Despite material breakthroughs, hierarchies persist in Canadian art. Textiles and crafts are slowly being welcomed under the umbrella, and jewellery is joining them. In the gendering of applied arts as “women’s work,” their potential to visualize narratives emerged with artists such as Faith Ringgold and Louise Bourgeois. Yinka Shinobare and Lorna Simpson established key precedents in the interplay among identity, culture, and historical memory, but Canadian art scholars should consider similar developments with jewellery, which can also activate the potential to uncover and centre histories of slavery in Canada.

As Julia Skelly writes in Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft (2017), “The ostensible ‘excessiveness’ of craft materials—positioned as superfluous, decorative and unnecessary in traditional and modernist art histories—make them the perfect materials for the representation of ostensible excesses in the lived experiences
of women. Thus materiality is crucial to the understanding of radical decadence. Subject matter and materials are inextricably woven together.”

In this framework of materiality, multidisciplinary artist Karin Jones draws on her expertise in jewellery to visibilize bodies rendered invisible in the gallery space. In the interplay of adornment and restraint, her latest project, (body of work) (2018), elicits a related question: How can jewellery within an art context provide lessons about histories that can no longer be ignored? (body of work) does not feature bodies, but it suggests presence in absence. In Yoke (2017), Jones visualizes the neckpiece, accentuating baby teeth like corn pieces around its border. “I love the hominy corn as well because it reminds me so much of cowry shells, and one of the ideas I was working with was what kinds of materials you would choose to adorn yourself if you really had nothing,” Jones writes. “I imagined these Africans who had been stolen from their homeland, missing the objects of value and beauty they would have had at home, and using the closest thing at hand.”1

Framing these objects as both beautiful
and restrictive materializes the destructive
force of colonialism and slavery.

Framing these objects as both beautiful and restrictive materializes the destructive force of colonialism and slavery. Rendered at neck level, each piece (installed on a black panel) functions as a mirror directly reflecting enslaved bodies. Made with unorthodox materials such as steel, leather (repurposed horse tack) and silver, the neckpieces surface a desire to wear these objects; yet, they will never be worn—a paradox underlining Jones’s practice. Works such as Dread (2018) incorporate human hair, directly referencing her African Canadian identity. “When I was working with them, the locks really felt like little individual beings or bodies,” she writes. “In Pendant (2018), it feels even more literally like a body hanging from a noose.” In Scale (2018), Jones incorporates an arm from a weight scale, speaking to racist categorization, reinforcing systems of enslavement and indentured labour; its consequences are still seen today.

In considering her own African Canadian identity, Jones asks, “Why do we wear this identity so proudly?” Interrogating the tension between pride and shame, the answer is not clear-cut, as complex emotions confront the Canadian institution of slavery. Providing unexpected avenues into empathy with and acceptance of these histories, the objects enact the viewer to receive that identity through the candid medium of jewellery.

(1) The themes expressed in this article were first articulated through email correspondence with the artist and from her artist talk for (body of work) at Galerie La Centrale Powerhouse, Montreal, November 2, 2019.