The mundane and domestic come to life at NGC photo exhibit

The National Gallery of Canada opened its retrospective exhibition on Canadian photographer Margaret Watkins Oct. 5.

Throughout the gallery space are quotes from Watkins’ journals. Some of the quotes emphasize her love for music — she compares a sunset to “Wagner with full orchestra” in one quote. Others provide insight into the mindset of Margaret Watkins.

A 1915 quote illustrates her view on art: “Nothing is ever too commonplace or too useful to escape the sweet embellishment of art.”

“Around the humble cookstove, art runs in riotous castiron curves, where may rest the savory spillings from many a too exuberant soup kettle.”

The exhibition, called Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies features the photographs of Hamilton-born Watkins, who remained in relative obscurity until her friend and local neighbour Joseph Mulholland found her photographs years after she had entrusted them to him.

“One day I spotted the box, opened it up astonished to find 1,200 photographs. Portraits of men, women, children, nudes, landscapes, and abstracts,” Mulholland said.

“I thought I had known Margaret Watkins. She had spoken of everything under the sun, except her past and photography.”

Director Marc Mayer was surprised he had never heard of Watkins until recently. “We think we know so much about the past and the history of photography and then every once in a while an artist emerges who we didn’t know,” he said.

Watkins lived in relative obscurity until her neighbour found her photos in a box she had given him (Photo provided)
Watkins lived in relative obscurity until her neighbour found her photos in a box she had given him (Photo provided)

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Go Forth and Multiply: Cara Tierney as Goddess of “Other”

Go Forth and Multiply: Tierney as Goddess of the “Other”

Brittany Gushue

Go Forth and Multiply explores the photographic works of recent University of Ottawa MFA graduate Cara Tierney. The exhibition, curated by Sandra Dyck at the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG), consisted of a series of self-portraits in which the artist appears as multiple versions of herself. As part of the graduation process, Tierney had to display her work in an exhibition demonstrating the knowledge and technique acquired during her studies. When Dyck was informed that CUAG would host a graduating exhibition, she immediately pursued Tierney. “I remember being very much impressed with her confidence, her eloquence, the strength of her work and she kind of stuck in my mind,” said Dyck. Tierney’s photographs possess strength referencing knowledge not only learned in her Masters in Fine Arts, but also from her Masters in Art History earned at Carleton University. Tierney explores the theme of identity in her photographs through the clever marrying of past with present.

Tierney posed like a figure model in several of her photographs, however, she did not appear naked. Instead she wore basic t-shirts with the word “NUDE” written across her chest. This could be interpreted as a shy artist’s attempt to avoid exposing themself but it was evident in her photograph, Shooting the Rapids (2011) (Figure 1) where a representation of Tierney was shown sprawled completely naked in a boat that nudity was not the issue. Tierney said, “Initially, I was really looking at the representation of female bodies in art history. But it’s also with regards to being a transgender person and how society kind of puts you at odds with your naked body.” Go Forth and Multiply explores the concept of identity as a fluid, multi-faceted and negotiable construct and one which allows a space for the complex transgender identity. Tierney re-writes art history both metaphorically and actively from a transgender perspective. She achieves this through the manipulation of photography, creating a multiplicity of self that is synonymous with transgender identity; an identity which does not maintain a single construct, being neither completely male nor completely female.

The photographs hung neatly spaced against the white walls of the gallery. The minimal installation techniques encouraged the viewer to interact and interpret the works on their own without the interference of text panels. This approach to display allowed for a deeper discourse on the issues Tierney raises in her self-portraits.  “I am exploring identity construction from a queer perspective, a transgender perspective and I am looking at the effects of language in society on identity formation and how identity isn’t a singular concept , it’s actually made up of multiple parts which is why you see multiple me’s, interacting with myself, sometimes happily, sometimes not so happily,”  said Tierney. One photograph stood out in particular for its exceptional appropriation of a renown painting from the canon of art history, Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera, Allegory of Spring (1478) (Figure 2).

