More than a decade ago, as an MFA student at Western, Brendan Fernandes attended the opening of the Whitney Biennial, a contemporary exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. “Enamoured” in the moment, the young artist pledged to return one day – but as more than an observer.
Recently, Fernandes, MFA’05, realized that goal as one of 75 artists featured in this year’s event, widely considered the most important showcase of contemporary art today. Introduced by the museum’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1932, the Biennial is the longest-running exhibition in the United States to chart the latest developments in American art.
The exhibition runs May 17-Sept. 22.
“One of my professors at Western took us to NYC to go to the Biennial opening. I remember being like, ‘This is incredible.’ I made a lot of trips to NYC after and we always heard about its legacy. For me, when I was asked to be part of it, it was the biggest thing,” Fernandes said.
“It’s my biggest career want; I’ve achieved it and it makes me really excited. It gives me a platform to disseminate and show my voice to such a big audience and to create a critical voice.”
When Fernandes first came to Western, it was a reprieve from the world he knew. An injured ballet dancer, arriving from Toronto, he wanted to escape and focus his attention on something new. His studies provided him an opportunity to do just that, turning his attention and art inward.
“I had just suffered an injury and I didn’t want to talk about my dance world anymore. I focused on cultural identity and my cultural heritage,” he noted.
Born in Kenya, of Indian descent, Fernandes found a space to explore postcolonial identity at Western. His thesis dove into his family’s history of living on safari, allowing him to gain an understanding and perspective not only of his own identity, but of political and sociocultural histories, landscapes and influences. He is grateful for the theoretical grounding he got from his studies.
“The program was important for me. Unlike other MFA programs at the time, it was one focused on critical theory, not just the process of making work. It pushed us to think about the ideas and concepts and true postcolonial history and theory, which for me, was one of the main reasons I came to Western – in addition to the community of artists and teachers who I am still in touch with,” Fernandes said.
Not long after his graduation, Fernandes was part of the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, an experience he bolstered by his studies at Western.
Over the years, he established a career in Canada and the United States. Fernandes recently took on a teaching role at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he is also the visiting artist.
Fernandes’ art takes the form of installations and performances that combine visual art and dance. For the Biennial, he is reworking a piece titled The Master and Form, which consists of archaic-looking wooden scaffolding and devices that allow performers to hold the five basic ballet positions for long periods of time.
“My work is social and political; it is about cultural solidarity and valuing labour in many forms. I am also questioning the value of artists and dancers,” he said.
“With The Master and Form, it’s about mastering dance technique. But because my work is political, I question hierarchies and hegemonies. Is the ‘master’ me, the former dancer, who now instructs the dancers? Is it the dance ‘form’? I am playing on all of those possibilities,” Fernandes continued.
“I never want to pin my work down as one thing. I’m not one thing – I’m many things. I’m a Canadian, Kenyan, Indian who lives in the United States, who is a former ballet dancer, who makes art. It’s about questioning things through being multiple things. Multiplicity and hybridity are something I am really aware of in my work.”
While he is looking at upcoming exhibits, shows and travels, Fernandes wants to focus on this moment in time. And returning to the city and exhibition that started it all is the best place to be right now.
“The Whitney is such an important moment and an amazing experience. I want to feel that I am still taking it all in and experiencing it because sometimes it is hard to do that,” he said.