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The Wild Characters of Alana Barrell’s art

New exhibition gives viewers a peek into the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic

On a wet and windy night in Montreal, a lively gang of 60 have come to bathe themselves in the effervescence of Alana Barrell’s artistic imagination. Upon stepping into her vernissage at the Centre d’Apprentissage Parallèle (CAP) gallery, the viewer is greeted by the rolling-eyed stares of Une Girafe, Un Rhino and Leopard, large multi-coloured paintings which are heartening and slightly disturbing. They act as ideal introductions into Barrell’s world of Wild Characters.

Barrell was diagnosed with a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 15. Her sense of self is poignantly displayed in a series of self-portraits which evolve in a way that represents her journey through her treatment and therapy. Each piece focuses on one segment of her life living with Schizophrenia. It begins with her treatment in the Early Psychosis and Schizophrenia Spectrum Program at the McGill University Health Centre, followed by her experiences at the Atelier D’Artisan du Centre-Ville and the CAP program, which ended in her presenting her first solo exhibition.

This is Barell’s first solo exhibition. She uses art as a means to express herself.

In the first piece, Autoportrait, the artist presents her face as half-masked, half-uncovered, with the whole visage rendered in a very raw and indistinct style. The second piece, a painting, titled Moi, retains the image of the facial split in terms of colour, but presents a more natural expression with the mouth fixed intently in steely confidence, and the eyebrows arched with a certain wry humour. An ink composition, beautifully and confidently executed, stares softly at the viewer with a hand supporting an almost symmetrical face, hair cascading unfettered.

In total, there were roughly 50 pieces included in the exhibition. Finally, in Woman, an ink composition, it’s the viewer who becomes unsettled, as their voyeuristic experience is shattered and the self-possessed artist stares intently into their minds.

The artist herself, clad in an indigo dress and sporting bright pink lipstick, seemed effortlessly at home with her vibrant pieces and unselfconsciously posed for photographs with the press and public alike. Barrell described herself as both “excited” and “proud” to display her first solo exhibition, but was loath to elaborate on more analytical questions regarding her artistic process.

Yvon Lamy, an art therapist at CAP, described such reservation on Barell’s part as typical of an artist who, when her peers were attempting to dissect the underlying significance of her works, would simply say: “I just did it because it was beautiful.”

Barrell was born in South Africa in 1983, and grew up there as well as in Brunei, Ethiopia, Singapore and Canada. The influence of Ethiopian art is particularly apparent in her use of vibrant colours, depictions of religious relics and rendering of large, almond-shaped eyes. The pieces could be described as naïve art, as Barrell received no formal training, relying instead on her raw artistic talent. This makes for a unique style and a powerful artistic identity which remains in the mind long after leaving the exhibition.

Above all else, Wild Characters is a passionate, refreshing and totally unpretentious collection which excites the viewer and leaves the public hungry to see more from this evolving artist. The show runs at CAP gallery, 4865 Saint-Laurent Street, until March 31.

About John Cairns

  • Liesl Barrell

    Thank you for this detailed and thoughtful write-up of Alana’s magical opening and exhibition. The interpretation of her self-portraits is particularly moving and astute. This is her first ever review and she will be absolutely thrilled to read it! You have made a young artist’s year 🙂

    • John S Cairns

      It was a pleasure to cover the exhibition. Alana is very talented and I hope this article will go some way raising her profile a little further.