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March 26, 2024

Interview with Wanda Koop

Wanda Koop in front of Black Sea Portal - Sunset Orange (detail), 2023, acrylic on canvas, 303.5 x 405.1 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery. © Wanda Koop. Photo Lindsey Koepke

For her first monographic museum presentation in Quebec, Wanda Koop is unveiling a new body of work. With the all-seeing moon as its central motif, the exhibition invites us to reflect on our relationship to history, memory and the most pressing questions of our time. Wanda Koop: WHO OWNS THE MOON is on view from April 11 to August 4, 2024, and is accompanied by a catalogue featuring an interview that Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator of the MMFA and curator of the exhibition, held with the artist. For this exclusive issue of the M Webzine, we bring you some excerpts from their conversation.

Mary Dailey Desmarais. Photo Stéphanie Badini

Mary-Dailey Desmarais

Chief Curator

This exhibition brings together an entirely new body of work: WHO OWNS THE MOON. I would love for you to tell me about its origins and inspiration.

Well, it goes back to my childhood, I guess, growing up in an immigrant family that had to leave Ukraine during the Russian Revolution. My families on both my mother and father’s sides were quite wealthy, but they lost everything in one night. When the war started with [Vladimir] Putin and Ukraine … I sort of understood my parents’ grief for the first time. …I started thinking back to 1997, when I went with my mother back to Ukraine to find my parents’ family estates and, particularly, my grandmother’s grave.

What prompted that visit in ’97?

My parents spoke of Ukraine all the time and the life that they had come from, and my mother and father had a kind of deep sadness within them. I felt at the time that if I could take my mother back, that she could have some resolve and closure. She was seventy-nine when we went back, and it really was an incredible trip. We found 98% of the estates and homes, but, unfortunately, we did not find my grandmother’s grave. It had been cemented over into a parking lot about two weeks prior to coming.

That must have been very hard.

Yes, but at the time I ended up making hundreds of notes and little paintings just from observation, which is how I approach everything. My work comes out of observation and translation.

Did the drawings you made then serve as the basis for the current work?

In a way, yes. When the war started with Putin, I said to my friend William Eakin, who works here [in the Winnipeg studio], “I’m at such a loss, I just don’t know how to deal with this.” And he said, “Well, you have a drawer of hundreds of little paintings here. Maybe there’s something there for you.” And so, I spent the whole summer with these little paintings up in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, but I couldn’t really access them. It just seemed too overwhelming. Then, during the last couple of weeks that I was there, I looked at the little paintings again and realized there was one from the Zaporizhzhia cemetery where we were searching for my grandmother’s grave. It was in that moment I started making painted notes, and it eventually led to this larger body of work. But I didn’t want it really to be about war. I wanted it to be about life, and also about this whole notion of us as humans wanting to own or to possess. So, I started thinking of it in broader terms, and I then gave it the title WHO OWNS THE MOON as a statement and a beginning of something much larger that I hoped might touch the human psyche at this time.

Let’s pause for a minute on the poetry of the title: WHO OWNS THE MOON and your decision not to put a question mark and to use capital letters. Why were those choices important to you?

Well, I like it all in capitals because it actually looks beautiful. I saw it in capitals right from the beginning. I saw it as a concrete poem and as a statement. Not, “Who Owns the Moon?” It’s WHO OWNS THE MOON. I felt this phrasing allows for a kind of expansion of thought. I don’t know if I’m articulating it quite right, but I feel the title is voluminous and can mean many different things. Yes, we’re talking about mining the Moon now and all that kind of thing, so there is that question, I guess, that people are going to be asking, but I’m thinking outside of that. I’m thinking of, maybe, the purity of how the Moon becomes, is us in a way. It’s something that mirrors us as a planet and that every night, every single person looks at. The Moon belongs to all of us, as does the Earth. And I think not adding the question mark allows the title to be such a big, big, not a question, but a big place to go psychologically. It doesn’t limit the work to the Ukrainian war or all the other horrific things that are going on. It gives us space. Whereas, if you turn it into a question, then it begs for an answer. And there isn’t an answer to my question, in my interpretation.


I would like to delve into the specific paintings included in the show. Do you remember the first work you considered part of WHO OWNS THE MOON?

