Haggo: Looking for the sacred in everyday life

Toni Hamel exhibit ‘The lingering’ on now at Grimsby Public Art Gallery

WHATSON Nov 21, 2015 by Regina Haggo Hamilton Spectator

Can banality inspire beauty? Indeed it can. Toni Hamel, an award-winning multimedia artist, takes her creative cue from domestic life and turns its dullness and repetitiveness into art.

Her creations are on show in The lingering, a striking exhibition at Grimsby’s Public Art Gallery. The exhibition, organized and circulated by the Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery, comprises mixed-media sculptures and drawings.

Hamel was born and raised in Italy. Having observed women’s lives in southern Italy and now in Canada, she casts a passionate and dispassionate eye on women’s roles in both cultures.

Her art helps her to reconcile her roles of wife, mother, artist and immigrant. At the same time, she reaches out to all women, inspired by what she calls the “struggles of womanhood” such as self-acceptance and identity.

In “Our Daily Bread,” Hamel ennobles the women who perform domestic chores. The title is a phrase snatched from a familiar Christian prayer and encourages us to consider the sacred and ritual qualities of women’s work.

There are three women. In ancient Mediterranean societies, important goddesses came in threes. These women, however, look ordinary and decidedly old-fashioned. But being old-fashioned is a traditional feminine virtue.

Hamel exploits her materials with great aplomb. The heads and shoulders of the women are conceived as two-dimensional black and white images on a big canvas hanging on the gallery wall. Their hands, fashioned from plaster, are three-dimensional. Two belong to the woman in the centre who begins to cut into the long loaf of bread. Her companions hold the loaf with one hand each.

The loaf symbolizes food and nourishment. It sits on a table covered with a white cloth which makes it look both domestic and altar-like. The cloth is in fact part of the canvas on the wall, so all the disparate elements are visually united.

If you can’t see the sacred in domestic life, you can always flee from it. “The Exodus” offers a dramatic flight to freedom.

Hamel made 1,200 origami-styled paper cranes and joined them with almost invisible nylon filament. Four strands of birds fly out of four cages that resemble simplified pentagonal house shapes. Houses and cages are human constructs. The tangled twigs and branches they fly toward are more natural shelters.

Hamel’s series of drawings, packed with satire and irony, feature people engaged in mundane tasks. “The Lesson” depicts a mother guiding a girl who moves ahead on little wheels instead of legs. The mother holds red thread — real, not drawn — which is wound around the child’s wrists. In artistic tradition, red is the colour of life.

A soundtrack complements the exhibition. It includes someone playing the piano, a woman’s voice, laughter, crying and the sounds of birds. It has the feel of a fragment of memory, repeated but never fully recalled.

The Hamilton Spectator