. The video is wonderful for its intuitiveness. It also offers a view into a future beyond Neufeld. Someday we’ll also be the ancestors but we are far from finished reckoning with our relationships to the land.
Neufeld’s work reminds me that we’re all connected to the land, one way or another, and that our connections to it and its history are often complex. She invites us to linger in complicated unsettled histories through her inherited and embodied relationship to the land. Her work reminds me that, as an uninvited white person living on Indigenous territory, one of my responsibilities is to work on understanding my and my ancestors’ relationships with this place.
Prairie Invasions: A Lullaby
Curator: Nan Capogna
Richmond Art Gallery
August 21—October 17, 2020