Yes, I started with the small paintings. There’ll be a few of them in the exhibition, the crosses and the flowers from the cemetery. And then there were other paintings, like Ghost Tree, Veil and also Black Rose. I had actually painted those just when the war had started, when I wasn’t thinking so much about a body of work just yet. So, later, I was sort of amazed at how much this slightly earlier work of mine was part of the language of WHO OWNS THE MOON.

In addition to individual paintings there are new multi-part works in the show, like the quadriptych Sleepwalking. What is the inspiration for this work and why did you decide to paint across four canvases to make it?

Well, it is a poem, and it’s an homage to my grandmother and my mother. I can talk to you about it, but I sometimes wonder if I explain it away if I say too much about the origins of what my thinking was, because some of it’s very sad, and some of it’s very poignant and personal. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not for the viewer to know this beforehand. How do you feel about that?

I agree with you that the visitor should have the freedom to have his or her own experience while standing in front of the painting. That said, I also feel that in the context of this interview it would be interesting for people to understand your personal relationship to these paintings.

Well, then, when I was a child, we had a braid in a drawer at home, and it belonged to my grandmother who had died in Ukraine. My grandfather was so grief-stricken at her death that he cut her braid off and brought it with him to Canada. As a child, I really didn’t have an understanding of what this braid was, but it was in a box with a tissue. It was a beautiful chestnut braid. … I’d come home from school and I would rush upstairs and open the drawer and fold back the tissue and look at this beautiful braid in this long, narrow box. I would close my eyes, and I would see a beautiful woman in a boat, an Ophelia-like image, and it just, somehow, filled me with a kind of longing. I wanted that vision every day. So, I played with the braid basically until I reached puberty. I remember coming home one day and opening up the braid and realizing in horror that it was the braid of a dead person. I couldn’t look at it again. I folded it back and shut the drawer, and saw the drawer almost as something unapproachable after that. I still have the braid, and I haven’t looked at it. It’s one of those things that I don’t quite understand, despite knowing that it is my grandmother’s hair. So, the first panel is referencing that. It’s a massive vortex-like braid that I’ve painted.

Wanda Koop (born in 1951), Sleepwalking – Braid, Cross-stitch, Bloodline, Flowers, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 274.3 cm (each). Courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery. © Wanda Koop. Photo William Eakin

Then the panel next to it, interestingly, is related to that same grandmother who made a beautiful blanket for my mother as a child. When my mother came over to Canada on the boat, she was wrapped in it and when my mother passed away at the age of ninety-six, we wrapped her in it to bury her. So, I’ve called the second panel Cross-stitch, and I’ve painted it sort of like muslin with white stitches. Usually, the stitch that my grandmother used was actually more like an X-stitch, but I’ve put it upright, and it relates closely to the first paintings that started the body of work, with the cemetery crosses. For the third panel, I ended up doing a red drip, and it’s sort of like a bloodline that drops right through the centre of the panel.

The final canvas returns to my mother and grandmother. My mother always told me that when her mother died and they were laying her mother in the ground, my mother wanted to go with her. She had collected flowers, and she was throwing them onto her mother’s grave, and she said she wanted to throw herself into the grave. Interestingly enough, the week before I painted that painting, I officiated at a friend of mine’s funeral, and we were throwing brightly coloured flowers onto his coffin. My dear sweet friend whose husband had passed said to me, “I felt pulled, as if I wanted to throw myself into the grave,” and it brought back this memory of my mother telling me the same. So that’s kind of the genesis, but I also feel it’s a very hopeful piece in the end. It can have many meanings. I want to allow the viewers the opportunity to see it for themselves.

The bloodline painting that is part of Sleepwalking leads me to ask about the multiple ways you use line in your paintings. Even some of your most abstract pictures, and landscapes in particular, are punctuated by lines that stand in sharp contrast to the background. Whether vertical bands, or drips that read like tears, these lines at once force the viewer to confront the materiality of the paint itself, but they also take on the character of passageways, portals or doorways to an elsewhere outside the frame. Can you talk about how those bands are functioning in the different series that will be shown in the exhibition?

