ARCA OC OSA
1927 - 1977
Done Unto Him in Halifax
mixed media on board
initialed and dated 1975 and on verso titled, dated on the gallery labels and inscribed "5"
24 x 24 in 61 x 61 cm
Available for post auction sale.
Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave
The Isaacs Gallery Ltd., Toronto
Equinox Gallery, Vancouver
Private Collection, Vancouver
William Kurelek, A Northern Nativity: Christmas Dreams of a Prairie Boy, 1976, titled as The Holy Family as Black, discussed and reproduced, #15, unpaginated
The artistic practice of William Kurelek, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, was concerned with the rural Canadian working life that he experienced in childhood, an explicitly religious understanding of the everyday, and his personal struggles with trauma and mental health. It is these first two points that are most apparent here. Kurelek converted to Roman Catholicism in 1957 and remained devoutly religious for the remainder of his life. Many of the works he produced would be didactic in nature.
Done Unto Him in Halifax was produced for Kurelek’s 1976 book A Northern Nativity, in which the artist recalls dreams from his childhood of the Nativity taking place across Depression-era Canada. This series depicted the Holy Family in various scenes across Canada (in an igloo, in a Prairie barn, at a fisherman’s dock, among tourists at Niagara Falls) and in diverse guises (the family appearing as Indigenous, Black or destitute). The breadth of these fantastic scenes can also be contextualized by Kurelek’s own experience as an immigrant, as well as the optimistic sense he felt in the 1970s regarding Canada’s turn to multiculturalism.
In this work, we see a Christmas dinner held at a Salvation Army hostel in Halifax. The dining room is crowded with men - presumably impoverished and living in the hostel, or otherwise unable to have a dinner of their own - being served by volunteers in aprons. The decor is Spartan but festive, and the atmosphere is warm (at least compared to the biting cold outside the window). The Holy Family, crowded in among the others, are included in the meal.
There are a series of double meanings here: the family re-enacts their flight from Nazareth and refuge in Bethlehem, while participating in the same feast that commemorates them. Dressed in contemporary clothing, they appear as just another family in need of charity, their difference from the others marked only by their auras. Crucially, the accompanying text points out that the Holy Family are Black: unacknowledged, if not unrecognized, they are shown as a part of the poor and racialized community that they accompany, experiencing society’s inequities. The work’s title refers to a message from the Bible about charity, Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” which Kurelek stated in his book A Northern Nativity “would seem to explain this scene.”
The feeling is one of optimism. The title is in the past tense: this is charity that has already been done. As drab as the atmosphere is, there is a sense of community as people talk to each other. As Kurelek notes in the accompanying text, the somewhat grouchy servers in blue “are men who have chosen to give up their Christmas… in the service of others.” The auras of the Holy Family - seemingly ignored or unseen by others - cast a warm glow that illuminates the room, casting shadows on the rear wall. The otherwise quotidian representation of the Holy Family grounds the work in a palpable immediacy. Presenting the family as familiar, as well as distinctly Canadian, establishes a sort of devotional nationalism grounded in a mosaic of cultures and backgrounds: the message of Christmas has become universalized. Kurelek aims to create both a sense of religious meditation and an earnest call for moral resolution, underscoring the intrinsic connection he felt between religion and social responsibility.
Divinely familiar and mundanely miraculous, Kurelek’s dreamlike scene preserves his distinctive insight into Canadian identity as one characterized by experience, empathy and humanitarianism.
This work is in the original frame made by Kurelek.
Available for post auction sale.
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