As soon as former Studio Arts head, Duncan deKerommeaux saw Shani Mootoo’s art portfolio, she was welcomed to Western – and to Canada for the first time.
Her journey took her far away from her home in Trinidad, but closer to the person she grew to become: an internationally acclaimed multimedia artist and award-winning author.
Western will recognize Mootoo’s creative achievements with an honorary degree at fall convocation, Friday, Oct. 22. (See more convocation details below.)
“An honorary degree from Western University is indeed a huge honour,” Mootoo said from her home in Prince Edward County, Ont. “But on top of that, an honorary degree from my alma mater is emotionally moving. It was my first home away from Trinidad… and the place where, away from home, I could begin to try on how to be an individual, an adult, to learn who and what I could be.”
“I was very fortunate, too, to be in the visual arts where those kinds of discoveries went hand-in-hand with becoming an artist,” she said.
Mootoo, BFA’80, treasured the time she spent “ensconced,” in the art department under the wings of deKergommeaux, painter Paterson Ewen and sculptor Robin Peck. “That was a big deal for me,” she said. “I’m not in touch with any of them now, but I often think of them, of how supportive they were of me, and of us all. It was the beginning of where I am now.”
Author by accident
Mootoo was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to Trinidad at three months old. She immigrated to Canada a year after she graduated from Western and worked as a visual artist and video producer in Vancouver, Alberta and New York City. Her paintings, photography and videos have been exhibited in locations including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale.
Getting published as an author, “was completely accidental,” and came about when her private writings were shared, unbeknownst to her, with Press Gang Publishers, who eventually persuaded her to write Out on Main Street, a collection of short stories in 1993.
Three years later, Mootoo wrote her breakout novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, which was shortlisted for the Chapters First Novel, the Ethel Wilson Book Prize and the Giller. The novel was recently announced as a Penguin Classic, a designation the publisher reserves for books that “combine literary quality, historical significance and enduring reputation, and above all, still feel alive.”
Her other works, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, He Drown She in the Sea and Valmiki’s Daughter, also landed on prestigious literary award lists. Her most recent offering, Polar Vortex, released in 2020, was a Giller Prize finalist. During the past year, Mootoo used her time during the pandemic to produce a commissioned piece for the Toronto International Festival of Authors, and a poem for Spike Island Gallery in Bristol.
Her success as both a writer and visual artist comes together in Cane|Fire, a memoir-based poetry collection featuring her art, set for release in 2022.
With her words and art intertwined, even her description of her writing process paints a picture.
“After the last book has been written, the canvas is blank, waiting,” Mootoo said.
“I love it when I am surprised by the push and pull, the directions I’m taken, and the unexpected outcome of my own story. Whenever I begin with a known idea, I am quickly bored. When I let go and let the story unfold in its own logic, I am without fail, delightfully surprised. At some point I see what the story is, and then I take control and make it more of what it had always wanted to be.”
Western is celebrating graduating students through a virtual fall convocation beginning at 7 p.m. EST on Friday, Oct. 22. Three degree-specific, pre-recorded ceremonies will be posted online on Western’s fall convocation 2021 page, allowing graduates, their families and loved ones to watch the ceremony that applies to them, whenever they like. Each ceremony will include celebratory music by Convocation Brass, with administration and faculty on stage, and remarks from this year’s honorary degree recipients.
An orator will read out each graduating student’s name, which will also be featured on individually displayed slides throughout the ceremony. Approximately 3,000 graduating students will then join 328,000 Western alumni from more than 160 countries. Graduates will receive their parchments by mail.