National Gallery’s General Idea exhibition: Respect

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I attended the media preview of General Idea, a ground-breaking art exhibition at Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, on June 1.

The first speaker, Algonquin-Anishinaabeg Elder Annie Smith St. Georges, recognized the June 21 Solstice as a marker of change. She linked General Idea artists’ demand that Society confront AIDS to the dangerous times in which we live where Covid and Climate Change pose challenges.

What’s General Idea?
I wrote “ground-breaking” because General Idea was an extremely avant-garde group of three artists: AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal, who were embedded in the Counterculture movement of the 1960s where they challenged social and artistic norms. Both Partz and Zontal died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994.

General Idea still asks us to understand the AIDS HIV virus, to recognize the devastation this epidemic continues to exert upon first the homosexual and subsequently, LGBTTTQQIAA and heterosexual communities.
Responses to epidemics

Because of Covid, links to the AIDS epidemic are appropriate: AIDS still walks among us, as does Covid.

In contrast to the breathtaking rapidity with which vaccines were developed for Covid, it was (and remains) shocking how long it took for AIDS to be recognized and for antidotes developed. And not just research for a cure (which still eludes us): even naming that epidemic was political. It took then-President of the USA Ronald Reagan four years even to utter the word AIDS, explained Dr. Adam Welch National Gallery of Canada’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art,. (history.com/news/aids-epidemic-ronald-reagan)

The fact that the politicians, health-care professionals and general public of 2020 and beyond educated themselves about Covid — and that researchers discovered vaccines to help fight it within mere months – is a testimony to the changes in our world vision of pandemics.

Elder Annie Smith St. George opened the General Idea exhibition by celebrating the Solstice. She said we live in very dangerous times, while recognizing that Earth’s seasonal rhythms represent hope.

Elder Annie Smith St. George
After acknowledging that we were gathered on unceded Algonquin, Anishinaabeg territory (bit.ly/3zr9yMQ), Elder Annie (as she’s called), spent the rest of her speech both acknowledging and celebrating our connection to Nature — a connection Covid emphasized.

“We call Climate Change a cleansing – the Earth is so polluted… So, if we don’t have clean water, we cease to exist… It’s everybody’s business at the time when these unknown viruses come from animals. Without one another, we would cease to exist.”

Solstice and change
Elder Annie linked the approaching Solstice to the opening of the General Idea exhibition:

“As we start any event such as the change of seasons and the solstice, we open this National Gallery exhibition and breathe the summer coming in. I thank the Creator. As the sun greets us to tell us this is a new day… as we walk into a new summer, I thank the Creator. Megwetch. What a great gift to be on Mother Earth today. I thank the animals which nourish our bodies. I thank the Creator in these devastating times.”

Hope

Elder Annie asks that we recognize we are irrevocably intertwined with Nature. Of her Anishinaabeg community, she stated, “If someone was different, they were given a different thing to do. We are all-inclusive.”
She asks us to respect Mother Earth and recognize everyone has a role. Acknowledgement of others means not only recognizing and respecting those who walk among us today, but also our ancestors and those who will come. Such acknowledgement powerfully influences how we treat one another and encourages the nurturing of our environment.

It’s our choice.

Very simply? That’s the General Idea.

General Idea Exhibition runs until November 20, 2022. (bit.ly/3muYK8L)
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer, author, and visual artist. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com and view her art at facebook.com/KatharineFletcherArtist/