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Animals, Art and Carolina Hernandez

June 2010

The earliest artistic representation of a human was discovered last year in Germany, an ivory carving around 35,000 years old. Not surprisingly, Venus of the Fels Cave depicts an anatomically correct female. The earliest human artistic expression ranges from 50,000 to 290,000 years ago, depending on how the experts define art. No matter what that definition, those creations were most definitely of animals.

In Canada we love animals. We primp, pamper and protect them, and we paint and sculpt images of them by the millions. One thing we’re forgetting how to do, however, is to honour their spirits. We tend to treat animals as trophies.

In lesser developed countries, no one is going to spend a day’s wages buying booties for a dog to protect its paws against nature. But an animal’s spirit is as much a part of people’s lives as their various and sundry gods. In fact, in most of the world’s cultures, animals are gods.

Which is why it is so fascinating to check in on the attitudes toward animals that newcomers bring to this country. And when we’re lucky enough to have one of those people turn out to be an artist who uses animals as muse, the results can be stunning. Carolina Hernandez is one of those people.

Carolina Hernandez and Salvatore di Buono. Photo by Mike Levin.

Carolina Hernandez and Salvatore di Buono. Photo by Mike Levin.

She lives in Montreal and is in Ottawa as part of the Belonging immigrant-art show being staged by the Coalition of New Canadians for Arts and Culture at the Shenkman Arts Centre and at Patrick John Mills Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery. When she moved from Mexico City in 2003, Hernandez brought her two dogs, orphans obtained during her part-time work as a rescue-dog trainer, those that sniff out survivors of natural disasters.

The dogs have since passed away. They were beloved, but not as trophies. It’s their spirits that Hernandez embraces because as a painter “animals are symbols of the environment we live in,” she says through her multilingual husband Salvatore di Buono. The pair met, fittingly, in a Montreal dog park.

Hernandez’ Canadian work makes animals into mirrors of the human soul, something she wants viewers to decode for themselves. Her paintings for Belonging are downright allegorical and in that way disturbing: a polar bear breaching like a whale to escape a human; a pregnant elk upside down in a shopping bag; always a reminder of the interdependent bonds we’re losing.

Chronique d'une morte annoncee (Chronicle of a Death Foretold). Courtesy of Patrick Mills Gallery.

Canada gives her a chance to use animals she’s never painted before, but her message is one we’re all familiar with. “Humans have a very conflict-filled relationship with the ecosystem. Our connection with (animals as art) should be a spiritual guide,” she says.

Maybe this is the unrealized gift that newcomers to Canada offer, an objective cultural reminder of what we have, and of what we often forget to appreciate. Hernandez’ work is gloriously beautiful, and instantly decodeable.

Belonging features the work of 27 artists at Shenkman Arts Centre until August 26 and of 12 artists at Patrick Mills Gallery until June 12.

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