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When it comes to Ellen Belshaw, art imitates life

How an alumna’s internship in Mexico blurred cultural boundaries

“I purposely went to Mexico without a curatorial concept in mind, so that I wouldn’t be trying to make the art that I found fit into my preconceived ideas,”  said fine arts graduate Ellen Belshaw. Instead, “my ideas would be shaped by both my experiences in Mexico City and shaped by the works of the artists I met with.”

Belshaw spent three months last spring interning at SOMA, a non-profit contemporary art education organisation in Mexico City. SOMA is an eight-week program conducted in English for international artists, curators, critics and art historians. It introduces participants to the dynamic art scene of Mexico City through visits to museums, openings and artists’ studios.

Through a series of seminars and workshops hosted by famous Mexican and international artists and curators, Belshaw came to know five artists: Marcela Armas, Daniel Monroy Cuevas, Lorena Mal, Armando Rosales and Rogelio Sosa. She selected these artists to be a part of Lo que sabíamos pero no pudimos decir,  or What we all knew but couldn’t articulate, currently displayed in Concordia’s FOFA Gallery.

“The staff at SOMA were a big help in connecting me with artists who I was interested in visiting at their studios,” Belshaw said. “Following each of the studio visits with different artists, I asked them to recommend me at least one other artist who they thought I should meet with, based on what we had connected on. That way I was more likely to get a wider range of artists, not just one social circle, but rather branching out into different circles, more like a web.”

The exhibit’s welcoming art piece is Rosales’s Actual State. At first glance, viewers may be confused by the several half-spheres of concrete scattered across the floor. By taking a closer look, the objects become clearer: they are sandals, which the artist invites viewers to wear.

Rosales suffers from bouts of dizziness and vertigo. His aim is to convey a personal story and a beautiful message… when people put the shoes on and attempt to stand up straight, they experience a loss of balance.  Furthermore, if people try to walk alone in these shoes, they will eventually fall, but if they request assistance or if others choose to help, they will succeed.

“The main theme of the exhibition lies somewhere in the space between connection and disconnection,” Belshaw explained. “How things can seem to be connected or disconnected at different moments, and the factors that create those apparent divisions. Often, the difference between disconnection and connection isn’t something concrete (pun intended), but other times it can be very substantive. In a way, I would argue that the desire to connect is what fuels many human drives.”

According to Belshaw, other common themes between the works in this exhibition are tension, movement, borders and a range of sensorial perceptions, but that does not mean viewers can’t draw their own conclusions.

An echo of the border and tension themes would be Armas’s Resistencia. The installation is made up of several metal wires, positioned in a way that alludes to the border between the United States and Mexico. At first, one only sees white dots delimiting the border. However, the viewer is separated from the artwork by yet another metal wire which could burn the viewer if touched.

When asked what inspired her to put on this specific exhibit and name it as such, Belshaw said her personal experience in Mexico played a significant role.

“My experience as a non-Spanish speaker in Mexico and how I was often able to find ways to communicate with many non-English speakers who I encountered also helped form the concept for this exhibition,” she said, adding that she started “thinking about how language is so important to interpersonal connection, but isn’t the only way to engage with others and what else allows us to connect.”

It wasn’t until Belshaw was back in Montreal that she took the time to step back and think about her internship in Mexico City. She started to realize the common threads across the different artworks and began forming the concept for Lo que sabíamos pero no pudimos decir.

“Different things attracted me to each of the selected artists in the exhibition,” Belshaw said. “Seeing their work and talking to them about each of their practices brought me that satisfying sense of this is why I do what I do. These are views that I want to help them share; a raison-d’être in such a crazy world where sometimes it’s hard to justify putting energy into art production and administration.”


A detailed essay on the connections between the artworks will be available at the FOFA gallery on Oct. 18. The exhibition is open everyday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Oct. 19.

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