Oh, I think that’s such a big, big one. It starts so far back for me, with the sight line work that I did based on the gun sight-lines from the Gulf War. I think that’s sort of where it started, but with time I started seeing these lines not in a simplistic sort of way, but as portholes or places of thought that could be within that construct, allowing for another place to go within a painting. The paintings with the large portholes in this exhibition, they push and pull, they float forward, and then you all of a sudden move into them, and then you move around the painting, and you can go further into the painting. They give you a lot of freedom to wander around in the work.

Wanda Koop (born in 1951), Black Sea Portal – Luminous Red, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 303.5 x 328.9 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery. © Wanda Koop. Photo William Eakin

Speaking of wandering around, one of the bodies of work or series that will be shown in the exhibition consists of four very large-scale paintings that depict the Crimean coast seen from across the Black Sea. I’m curious, what drew you to that exact spot?

It’s interesting, because it’s the first time that I’ve actually made a painting where I’ve used the actual geographical reference of a specific coastline. Partly because my family spent a lot of time in the Crimea and I ended up going; I saw this coastline. And then to think that so much of what is happening is exactly there. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful, and yet at the same time, it’s become something that is referenced in such a horrific way these days. It’s a very meaningful place for me.

One of the series presented in the exhibition, Objects of Interest, juxtaposes two paintings of moons with two paintings of satellites, creating a confrontation between lunar observation and potentially menacing, territorial surveillance. What turned your attention to satellites?

In working on the paintings in WHO OWNS THE MOON, I began thinking that the work felt very specific to what was happening with Ukraine, and I wanted it to speak to something larger. Quite a few years ago, I started making black ink drawings of the International Space Station from images in the media. I had these just in a drawer. I hadn’t done anything with them, hadn’t shown them to anyone.


But when I started thinking about this whole notion of the Moon and the war, I returned to thoughts of the Space Station. There’s this sort of tiny little thing out there in space that’s in a way our crowning achievement as humans. We’re putting people into space, and there is so much vastness and unknown to it all. This minuscule little something that’s going on speaks to the technological side of how we’re navigating the Earth in a sense. I started to become more interested when the spy balloons were shot down over the United States, and I realized that a painting of the Moon I had made looked almost identical to the image of that balloon. So, then I started thinking, wow, this is so strange. I thought I was painting the Moon, but maybe I’m just painting objects of interest. That thought was at the heart of the four paintings that comprise the work.


What do you hope people will come away with from the show?

I can’t project that. My hope that people will be able to respond to the work and be touched in some deeply personal way is probably all I can ask for. I can’t, for me to say what someone should feel or think, that’s not what I set out to do. I think that the arts, all of the arts, are a gift of our humanity, or evidence of our humanity, and I think I’ve mentioned it to a few others over the course of my art-making, but I often think of all the artists in the world who are making art right now, right at this very moment, and it just fills me with a kind of joy, and a kind of calm, in a sense that’s something so powerful and so, what can I say? Just something that we have within us is so much greater than all the wars, than all the armies to evil, or however you would describe it, or to the horrors, the dark side of our humanity. I think that, in itself, art is probably the most hopeful and powerful thing that is maybe going on right now in the world.

Wanda Koop (born in 1951), Ukrainian Quartet – Power Plant, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 213.4 x 213.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery. © Wanda Koop. Photo William Eakin

About the artist

Wanda Koop lives and works in Winnipeg. She is one of Canada’s most renowned living artists and has had more than sixty solo shows. Her work has been exhibited in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Brazil, China, Japan and Italy. Alongside her artistic practice, she is a community activist. In 1998, she founded Art City, a free community art centre for inner city youth in Winnipeg.

About the exhibition catalogue

A bilingual catalogue (French and English) edited by Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator of the MMFA and curator of the exhibition, has been published by the MMFA’s Publishing Department. In addition to an interview with the artist, it features colour reproductions of all the paintings presented in the exhibition and an essay by Mary-Dailey Desmarais on the work of Wanda Koop. The book will be available at the Museum Boutique and Bookstore as of the start of the exhibition. MMFA Members are entitled to a 10% discount on the catalogue retail price.

April 11 – August 4, 2024

Credits and curatorial team
An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibition is curated by Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator, MMFA.

The MMFA acknowledges the invaluable contribution of its official sponsor, Denalt Paints, and its media partner La Presse.

This exhibition was funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the Government of Quebec.

The MMFA wishes to underscore the generosity of those who support its programming, in particular the donors to the Philanthropic Circles of its Foundation.

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