Winnipeg Alphabestiary comes to roost at SFU Gallery

By Ashley McLellan

Six years after its creation, this collection of human-animal chimeras has been revived 

The Winnipeg Alphabestiary exhibition offers a creature collection that considers the similarities and differences between us and them. Originally commissioned for the 25th anniversary issue of Border Crossings in 2006, The Winnipeg Alphabestiary was created by 26 artists who have invigorated the Winnipeg art community.

Taking its cue from medieval bestiaries that served as guidebooks to animal kingdoms both observed and mythological, The Winnipeg Alphabestiary presents a playful approach to the representation of a wide variety of creatures and issues. By combining animal representation with text, the traditional alphabestiary served as an educational tool for children that taught both language and behaviour. Animals such as cats personified positive traits like poise and sophistication. However, this collection instead reveals personal responses to the parameters of the alphabestiary.

The animals depicted in historical bestiaries always remained hierarchically below humans, though they offered counsel on controlling the wild side of human nature. Contemporary bestiaries, such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2005 exhibition Becoming Animal, seem to reflect a more reciprocal relationship between human and beast, offering an insight into the impacts that animals might have on our subjectivities. SFU Gallery director Bill Jeffries says, “Many museums and many artists have turned to the animal not only as a warning device regarding the impending [environmental] calamity, but also as an emblem of human traits.” What, then, can contemporary hybrid and mythological creatures tell us?

In The Winnipeg Alphabestiary, the lines between human and animal are blurred. Janet Werner’s Goat Girl combines the body of a goat with the head of a girl. This creature draws on Greek mythology, which identified half-men, half-goats as satyrs. These creatures were known for being lustful and fond of dancing and drink. However, the furrowed brow on Goat Girl reveals concern rather than merriment.

In Adrian Williams’s Tiger, the animal’s tail and bottom peek in from the edge of the work, and a man holding a wooden sword grasps the tail.  The man bears the physical markings of having already been in a scuffle, for which he does not seem to have been adequately prepared. Playful in composition, the relationship between human and wild beast is a point of both concern and of intrigue. Will they become friends and face the environmental calamity together, or continue to fight it, and each other, on their own?

While The Winnipeg Alphabestiary addresses more serious issues, it maintains a playful and upbeat manner. “It demonstrates how much fun it is to have fun,” says Jeffries, particularly since the Vancouver art community is known for favouring less playful, more serious and conceptual art.

The Winnipeg Alphabestiary does not represent beasts in order to preach moral teachings to its viewers, but instead reflects a more personal and thoughtful relationship with creatures of all shapes and sizes.  From Wanda Koop’s Ape to Shaun Morin’s Zebra, the Alphabestiary invites the viewer into a party, Winnipeg style. Although humans may dominate the animal kingdom, animals will no doubt have the last word. If we were as smart as we think we are, we’d embrace the beasts around and within us.