Writing Award 2013 Best Article: Deanna Bowen’s “Invisible Empires”

by Ashley Mitrakos

Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist Deanna Bowen traces her ancestors’ forceful dispersion from Oklahoma to Alberta and daringly tackles and bares the existence and development of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada at the Art Gallery of York University’s (AGYU) latest show. The solo exhibition at the AGYU, Invisible Empires, is a collaboration between Bowen and the Director/Curator of the gallery, Philip Monk. Invisible Empires is a bold attempt at outing the KKK by putting them on display through a reversal of roles – Bowen, as aggressor, becomes the maker of meaning, rather than the object of oppression, and the oppressor, in turn, becomes the ‘other’. The success of the exhibition is contingent upon the viewer’s willingness to not only bear witness, but to assume the role of active participant in unpacking the contentious material symbols and documents that Bowen has put forth without (though knowingly) much critical context.

In the first part of the exhibition, Bowen unpacks the deep-rooted history of the Klan within the United States. Here, the works, or, really, artefacts, displayed range from official Klan banners, to two replicas of their daunting, yet quite laughable, official dress, and a poster of the bizarre hierarchal classes and structure of the Klan. “Klan Banner No. 2, 3, & 4 from Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners of the Ku Klux Klan. Incorporated. Atlanta, Georgia” (2013) have been ignited by callous fluorescent tubing and placed behind the plexiglass of the gallery’s vitrine panels. The space that they occupy, warningly, is a high-volume hallway that joins the gallery’s exterior wall and the University’s public transit terminals. Passersby rushing to their next class may overlook these eerie, out of place advertisements altogether, but if lining the wall in waiting for the next bus, are sure to be startled or at the very least question the nature and meaning of these vicious hangings. The banners are quite catchy and alluring at first, with their vibrant hues and vintage aesthetic, though for only a second before the nearly instantaneous recognition of the hooded men and ensuing horror at why they are there. “Once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no turning back”: [1] the vitrines mark this line.

Bowen invades the line between public and private, known and unknown, infiltrating enemy territory, between expectation and disbelief, and requests that we do the same. [2] The artist utilizes the gallery space as a safehouse of sorts where we can experience, safely, this difficult subject matter. Bowen must, however, assume social responsibility, as an artist and educator, in taking it upon herself to educate the public, in showcasing a collection of material that is so provocative and personal, and has remained largely unknown and silenced in Canada. The exhibition requires the viewer to become a participant and ‘active reader’ of symbols placed forth by the artist, rather than a consumer of the spectacle that Bowen has created, or a passive contemplator of the exhibition’s blunt aesthetic. [3]

In the second part of the exhibition, Bowen travels northbound from the US and narrows in on Canada to expose the Klan’s operations within the country. Between 1897 and 1911, Canada’s minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, encouraged immigration to Canada’s west, offering free land to potential immigrants who would, in turn, cultivate it. [4] When Oklahoma, the homeland of Bowen’s ancestors before their emigration to Canada, became a state in 1907, William H. Murray, the state’s ninth Governor, passed segregation legislation, which became fully implemented the following year. [5] More than one thousand of the State’s African-American population sold their farms and emigrated to Alberta and Saskatchewan between 1908 and 1911. [6] They were met with violence and many of the province’s white population actively protested that the government restrict the movement and prohibit others from entering the country. A scheme was soon developed, in the wake of white Canada’s upset, that lack of suitable work ethic and health regulations be used to keep them from immigrating, claiming the country’s cold climate as unsuitable and inadaptable for coloured people of familial backgrounds of warm climate. [7] The country, under the Laurier Government, even went so far as to hire preachers to relay these falsities back to African-Americans in Oklahoma as well as paying bonuses to immigration officers and doctors who rejected black immigrants from entering the country. [8]

