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ART REVIEW: FARMING IS NOT A JOKE


Emily Neufeld, Untitled. Prairie Invasions: A Lullaby Exhibition at Richmond Art Gallery, 2020.

The Richmond Art Gallery installs a fantastic exhibition titled Prairie Invasions: A Lullaby by Emily Neufeld. The show opened on the 21st of August, and I was delighted to view this exhibition before it closes on the 17th of October. Through experiential, gigantic photographs and sculptures, Neufeld traces back her Mennonite ancestors' lives and lands and reframes them to unearth and reveal the embedded power and influences shaping a place and the gradual changes that arise over the years.

The show talks about her Mennonite ancestors as land settlers and farmers, contributing to the convoluted history of colonization in Canada from the 1870s. Her ancestors were given land in the palace triangle, where the soil is considered the poorest. However, through nurturing and development, them nouveau farmers managed to make the lands fertile and flourish.

The Filipino folklore song called "Magtanim ay di biro" (Planting Rice is not a Joke) comes to my mind looking through the photographs and installations displayed in the exhibition. The song talks about the routine and challenges of farmers planting rice daily. The environment produced in the gallery space took me back home--Bauang, my hometown in the Philippines. Neufeld's photographs of the vast farmlands, meadows, and hills, with the lone farmhouse, reminded me of our backyard neighbours, reflecting almost the same scenery. It brings back my childhood memories of playing in the rice fields or flying kites when it is windy. There are also times when my cousins and I pick up clay to mould or searching for corn spiders for spider wrestling or catching dragonflies at noon or collecting manure to mix in with my grandmother's potting soil.

Magtanim ay di biro; Planting rice is not a joke;

maghapong nakayuko. the whole day you’re bent like an ox.

Di naman makatayo; You cannot stand more than one bit;

di naman makaupo. till you’re done you cannot sit.

Neufeld emphasizes that she takes a Mennonite attitude to art-making. She must work hard for them. Her mantra is if she is not "sweating, hurting and exhausted, it doesn't count as work." Neufeld realizes these through the laborious intervention and process of creating sculptures, photo-documenting and re-sculpting the photographic sculptures to exhibit them in galleries and bringing in harvested materials from her travel. As a result, she creates an ensemble of monumental artworks.

Magtanim ay di biro; Planting rice is not a joke;

maghapong nakayuko. the whole day you’re bent like an ox.

Di naman makatayo; You cannot stand more than one bit;

di naman makaupo. till you’re done you cannot sit.

The moment you enter, the gallery welcomes you with the first installation. It is a 9 ft by 12 feet photograph of a disintegrating bedroom. The image showcases the perspective of someone who entered a room. It shows broken windows, falling apart ceiling, and a massive roof hole. Which, over time, evidently enabled the prairie grasses to thrive in the room through the weather. Alongside the grasses is a rusting metal bed frame with a decrepit mattress, while across it is a thin and old teal coloured chair, covers the floor are various debris, dirt, and torn carpet and more scattered all around. Connected to this life-size photograph is another wall with the mirroring dimensions. Dried prairie grasses cover the entire wall with brown-eyed- susan flowers and barn swallow nests for embellishments. Behind these two walls are another pair of photographic installation and sculpture. The photo presents the second house wherein Neufeld creates a space intervention. The holes on the roof of the house caught her attention. As an intuitive response, she wove grass mats to cover them using available materials from the area like sticks and grasses. Right beside this sculpture was a wall with bright yellow and green wallpaper piece, which is also built-in with barn swallow nests casting in white colour.

Bisig ko’y namamanhid; Oh, my arms, the feeling’s gone;

baywang ko’y nangangawit. and my waist, it’s tires and sore.

Binti ko’y namimintig, My legs feel a thousand pricks,

sa pagkababad sa tubig. soaked in water, six to six.


In the middle of the gallery, you will see an arrangement of utensils, teacups, lipstick, and plates on top of a white extendable table. The middle part stands a white framed textured glass pane with a white barn swallow nest cast on one side. Hanging on both sides are lamps also taken over by the barn swallow nests. Underneath is a pile of dirt. These objects are harvested from various homes, giving hints of life from these abandoned houses—sharing their own stories and histories. Across the banquet of antique materials is another wall installation. The artist covered the wall with white and blue handmade floral wallpaper. Neufeld utilized cyanotype. A photographic printing process uses two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide and aids solar light to produce an image. The floral pattern on the wallpaper reflects the wallpaper seen behind. Wraps the third house with another bedroom view is a black and pink wallpaper that grabbed Neufeld's attention. Adjacent to this photographic sculpture are installations of three massive lamp sculptures. The monumental floor lamps' covering highlights the three remaining houses' panoramic image wherein Neufeld made interventions.

Sa umaga pagkagising, Mornings when I wake and rise;

lahat ay iisipin. I tell myself to think, be wise

Kung saan may patanim, and pray to find some land to till,

may masarap na pagkain. So, I can have a tasty meal.

The first lamp features a Shilling's house. In this building, Neufeld cut off the bottom part of one corner, uprooting one of the load-bearing beams. She was thinking about how people always move through space and making sure that there is proper air circulation through and simultaneously that it withstands the harsh weather conditions. The artist's intervention precedes this house's future: demolished and gone, which will bring back the prairie to cover the land back again. The second lamp displays three granaries connected to build one bigger, continuous infrastructure. Neufeld was inspired by its undulating pattern caused by the collapsing supports echoing the hills' horizon around the farm. Here, she stripped off some sidings from the back of the house to mimic the grasses coming off the land. The last lamp exhibits the last place in which Neufeld reacted to the holes present in the house. The artist looked around the farmyard. She then grabs objects that correspond to the pre-existing holes' size and shape, filling with rocks or other abundant plants in the area like caragana and bulrush. These objects and plants correlate Neufeld to her Mennonite heritage, as they are infamous for draining wetlands.

Halina, halina, mga kaliyag, Come, dear fellow stewards of earth,

tayo’y magsipag-unat-unat. Stretching muscles is good for the health.

Magpanibago tayo ng lakas, let us pause so we can catch our breath,

para sa araw ng bukas. And then tomorrow back to work!

Farming is not an easy task more so if you do not have a land to sow, or your land is not fertile enough to grow crops. The said livelihood has been a significant part of Mennonites' culture migrating here to Canada. Through farm steading the lands, they provided for themselves, their families, and the following generations. Amidst this significant growth and development, another problem arises. To nurture and grow the farm, they had to drain wetlands. Birds like the barn swallow and other living creatures; likewise, Indigenous people were displaced and lost their habitat from the land clearing. As a metaphor for this displacement, the artist uses barn swallow's nest to visualize the said injustices. Emily Neufeld is aware of all these issues as an artist and as a granddaughter of farmers. Through this exhibition, Neufeld rediscovers her history and aims to romanticize and reject the said action by revealing that time's reality. People who lived in those times would concede that it is not a romantic time at all. But instead, it was a time of hardships, starvation, and cruelty.

Ay, pagkasawimpalad What a cruel destiny

ng inianak sa hirap. To be born in poverty

Ang bisig kung di iunat, if I don’t work with my two arms,

di kumita ng pilak. I won’t earn a single dime.

Emily Neufeld giving an artist talk to two spectators at the Richmond Art Gallery.

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