Saturday, July 16, 2005

Glenbow Museum

I had originally intended to return to Lethbridge Monday afternoon, but got the bus schedule wrong and missed the afternoon bus. Consequently, I ended up with a couple of hours to kill in Calgary so went to the Glenbow.

The museum has several excellent permanent exhibits, but I've seen those several times before, so was primarily interested in seeing what was new. I thus divided my time between an exhibit of West African symbols, one on modern Vietnam, and one on the life stories of seven immigrants to Calgary. One of the stories featured the bhuddist inspired art of Loatian immigrant Thep Thavonsouk. Thep Thavonsoukpaintings are among the most pleasing and thought provoking I've seen in recent years. He paints tiny human figures dwarfed by the landscapes confronting them. In my favorite, a party of bhuddist monks can just be made out in the bottom middle-left of the painting, strolling along a beach with traditional Loatian orange
and red umbrella's unfurled, while the majority of the canvas is dominated by a vast storm brewing overhead. Thep Thavonsouk asks, are the umbrella’s really going to help? It is a great bhuddist moment!

I was very pleased with the West African exhibit, partly because I can only take so much cowboy art and prefer to see a variety of exhibits, and partly because West Africa is one of the 'holes' in my knowledge. Even today, school history tends to focus on European history and leave Africa and Asia largely untouched. As an undergraduate I chose to fill as much of that vacuum as I could, taking courses in the history of Southeast Asia, for example, even becoming something of an armchair expert on the politics of Indonesia, but I could not cover everything and West Africa was one of those blanks. The exhibit was small (just as well given my limited time frame) but of fairly high caliber. The majority of exhibited items were collected by the Glenbow's founder back in the 1930s, and have never been exhibited until now. Well worth the trip.

The Viennese exhibit was also interesting, though I didn't have much time left by the point I got to it. I particularly appreciated the video segments, which showed scenes from daily life, because I'm afraid I had not updated my mental picture since the Vietnam war, at which point the Americans had pretty much bombed the northern half of the country into a Saskatween lookalike -- i.e., unpaved parking lot. So it was reassuring and life affirming to see modern (kind of) city scenes and to be reminded that that was 30 years ago, and life goes on.

My favorite exhibit was the story of Calgary immigrants, since we are all natural voyeurs interested in the lives of other people. The exhibit was nicely balanced between those who had 'made it' (the artist, __, mentioned above, and two successful businessmen) and those who were doing just okay (e.g., a janitor, a housewife); and between those who had come as refugees, come for love (woman who married a tourist), and who made a conscious choice to emigrate to Canada. I also liked that although several of the statements talked about the opportunities and freedoms in Canada, it was not as if once they got here their lives were perfect...the refugee family still lost one of their son's in a car accident, another had a sister who dreamed of having her own restaurant, but was working in Wal-Mart, etc. Being so balanced, it seemed pretty real.

The local bhuddist group had set up a bhuddist altar as part of this exhibit, and asked people to leave something of themselves -- the result was a highly electric collection of Eastern spirituality and Western materialism. Many of the kids who had taken advantage of the crafts room next door had left their art on the multi-platformed altar; other visitors had left postcards, a comb, sunglasses, etc. Pretty nifty piece of conceptual art.

The museum closed at 4:45, but the giftshop stayed open until 5:30 so I spent the next 45 minutes browsing it shelves and particularly its extensive bookshelves. In the end, I had to forego any of the books, several of which appeared very tempting, because I was already carrying too great a weight of books in my bag from the convention, but I noted some titles for later reference. I did buy a tie and a couple of handmade bookmarks. But the giftshop is highly recommended for its own sake as a decent bookstore and art jewelry etc.

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