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Plundered Jungles, a Vancouver Museum and Reclaimed Joy

The Mahogany Project turns an unexpected donation of the precious wood into extraordinary art. Go and see it.

Dorothy Woodend 21 Aug 2023The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

The smell of freshly milled mahogany is not a fragrance that I’ve ever given much thought to, but I’m now desperate to inhale it after a tour of the Museum of Vancouver’s new exhibition Reclaim + Repair: The Mahogany Project.

Curated by Vancouver’s Propellor Studio in collaboration with the Museum of Vancouver, the exhibition came about in serendipitous fashion, with an unexpected donation of mahogany. The wood in question was harvested in the last century (between 1950 and 1970), and carefully stored away until now.

A wood that grows in South America and the Caribbean, mahogany was rapaciously logged, denuding forests in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Stained with the lingering taint of colonial exploitation, it posed some complexities for the curatorial staff at MOV.

But the possibilities inherent in the material itself were too rich to be denied. Thus, Reclaim + Repair. The title indicates only some of what the show includes. One could easily add a few more words with a "re"-prefix like “Rejoice, Resurrection, Reveal.” I could go on, but the point is this is some good wood.

A range of mahogany objects sits across a low grey table in a gallery space with grey walls and soft lighting. The objects include brushes, coasters and cylindrical objects. In the background are abstract mahogany wall sculptures and, to the left in the background, a bench.
Desire forms a big part of the show. It is a struggle not to touch everything on display.

From the more than 60 project proposals that were submitted to the MOV, the jury whittled (heh) the final number down to 31 projects. An eclectic array of local architects, jewellers, sculptors and designers were given a flat of mahogany to work with. The results are truly astounding.

The exhibition came about in relatively quick fashion, with the artists given only a period of months to carve into their projects. From earrings to large-scale lighting installations, surfboards to furniture, the range of what was made is extraordinary. But it is the beauty of mahogany itself that cuts you off at the knees, beginning with colour.

I’ve always equated the deep brown of expensive furniture with mahogany, but there is a world of different tonal shades available, depending on how it is treated. As Propeller’s Toby Barratt explains, when the trees are first cut down, mahogany is almost a deep red, like the colour of blood. As it ages and oxidizes, different colours emerge, from the palest beaten gold to the deepest brick. Many of the designers in the show chose to leave the wood in its raw state, a striking light blond colour.

The versatility of mahogany for a wide variety of purposes, everything from shipbuilding to guitars, is impressive in itself. But I’d like to come back to fragrance for a moment. While working on their own piece for the exhibition, Barratt says that visitors to Propeller’s studio in Vancouver were entranced by the smell of the freshly milled wood, with some people saying it reminded them of vintage cigar boxes.

This most precious of materials was once used for the most prosaic of purposes. But in the hands of artists and craftspeople, mahogany becomes something else entirely.

A pair of mahogany shoes stands in a glass gallery box atop a smooth stack of round pieces of glossy milled wood.
One of the intentions of this exhibition was to use as much reclaimed material as possible.

The malleability of wood is a predominating quality of the show, mixed with equal amounts of eclecticism, even a wee bit of eccentricity. But there is a greater purpose in the exhibition, namely that of sustainability. As co-curator Vivian Gosselin explains, MOV’s commitment to the concept of circular economy formed a key point in the show.

The idea has been central to how MOV presents its exhibitions since 2016, when the museum first joined the Vancouver Design Upcycle program, initiated by the Vancouver Economic Commission. Going beyond reusing risers and plinths, the intent was to create exhibitions using as much reclaimed material as possible.

While the idea of implementing old material like wood to make new creations might seem obvious, in The Mahogany Project there are more subtle things on display. At first glance, the risers that are used throughout the exhibition appear to be shaped into deep curves, but the trompe l’oeil effect was created with paint, meaning the rectangular boxes can be used again.

As Gosselin says, creating a truly circular economy is still extremely challenging. The systems simply aren’t in place yet. But projects like this demonstrate that the methodologies key to implementation are only one part of the puzzle. Another perhaps even more important element is desire.

Desire forms a big part of the show. It’s a struggle not to touch everything on display, to run your hands along the smooth surfaces of the wood, to open drawers, hold containers designed to rest easily in your hands, pick things up and rub them. Covetous? Yes! The very tactility of the objects imbues them with a curious kind of personality.

A collection of mahogany artwork on tall vertical rectangular blocks. The mahogany artwork on top of the blocks resembles a piece of clay pressed with a person’s fingers, and the indentations of their hands are visible in the bumpy shapes.

Imu Chan and Katy Young’s sculptural objects are extraordinarily beautiful and spark of need.

This is especially evident in a series of sculptural objects by designers Imu Chan and Katy Young. Based on cupped hands, the small sculptures with their rippled shapes resemble sea creatures, the undulating folds of oysters or the ruffled edges of a shell. They are extraordinarily beautiful and spark of need; to have one of these lovely things for yourself is almost immediate. Luckily, everything in the show is available for purchase, with a percentage of the proceeds being donated to back to the Indigenous-led reforestation projects in their countries of origin.

Vintage wood, with its imperfections as well as differences in grain, colour and weight poses an interesting design challenge. If ever there was a group of people capable of making glorious objects, it is the design community in Vancouver.

Barratt says that he was deeply heartened by the participation of so many local younger creators and makers in the exhibition. Whether it’s a reaction to the dominance of screens — phones, computers, iPads, etc. — the number of people who want to fashion things by hand has created a resurgence of interest in everything from boat building to furniture design.

Propeller’s own creation is a stunning sculptural piece titled Rivulet that incorporates lengths of mahogany shaped into a fluid forms that reference the drippy liquid light of a rainforest. Smaller works like brushes, bowls and plates, honed to perfection, are also toothsome in extremis.

There is some curious alchemy at work in the marriage of carefully honed precision and organic forms, even in larger, more robust work, like Mario Paredes’s Workbench, a behemoth that appears like it could last to the end of time and slightly beyond. The sturdy creation is affixed with an epic metal crank, and announces itself with implacable force. Who wouldn’t want such a beast, a friend to the end, upon which to fashion one’s own creations?

But even in the most ethereal and delicate pieces, like Becki Chan’s earrings that pair bronze and wood, there is a certain resoluteness at work. They’re small, but they are still mighty.

Some of the works in the show serve an obvious function — Stu Coleman’s Surfboard, Christa Clay and Kevin Isherwood’s low table and benches Parts of a Whole, or Shelley D. Park’s guitar, for example. Other pieces are purely abstract: they exist just to be beautiful.

An example is Brent Comber’s sculptural wall installation, a wheeling convergence of circular forms that cast fascinating shadows on the wall behind the work. Still other works combine utility with aesthetic. Arnt Arntzen’s work combines elements derived from shipbuilding to create what is ostensibly a table, but the curves, colour, and form, moving together in symphonic fashion, blur the line between functionality and art.

Taken collectively, the individual pieces in Reclaim + Repair add up to a joyful experience of beauty, craft and purpose. So, reward yourself with a full-on immersion in good wood.

'Reclaim + Repair: The Mahogany Project' is on display at the Museum of Vancouver until Aug. 7, 2024.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Environment

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