Primavera (2011) (Figure 3) is Tierney’s self-portrait adaptation of Botticelli’s original mythological scene. Tierney had to cut from hundreds of photographs in a process to create one single edited photograph as seen in exhibition. She would load up a canoe with photographic equipment then proceed to an area of obscurity where she could pose freely. Once there, she would set up the tripod with a camera on timer to capture the various poses seen in the final photograph. Since Tierney used a technical process which relied heavily on an editing process, the viewer can be assured that each work was deliberate and created to convey a message specific to the artist’s desire. In Primavera (2011), seven figures and a reflection of a figure appear in a clearing of the woods. On the left-hand side, three images of Tierney appear half-naked in white shorts with breasts duct-taped over. Two of these three figures (in place of Botticelli’s three graces) seem to adore a mirror that reflects another figure of Tierney (the third grace), naked and duct-taped from her breasts to the bottom half of her body. The figure on the farthest left-hand side is a self-portrait of Tierney, with breasts taped over, in place of Botticelli’s figure of Mercury. In the centre, Tierney appears as the original Venus with one breast taped over and again half-naked. On the right-hand side appears Tierney’s interpretation of Zephyr in pursuit of Chloris who then transforms into Flora. However in Tierney’s version, a self-portrait portraying “culture” pursues “nurture” who then transforms into “nature,” holding a hand-full of sex toys.

The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn into the centre of the photograph where a self-portrait of Tierney as Venus stands. The goddess of love is replaced with an agitated-looking Tierney who has one of her breasts duct-taped over. This rejection of a primary female erogenous zone and yet the inclusion of it as well suggests the complexity of the transgender identity, being neither strictly female nor strictly male. Tierney becomes a new goddess, the goddess of the “other,” the queer and marginalized population within society. It is important to note that this photograph cites but does not quote art history. Tierney has removed an important element from Botticelli’s original Primavera, causing a major shift in subject matter. There is no representation of Cupid, changing Botticelli’s scene on love to the difficulty a transgender person experiences when confronted with their own body. This is further emphasized by the two groupings of figures on either side of the “Goddess” Tierney. The three Tierney “graces” interact with one another in a sensual embrace of exposed bodies. Two half-naked and duct-taped representations seem to almost caress a completely naked and duct-taped figure of Tierney. The bodies represent the fragmented manner in which a transgender identity may appear when forced to reconcile with either/or notions of gender.

The eye then wanders to the right-hand side where the viewer is forced to grapple with the image Tierney is trying to convey using words ambiguously in place of Botticelli’s mythological figures.  However, just like Tierney’s more open construct of identity, interpretations do not need to fall into an either/or category of right or wrong. Tierney said “there’s a sense that something’s happening, something may have happened before the picture and something’s probably going to happen after that picture but I am not giving you that information cause I want you to decide where that comes from and where’s it going in relation to yourself.”  “Culture” pursues “nurture” which then turns into “nature.”  We grow up in a society where people are told at a young age that people fall into neat little boxes of either/or categories. This then turns into our “nature” and how we perceive others and ourselves. “Nature” holds a handful of manufactured sex toys implying that “culture” i.e. society creates a false identity but more importantly a manufactured sexual identity in  which people are expected to fall in either or categories of male or female. “Goddess” Tierney stands alone, caught in the middle, suggesting identity is capable of a middle-ground where individuals need not feel conflicted or pressured into meeting these either/or constructs.

Go Forth and Multiply was sharp, engaging, but most importantly it was informative about the niches society chooses to maintain and box people into. Through the presence of Tierney, the almighty goddess and artist, a new space was created which embraced the transgender identity. Tierney demonstrated quite cleverly that there needs to be a new discourse on the manner in which society categorizes people. Identity is officially open for negotiation.


















Figure 1:

Title: Shooting the Rapids

Artist: Cara Tierney

Date: 2011

Location: CUAG



Figure 2:

Title: La Primavera, Allegory of Spring

Artist: Sandro Botticelli

Date: 1478

Location:Galleria degli Uffizi



Figure 3:

Title: Primavera

Artist: Cara Tierney

Date: 2011

Location: CUAG

Source:  Go Forth and Multiply exhibition catalogue




Barolsky, Paul. “Botticelli’s “Primavera” and the Poetic Imagination of Italian Renaissance Art.”

Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics 8 (Fall 2000): 5-35.