By Nina Fouilloux
As discussed in Part I of this article, “listening to geese” and reflecting with the non-human can be an interesting mechanism to expand our beliefs and practices around Global Thought. The remainder of this work will be used to discuss how Canadian artists may have already been considering this particular theoretical angle, and how we may include it in our understanding of Global Thought.
The Canada goose has been reinterpreted in the imaginary of Canadian artists for centuries and has made its way into the most unlikely literature, visual art, and even song, allowing artists to explore and meditate on the concept of freedom, boundaries and more. Take the following poem for instance, in which the emblematic goose inspires poet Robert Bly to escape an abusive relationship with his father:
“The drunken father has pulled the boy inside
The boy breaks free, turns, leaves the house.
He spends that night out eating with the geese
Where, calling and balancing on wide feet,
Crossing rows, they walk through the broken stalks”
In this poem, the goose inspires human action and represents feelings of safety, defiance, and community. In a different piece of writing, Indigenous prisoner and writer, Vernon Wilson, takes the freedom trope and turns it on its head. In an ironically written article, Wilson compares the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian prisons to the over-representation of Canadian geese in prison yards:
“All these tragic statistics lead to a geese population that is more injured, constipated, and dependent on the institutional environment which contributes to a lower rate of geese migrations south and a higher rate of geese returns to the prison yards”. (Wilson, 2012, p.12)
Wilson calls the high presence of geese in the prison yards a “national outrage” that “says a lot about the state of our nation” (Wilson, 2012, p.23). Here, Wilson is substituting the Indigenous prisoner with the beloved goose in order to incite a more emotional reaction out of the reader. What I believe makes writers like Bly and Wilson creative theorists in relation to geese is that, like van Dooren’s push to “think with others”, these artists are actively putting themselves in relation to the non-human and allowing themselves to create reinterpreted world views based on what they were able to learn from goose behavior.
The same can be said for visual art, where in the works of renown Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), the Canada goose becomes a surrealist and abstract expressionist muse. As the most prominent Canadian artist of the twentieth century, Riopelle was a signatory of the Refus Global (Global Refusal), a 1948 manifesto written by Quebecer artists stating their disapproval of clericalism and provincialism, ideas that were strongly associated with the nationalist government of Quebec Premier, Maurice Duplessis. Thus, what better symbol to capture ideas of freedom, modernity, and open-mindedness than the Canada goose? Appearing in a large amount of Riopelle’s works, the goose is seen flocking chaotically in Les Oies Bleues (1981-83) and making up the rays of a sun L’ île Heureuse (1992). I believe it is fair to interpret Riopelle’s goose as an anti-nationalist symbol, a defiant voice against division and borders. In fact, it is quite unique that as an abstract expressionist, Riopelle chose to represent geese as they are in his paintings, because, it was Riopelle himself that said: “Those of my paintings considered the most abstract have been, for me, the most figurative (…) These paintings whose meaning we think we can read—aren’t they even more abstract than the rest?”. In this sense, the goose for Riopelle is but an abstract idea, one we can mold and reinterpret in the necessary conditions, similarly to what we would do with a theory that we apply to different ideas. Finally, the goose makes a recent return in Canadian art in the works of Cree artist Kent Monkman, who in his work The Affair (2018), portrays his gender-fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle with her arm wrapped around a Canadian goose with its tongue out and wings flared in protest. The piece appears to be a reinterpretation of the mythological story of Leda and the Swan, where Leda is raped by Zeus in the form of a Swan. In Monkman’s piece, the goose is a clear metaphor for Canada or at least the government, abusing its Indigenous people. However, there seems to be a role reversal in this work, as the goose seems more uncomfortable than Miss Chief, who seemingly tempts the bird. In this sense, the goose and Miss Chief represent the dialectical process between politics of exploitation in Canada.
With just a few examples mentioned, we see that by “listening to geese”, these artists have been able to expand their creative interpretations of world events and views and have been able to put themselves in relation to their environment. These artists are philosophizing in their works, not at the expense of the goose or at the expense of their beliefs, but rather by creating a dialogue between their ideas and what they can extract from the non-human. This proves art to be an efficient and undervalued method to reflect on and reconceive global ideas. In fact, using art as theory challenges the idea of “art for art’s sake”, and places art as an expression of an individual or a collective’s view on a social phenomenon. Ultimately, in order to theorize more globally around the land debate in Canada and around other issues of land around the world, it is important to consider all beings affected by land when reimaging its use.
As a Canadian abroad, I have had the pleasure of seeing Canadian geese in England, Scotland and in France. Like me, these geese have come from far and have found a home in an unlikely place. However, unlike myself, these geese I’ve seen most likely do not reflect on their national affiliation and belonging in the same way I do. In turn, this reminds me that ideas of belonging are fluid and constructed, giving me hope for the land debate in Canada, as well as for further divisive debates that may require a simple reframing or rather, a tilt of a head towards the sky.
Nina Fouilloux is a MA student at the University of St Andrews in Global Social and Political Thought. Her primary research interests revolve around Canadian politics and Indigenous studies, specifically Indigenous political thought and intellectual history, reconciliation, and decolonization. She holds a BA from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a double major in Political Science and Art History.
Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta
Featured Image: Canada Goose, from the Game Birds series. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.