The artist claims that Canadians are, for the most part, either unaware of, or in denial of the fact that “the Klan” ever existed in this country; [9] Bowen’s goal is to present us with this grisly past, so that we, the Canadian public, can bare witness to it and acknowledge it as a part of our history. [10] The Klan Comes to Town is a video recorded reenactment and corresponding in-gallery replication of the set of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) special news segment from This Hour Has Seven Days that originally aired October 24, 1965, and occupies the majority of the exhibition’s second space. Bowen completely replicates all possible aspects of the segment, from the furniture and décor, to the costume and dress of the participants. The program’s host interviews two high-ranking members of the Klan from the United States, and invites, upon the Klan’s unknowing members, an African-American Reverend to join their conversation. The Klan members unnervingly maintain a calm demeanour, and are even, at times, well-spoken and persuading, although they continually deny their criminal activities throughout the interview. The first part of the work consisted of a live re-enactment on the exhibition’s opening night with well-known Canadian actors Wesley Williams (Maestro) playing Reverend James Bevel, Walter Rinaldi as Grand Dragon Calvin Craig, Oliver Bourque as Titan George Sligh, and Russell Bennett as Robert Hoyt. [11] Thereafter, the set has remained empty, occupying the gallery space, while the replicated video recorded segment, in full colour and high definition, airs on loop, echoing throughout the gallery. The vivid colour and use of modern technologies, through the segment’s re-enactment, where the artist employs famous faces that are familiar to some, as well as the show’s complete replication live in the space, make this difficult subject matter more approachable and relatable for viewers – the viewer is able to maintain a safe distance from the hostility and dated nature of the original.

The rest of the exhibit provides proof, in the form of editorial clippings, interviews, photos, and promotional posters, and documents the activities of the Klan from the US to Canada. Bowen utilizes the archive and documents as proof of the Klan within Canada, through an appropriation of this historical material into reproductions of images and objects. In presenting reproductions of these historical documents within a gallery setting, she is not restoring their original meaning and intent, but rather, replacing their meaning with a new one; she poses as the interpreter of these proofs, rather than inventor of them, making them culturally significant. [12] Bowen utilizes the archive and historical artefacts, or re-enactments of them, rather than artworks, to present a carefully selected collection of documents, which allow her to authenticate and prove the often ignored, and widely unknown, history of the KKK and their terrorism within Canada’s borders; it is both immensely personal for the artist, and also serves as a tool for the viewer, sparking awareness and learning. Bowen treats the public exhibition space, social representation, and artistic language, in which she intervenes, as target and weapon. It is in this reversal of roles and “shift in position” that Bowen becomes a manipulator of signs, through the appropriation of documents, more than a producer of art objects. [13]

Upon first entering the exhibit’s main room, I felt eerily displaced and unsettled, but maybe this is the point. It is incredibly bold of Bowen to tackle such difficult and controversial subject matter and in the manner that she does, aggressively directly, through a reversal of the conventionally presented roles of oppressed and oppressor. In “1911 Anti Creek-Negro Petition” (2013), the artist photocopies a petition that fifteen percent of the population of Edmonton had signed in 1911 in hopes of preventing African Americans from the Southern US from immigrating to Alberta; “they appear as strangely incomplete – fragments or runes which must be deciphered”. [14] Bowen conveys an appreciation of the transience of things and is concerned enough to rescue them for eternity; she is able to do this through the allegorical potential of photocopy and other forms of reproduction. [15] She uses these as her mode of address, intervening in history, and allowing the past into the present, maintaining and renewing significance. Bowen then lines up and aggressively nails to the gallery walls each and every page of this petition, plainly and ritualistically. In the act of nailing these pages to the wall, Bowen is in a sense materializing and exposing the ills of man, making it known that yes, this happened here, showing and proving to Canadians a very real, and often overlooked, part of our nation’s history that has devastated the lives of countless African Americans and Canadians. Bowen exposes a topic that is normally repressed, especially in Canadian history, and this material seeks to shock and unveil the abject, and assumes power in the exhibition of these proofs and documents, rather than repressing them. [16] German philosopher and sociologist, Jürgen Habermas describes “historical memory” as being replaced “by the heroic affinity of the present with the extremes of history – a sense of time wherein decadence immediately recognizes itself in the barbaric, the wild, and the primitive”. [17] The artist uses the past in a different way: to oppose neutralized history through the use of allegory to rescue this disappearing past that we have been denied as Canadians, and to redeem it for the present, for without it, it may remain lost. [18]

