Proof of PresenceMKG127, September 10th - October 8th 2022
However seemingly kitschy, the series of images in Proof of Presence continue to do the work of documenting and tracing my family’s lineage in ways similar to A Harlem Nocturne (2019), Black Drones in the Hive (currently on view at the Image Centre at TMU) and my Spring 2023 commissioned work for the National Gallery’s Leading With Women series, but in a much more intimate way.
My mother Leora is the second eldest of twelve children borne to Rev. Albert Sterling and Jean (Bowen) Risby in Amber Valley, AB. The family moved from the farm to Vancouver in 1953; and in this transition Leora was tasked with the role of surrogate matriarch/memory keeper of her siblings when my grandparents traveled to preach. As her only daughter/eldest granddaughter, I grew up knowing that I was expected to assume the role of surrogate matriarch at some time. Every work I have created since 1994 has been about my efforts to dodge or accept this burden.
My mother Leora was diagnosed with dementia at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020; and since moving my mother to Montreal in December 2021, one of my spatially necessary and emotionally daunting tasks as her caregiver has been sorting through her personal belongings to determine what should be kept and what to give away. Not quite a hoarder; my mother’s belongings are a mélange of ‘what could be salvaged’ items from various stages of her life as a single mother and career secretary, as well as the trinkets and bobbles of relatives whose stories are too painful to remember. A stack of “slacks;” a collection of shoes; a pile of brushes and combs; wigs; a hair dryer; empty wallets and agendas; cassette tapes; a cracked photo; a pile of singed power cords; and a deteriorating pin cushion all form a material portrait of, and tribute to, an extraordinary woman who has lived a hard and frugal life.
Here, my mother’s character and life ‘worth’ are not determined by the monetary value of the things we selected and photographed. These photos (and subsequent editions) reflect my efforts as my mother’s surrogate, to remind her of the family she cannot recall, and these seemingly insignificant objects help spark recollection and long-hoped for present-day connection between a daughter who never felt seen and a mother who was never encouraged to see herself.