Carol Sawyer The Natalie Brettschneider Archive
In her ongoing project, The Natalie Brettschneider Archive, Vancouver artist Carol Sawyer assembles a fiction as truthfully as possible to tell a needed story. Convincingly manufactured photographs and documentary materials imagine the life and work of a genre-blurring, avant-garde artist leaving a fragmentary imprint through Modernism’s exclusionary narrative. The archive begins with Brettschneider’s childhood in British Columbia, follows her participation in the Parisian interwar avant-garde, and records her unconventional art practice after she returns to Canada in the late 1930s. Sawyer pieces together Brettschneider’s biography to (re)construct a believable artistic forebear, while at the same time creating a device that brings to light buried historical accounts of women’s creative achievements.
Selectively consolidating a monolithic narrative, the Western art history canon has been shaped by ideological, political, and psychological motivations. Organizing its version of art’s progress into neat categories and clear connections, this framework omits voices and trajectories that complicate or elude patriarchal and Eurocentric assumptions. Unfixed and ever-growing, the Natalie Brettschneider archive is a feminist intervention that ruptures the hegemonic art historical record, uncovering sidelined stories and perspectives. Tackling a different angle with each iteration, the project continuously shifts focus to research local contexts, enrich perceptions of the past and unlock a spectrum of divergent futures.
At the Koffler Gallery, Sawyer deepens her examination of Natalie Brettschneider—an imperfect character who sometimes subverts, sometimes reinforces prejudicial historical tropes, providing an opportunity to critically examine persistent colonial and patriarchal attitudes. Including both authentic and fabricated archival documents along with fictional works linking Brettschneider to actual events, people, and places, the project examines photography’s use in sustaining art-historical conventions and cultural assumptions about identity, authorship, and artmaking. Using museological strategies, such as extended labels and didactic panels, Sawyer articulates a curatorial voice for the archive that enables a contemporary critical perspective on power dynamics and ethical positions.
Placing Brettschneider in Toronto at various dates between the mid-1940s and the late 1970s, Sawyer investigates beyond Brettschneider’s struggles and privileges as a 20th-century white woman to foreground some of the queer and racialized women who contributed to the cultural milieu as her contemporaries. As an experimental composer and singer trained in the bel canto tradition, Brettschneider followed the careers of Nisei opera singers Aiko Saita (1909–54) and Lily Washimoto (b. 1909). Her interest in fashion led her to cross paths with prominent Jewish milliner Peggy Anne Jaffey (c. 1908 – 95) and hat store owner Minnie Soltz (d. 1989). Other documents place Brettschneider within a circle of Toronto’s queer restaurateurs, Black jazz singers, and Jewish cultural figures associated with the Park Plaza Hotel at the time.
The Natalie Brettschneider archive is a compelling storytelling instrument, addressing biases while recognizing the limitations of subjectivity in the present. Through a contemporary intervention that prods the foundations of dogmatic narratives, Sawyer exposes a more nuanced array of art histories and disrupts mythologizing views of art and artists. Such acts of subversion and reform enable a fuller engagement with our living culture, nurturing hope for unfettered futures.
Curated by Mona Filip