Bowen’s exhibit and the manner in which she chooses to display these historical pieces, as well as the artefacts themselves, is both extremely personal and also widely overarching, but all the while relevant and worthwhile. The works are widespread, not necessarily focused to one event, place, or time; and while some viewers may feel displaced (though this feeling is necessary to the experience of the show), others will identify with Bowen (for whom the show is a personal learning mechanism about her family’s past) in a shared history, while every visitor can and should see and utilize this exhibit as a vital learning experience in Canadian history. The time consciousness as articulated by Bowen is not only ahistorical, but also motivates the viewer to question typically accepted and prejudiced notions of history and its “false normativity”. [19] Bowen revolts against the normalizing functions of tradition by rebelling against a history that has been silenced through normativity, her revolt neutralizes the standards of morality and utility. She uses the past to document in a different manner, disposing rather than accepting the past that has been made available by the objectifying scholarship of historicism. In showcasing the oppressors, “a new ideological shift becomes visible”. [20]

Bowen has presented these documents without much critical context so it is ultimately up to the viewer whether or not they want to cross the line from viewer to active participant in her maze of connotative material and imagery, requiring their rendering to give meaning and purpose. If you do choose to engage with Bowen in the exhibition, you will gain worthwhile insight and knowledge into a history that has been withheld from our country’s often-untold history; but if not, perhaps that’s okay, not every line is meant to be crossed.


[1] “Toronto Artist Crosses into Enemy Territory for Latest Exhibit ‘Invisible Empires’” YFile. (York University: 2013) Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <http://yfile.news.yorku.ca/2013/01/21/toronto-artist-crosses-into-enemy-territory-for-latest-exhibit-invisible-empires/>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hal Foster, “Subversive Signs” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003), 1037-1038.

[4] D. Chongo Mundende. “African American Exodus to Canada” Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture (Oklahoma Historical Society) Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/A/AF003.html>

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Claude Bélanger “Canadian Immigration History” Quebec History – Historie Du Québec (Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College: 2006) Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/readings/CanadianImmigrationPolicyLectureoutline.html>

[8] Ibid

[9] Deanna Bowen and Maestro Wes Williams “KKK In Canada: Interview by Matt Galloway” CBC.ca Metro Morning (CBC Radio-Canada: 2013) Web. 24 Jan. 2013. <http://www.cbc.ca/metromorning/episodes/2013/01/16/kkk-in-canada/>

[10] Ibid.

[11] Deanna Bowen “Invisible Empires” Invisible Empires. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. <http://www.deannabowen.ca/works/invisibleempires.html>

[12] Julia Kristeva, “Powers of Horror” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000, 1137-1139.

[13] Hal Foster, “Subversive Signs” and Jan Verwoert, “Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art.” Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1.2 (Summer, 2007): <http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/pdfs/verwoert.pdf>.

[14] Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000, 1025-1032.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Julia Kristeva, “Powers of Horror.”

[17] Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity – An Incomplete Project” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000, 1123-1131.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

Works Cited

Bélanger, Claude. “Canadian Immigration History.” Quebec History – Historie Du Québec. Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College, 2006. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/readings/CanadianImmigrationPolicyLectureoutline.html>.

Bowens, Deanna. “Invisible Empires.” Invisible Empires. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. <http://www.deannabowen.ca/works/invisibleempires.html>.

Bowen, Deanna, and Maestro Wes Williams. “KKK In Canada.” Interview by Matt Galloway. Audio blog post. CBC.ca Metro Morning. CBC Radio-Canada, 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. <http://www.cbc.ca/metromorning/episodes/2013/01/16/kkk-in-canada/>.

Foster, Hal. “Hal Foster (b. 1955) from ‘Subversive Signs’” Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 1037-1038. Print.

Habermas, Jurgen. “Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929) from ‘Modernity – An Incomplete Project’” Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 1123-1131. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. “Julia Kristeva (b. 1941) from ‘Powers of Horror’” Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 1137-1139. Print.

Mundende, D. Chongo. “African American Exodus to Canada.” Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/A/AF003.html>.

Owens, Craig. “Craig Owens (1950-1990) from ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’” Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 1025-1032. Print.

“Toronto Artist Crosses into Enemy Territory for Latest Exhibit ‘Invisible Empires’.” YFile. York University, 21 Jan. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <http://yfile.news.yorku.ca/2013/01/21/toronto-artist-crosses-into-enemy-territory-for-latest-exhibit-invisible-empires/>.

Verwoert, Jan. “Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art.” Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1.2 (Summer, 2007): <http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/pdfs/verwoert.pdf>.