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Alumni Interviews: Canadian cultural voyageur and cartographer Francesca Valente

Francesca Valente is a global cultural mediator and animator who divides her time between Toronto and Italy. After earning her MA in Canadian literature at the University of Toronto in 1977 as an international student, she launched a 30-year career with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with postings to Italian cultural institutes in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto-Vancouver.

Francesca Valente sitting in a black leather and metal Le Corbusier armchair in front of an abstract painting

Francesca Valente divides her time between Toronto and Italy. Photo: Jackie Shapiro.

She directed two nationwide, multi-media cultural festivals in Canada, as well as over 150 international exhibitions, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Bill Viola. In 2010, she constructed a map, in the form of a video installation, of the worldwide Italian artistic diaspora, through 89 Italian cultural institutes, that was featured at the Venice Biennale 2011.

Valente has also edited over 100 catalogues and translated 35 works by authors such as Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, Michael Ondaatje and Pier Paolo Pasolini. For her contributions to the promotion of Italian and North American culture, she was awarded the Impresa e Cultura Prize by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Cavaliere Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana and an honorary Doctorate of Letters from York University. Valente is the Imago Mundi curator for Central and Eastern Canada, part of the “Great and North” Canadian contribution to the Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche’s ongoing international project to map human cultures of world.

Arts & Science spoke with Valente about the exhibit, which opens August 29, 2017 for a two-month run at the Palazzo Loredan in Venice, in celebration of Canada 150.

Tell us about Imago Mundi and the Canadian contribution to this acclaimed project.

Imago Mundi is about art and the world without borders: it’s a democratic, collective and global map-in-the-making of human cultures as envisioned by Luciano Benetton, creator of the fashion empire United Colors of Benetton and an art patron by vocation. To date, more than 20,000 artists from 130 countries have contributed original work, all using the same single format of a 10 x 12 cm canvas. The installations for the vast majority of the countries have been designed by the revered Italian architect, Tobia Scarpa, who created a magic grid that allows the curators to create similarity in diversity and that suggests the democratization of artistic experience and the integration of different cultural traditions. 2017 is Canada’s year to be featured, to coincide with the Sesquicentennial.

For the Central and Eastern Canada exhibit, I commissioned and curated original art work by 220 artists from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and Newfoundland & Labrador as part of the broader “Great and North” exhibit that includes another 539 artists from Western Canada as well as Inuit and First Nations artists of North America; these sections were curated by Jennifer Karch Verzé.

How did you approach the rather monumental task of selecting and collecting all these artists, across such a vast region?

I did a lot of research. I consulted with leading curators, like Peggy Gale (BA 1967), who was like Virgil to my Dante as far as Ontario and Quebec are concerned, Jonathan Shaughnessy at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Sarah Fillmore of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Pan Wendt of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, and Mireille Eagan of The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

I traveled to talk in person with the artists — by plane, train and even bicycle. I delivered canvasses. The artists would also suggest other artists, and that was so special. And then it was a question of persuading them to take part — I must have blown the tires of my bicycle twice from hauling around so many catalogues to show them as reference.

Perseverance and conviction were key, but also taking the time to discover the hidden talents. But this was important because I didn’t want any form of tokenism to be associated with the collection, and so while the vast majority of the artists are living in Toronto, I am proud that there is a strong representation from each of the provinces. And the fact is, many of the Toronto-based artists did come from away, like David Blackwood whose imagination is focused solely on Newfoundland despite living in Ontario, Taiwan-born Ed Pien, who now teaches at the U of T’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, & Design, and Vera Frenkel, who was born in Bratislava.

Apart from geographical representation and multicultural representation, how did you approach the task from a philosophical perspective?

I wanted the exhibit to be intergenerational. Next to established artists like Michael Snow and Edward Burtynsky are emerging artists, like Brendan McNaughton, a 25-year-old artist who is represented by the Jane Corkin Gallery and already making a name for himself as a major talent, or Erin Loree, also in her 20s, who is represented by Angell Gallery.

I also wanted it to be interdisciplinary: next to painting, sculpture and photography, I included architecture and design, and even cinema, literature and music. My intention was to show this part of Canada as a creative laboratory where the borders between various creative practices are dissolving.

The Central and Eastern Canada exhibit is called, “Out of the Bush Garden,” a rather evocative and thought-provoking title. How did you come up with it?

It comes from Margaret Atwood (BA 1961), who wrote “The Bush Garden,” a poem that is part of The Journals of Susanna Moodie. This powerful oxymoron, which refers to graftings and hybrids, was subsequently chosen by Northrop Frye, who was Atwood’s teacher at the University of Toronto, as well as my mentor and teacher, for his collection of essays on the Canadian imagination.

