All objects in one way or another have a story to tell. But not all things willingly relinquish their stories. Or, they are hesitant, slowly reluctant to release whispers of their gossip, jokes, their trauma, or provenance, at risk of their secrets being unjustly subsumed within, or employed in the service of, particular narratives, particular formulations of power. Withholding is their right, I think. And too often that right is violated. Such tensions between objects, narrative, and power thread Nadia Myre’s recent body of work, Code Switching.
Formally, Code Switching is a series of images of equivocal cylindrical objects—less shiny than something nacreous or opalescent, but strangely able still to evoke some kind of iridescence despite their matte surface—arranged in various permutations against an unwavering black backdrop, as well as a sculptural work made of these same objects. Myre, a Montreal-based artist and Algonquin member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, is precisely attuned to the weight and knowledge that materials and objects hold, including these enigmatic ones.
These bead-like entities are in fact fragments of clay tobacco pipes, used once or twice then discarded—vanquished to the wet depths of the Thames, upon whose banks Myre and her son gathered the weather-worn remains. While these fragments might hold stories of sailors docking in London, first jolting smoke in months, or the last indulgence of those preparing to depart on a long journey—a deeply colonial and perhaps unduly romantic narrative of the sea and its conquering—deeper in their ivory and grey-tinged textures is a longer story, one of colonial plundering and tobacco trade routes, the wholesale stealing of Indigenous resources and traditions, imported from the so-called New World (which was only in fact new to Europeans) to England and Europe as early as the 16th century. The fragments speak of the industrialization of Europe, and the mass production of consumer goods, and the matching mass import of resources taken from across the Atlantic, all capitalist processes whose acceleration has now disenfranchised millions of people, not to mention jeopardized the stability of our fragile global ecology. This is the narrative that Myre allows to live and breathe through the works in Code Switching. Her arrangement of the pipe pieces recalls in turn Indigenous regalia, ceremonial offerings, and bone fragments; her stewardship of these objects is a powerful reclaiming of narrative and tradition, a restitution—not bestowed by those who perpetrated such violence, but rather sought and obtained by the artist herself—made more poignant by the inaugural presentation of this work being situated in Europe.
I think of Myre and her son sauntering along the bank of the Thames together, picking up washed up pipe remnants half buried in the rocks or sand or mud, likely amid some litter and other weird dross of the city. Maybe it was sunny that day, but probably not because it’s London. In any case, that’s not my story to tell, but hers, and her son’s. Just as the story of these pipes lives uneasily or irresolutely in these words. Their story is best told by them; Code Switching is Myre’s generous building of a venue fit for the telling of such stories.
Text by Natasha Chaykowski