Ron Bechet, Transformation, 2021, charcoal on paper, 6’ x 7.5’. Photo: Eric Waters.

About the exhibition

“When breath becomes an object of attention, no longer unremarked on, no longer taken for granted, no longer an uninspected given, anxiety is also in the air.”

—Nathaniel Mackey

Open Structure explores the subtle rhythms and systems that structure life. The exhibition considers how sound, music, and touch can offer new perspectives on systems such as identity and the rules that govern our lives, and also provide space to pause, gather, and dream. Many of the artists in the exhibition look to histories of avant-garde and experimental Black music as part of their research, including musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Gil Scott-Heron. Other artists approach the themes of the exhibition by drawing our attention to a range of structures, including breath. 

This exhibition is informed by Nathaniel Mackey’s 2016 lecture “Breath and Precarity,” and his exploration of breath as a structuring element of avant-garde music and poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. Mackey, a poet, editor, and critic, suggests that this attention to breathing created an aesthetic attuned to the rhythms and nuances of the poet or musician’s breath, and can be understood as a symptom of political emergency. A new audio commission, made specifically for the exhibition, focuses on the importance of breath to Black experimental art, and ways of understanding structure in the present.

Open Structure developed during the recent and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a health crisis that made us acutely aware of the air around us and made urgent the need for new political structures. Though representations of the body are largely absent from the exhibition, many of the artists reference sensory experience through works that use ordinary materials and respond to the presence of the viewer. Others depict the natural world and reference life cycles that unfold at a scale different from our own.

In music composition, an open structure is a harmony composed of notes from a wide range, and in this context, the form suggests the peaks and valleys of experience. Overall, the artworks model ways of questioning current political and social structures and posit alternative ways of organizing and being together.

Open Structure is the first of three exhibitions presented as part of the School of Art Gallery’s Visiting Curator Program. Launched in Summer 2021, this initiative supports curatorial research, exhibitions, events, and publications by emerging and established guest curators alike.

The Visiting Curator Program is a catalyst for international-calibre exhibitions and aims to play a vital role in defining contemporary art and its attendant discourses in the Prairies. It gives students, faculty, and other community members meaningful opportunities to engage with curators charting bold new trajectories in their field. Through a significant mentorship component, it aims to foster strong new voices in this discipline.

We are pleased to welcome Grace Deveney, Lillian O’Brien Davis, and Shalaka Jadhav as the program’s inaugural visiting curators. This program is generously supported by Michael F.B. Nesbitt.

Header Image: Ron Bechet, Transformation, 2021, charcoal on paper, 6’ x 7.5’. Photo: Eric Waters. 


In Dialogue

Kameelah Janan Rasheed: otherwise 

Lobby Gallery 

Animation and graphics consultation:
Mpho “Solid” Madi (Johannesburg, South Africa)

Film excerpts:

  • Dream Deferred featuring Fannie Lou Hamer (Harvey Richards, 1964)
  • Mississippi Goddam (Nina Simone, 1965)
  • Mississippi Goddam (Nina Simone, mid-1970s)
  • Winter in America (Gil Scott-Heron, 1975)
  • Clearing California Skies (California Air Resources Board, 1998)
  • Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) Rally (, 2007)
  • “California air quality: One-third of population deals with sub-standard air quality” (The Los Angeles Times, 2014)

Texts cited:

  • Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. United Kingdom: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Crawley, Ashon T.. Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. United States: Fordham University Press, 2016.

Commissioned by the California Air Resources Board

Derrick Woods-Morrow: Untitled (Cowboy): good to me as I am to you

Collections Gallery 

appropriated archival film
the feeling of lying on the ground staring up

Adjunct Programming

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University of Manitoba (Fort Garry campus)
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