I wanted to honour Frye and Atwood, who were two of my guides through this process; the metaphor evokes all the artistic creativity that has taken place in Canada because of cross-pollination. I thought by adding the preposition “out of” — which was suggested by yet another U of T literary alumna Janice Kulyk Keefer (BA 1974, MA 1976) — that the title would become much more layered. Also the Canadian imagination has evolved so much that it belongs to a higher sphere and is becoming known on the world stage. I feel strongly that Canada shouldn’t just export its raw materials, but also its rich and varied culture.

What did you want to show about Canada?

Truly, I felt like a voyageur and cartographer with a desire to rewrite the artistic map of Canada. I wanted to show this part of the country as a think tank, a creative laboratory, as I have already mentioned. And this aim is reflected by the image selected for the catalogue’s cover. It is a conceptual photograph by Michael Snow that shows the fullness of undefined potential: an empty page to be inscribed; at the same time, the photo is a doorway to unlimited freedom of expression. He photographed the empty canvas and placed it against the backdrop of the wildflowers of Newfoundland, suggesting fertility and cross-pollination.

There are some surprises in the collection, people that you wouldn’t think of as visual artists.

Yes, writers like Margaret Atwood, Barry Callaghan (BA 1960, MA 1963) and Leon Rooke, for instance, or Morden Yolles (BASc 1948), the structural engineer behind Canada’s five tallest buildings, who also happen to be wonderful visual artists. I wanted to show this other dimension to these artists. I remember being mesmerized by Atwood’s illustrations of a children’s book she wrote. Her piece for the exhibit depicts her family’s scientific background — her father was an entomologist.

How did the artists respond?

Most of the artists took this as a challenge and the result is some truly unique pieces. Artists were invited to capture the spiritus loci, the spirit of the place, and were given all the freedom that is possible, the only restriction being the 10×12 cm canvas. What came out were some dynamic pieces, made in the most diverse media: canvas overlain with copper, lead, deer hide, ceramic and even handwoven and embroidered canvas. The artists really transformed the canvas, and several challenged its flatness. Some decided to slash it, as a tribute to the Italian artist Lucio Fontana; Graeme Patterson, who was born in Saskatchewan and now lives in New Brunswick, for instance, slashed it into four parts and had a starling fly through — a very striking cynetic animation piece! They took to heart the fact that the images on the Imago Mundi website rotate, so the audience gains a 360 degree appreciation of the work of art. They show that the size of the canvas is irrelevant; it is the concept that is important. In fact, some of them are very tactile and involve almost all the five senses because they are sound making.

What is striking is that, even with this innovation in form, many of these pieces could not be accused of being l’art pour l’art.

Not at all, they either really captured the spirit of the place or they had a powerful artistic message to send about Canada’s place on the world stage, or to the world about global challenges. For instance, the architect Jack Diamond paid tribute to the Battle of the Atlantic, which was the longest running military campaign during the Second World War, pitting the Allied navies and merchant shipping against the Nazi U-Boats, warships and Luftwaffe; he created an exquisite 3D rendering of the corvette, the small warships built with parts coming from all over Canada and assembled in Halifax, that amazingly contributed to changing the destiny of World War II.

Another example is Moshe Safdie’s 3D model of his latest airport, Changi in Singapore, that represents a turning point in airport development.

And then there is Edward Burtynsky’s El Dorado piece: he uses a scan of the horn of the rhino — an animal verging on distinction because its horn is so coveted — and covers the canvas in gold leaf since it costs 10 times the price of gold, to send a powerful ecological message.

Or Stephen Cruise, who drapes 13 pencils, which can no longer write, over a goat (it was the year of the goat in the Chinese Zodiac), in tribute to the Hebdo journalists killed in Paris.

This is the year in which Canada celebrates its Sesquicentennial. In what way did this milestone inform your selection?

I will invoke Northrop Frye again.

He said, the Confederation of 1867 was a romantic and imperial conception, based on French and British bi-culturalism, and declared that it was now time for a re-Confederation based on a transfusion of cosmopolitan energy from every cultural component, including the driving force of the First Nations. This is a very important concept for me because, let’s face it, cultural homogeneity is no longer an option in the third millennium. We know Canada is a model of integration and interaction of different ethnic components at multiple levels. I felt I had to reflect this. So even though the First Nations and Inuit artists are represented in their own right in the other parts of the Great and North Exhibit, I also included in the Central and Eastern Canada exhibit First Nations artists of different generations, like Robert Houle, Rebecca Belmore, Meryl McMaster and Bonnie Devine, who handwrote part of the constitution and draped her beadwork over it. I interwove them because they are a most interesting and vital part of the Canadian cultural scene.

It is an extraordinary exhibit. Will it come to Canada?

Right now I am exploring the possibilities with key cultural and educational institutions and we are also seeking funding. It would be brilliant to bring the show to Toronto, at the very least — it really shows the global dimension of Canada’s cultural heritage.