York prof featured in Toronto hospital’s centennial celebration

York Visual Arts Professor Nina Levitt is one of four featured artists in Being She, a photo-based exhibition for the centennial celebrations of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

Subtitled “The Culture of Women’s Health and Health Care Through the Lens of Wholeness”, the show will be on display at the Gladstone Hotel June 9 to Aug. 1.

The exhibition addresses the culture of women’s health care by exploring issues of empowerment, diversity, identity and embodiment. It brings together the arts and health communities in an inspiring event that reflects the collective experience of women in society.

Levit included reproductions of yearbook pages and class photos as part of the Being She exhibition
Above: Levit included reproductions of yearbook pages and class photos as part of the Being She exhibition

“I had wanted to create an homage to nursing even before I was invited to participate in this show,” said Levitt. “Being She gave me the opportunity to reflect on my interactions with the dozens of nurses who cared for my critically ill partner and my terminally ill sibling. My work for the exhibition is rooted in those experiences and my own awareness of the vital role of nurses in healthcare.”

The sole commissioned work in Being She, Levitt’s contribution combines 15 enlarged reproductions of yearbook pages and class photos from the hospital’s nursing school archives with some 100 vintage romance novels about nurses. The yearbook images span 1959 to 1971. The pulp novels include some from Levitt’s own bookshelves as well as many borrowed titles from the avid collectors she met in the course of her research. Together, these artifacts offer a telling and provocative glimpse into the social history and mythology of the profession during that period.

Pulp novels from Levitt's own bookshelves are among the artifacts collected for the exhibitionRight: Pulp novels from Levitt’s own bookshelves are among the artifacts collected for the exhibition

“Levitt precisely recovers these historic and social ephemera to bring them into a present time and externalized space outside the hospital and field of health care,” said Deborah Wang, who co-curated the exhibit with arts specialist Betty Ann Jordan and film and video artist Christina Zeidler. “Intuitively and thoughtfully, the yearbook pages and pulp novels that she presents recontextualizes what is already there, and draws the viewer’s attention to what is missing.

“Levitt’s intervention is subtle, yet complex in the way these yearbooks and pulp novels open up a space to examine how societal norms like gender roles, career stereotypes and race have significantly changed in the past 40 to 50 years.”

“My work deals with the changes in nursing and how the social construction of what nursing is has evolved,” said Levitt. “These images show nothing of illness and mortality. The romanticized drama displayed in the books is echoed by the glamorous, stylized school portraits. Both reflect the prevalent stereotypes about nursing that existed in the 1960s. When you look at them, you don’t recognize today’s nurses.”

Levitt was also struck by the lack of racial diversity in the images. “All the women pictured on the covers of pulp novels are white, and often blonde and blue-eyed,” she said. “The school portraits are likewise predominately white.”

The artist wanted to engage this issue without turning it into the primary focus of the exhibit. On the advice of the hospital’s equity director, she invited Andrea Fatona, an Ottawa-based curator, to write an accompanying text to address some of the possible reasons why women of colour were absent from the School of Nursing during those years.

Levitt’s installation continues her ongoing exploration of the representation of women in popular culture and her research-based art practice of recontextualizing found images. Her most recent works, focusing on the representation of female spies during the Second World War, comprise the trilogy Little Breeze (Galerie Oboro, Montreal and Doris McCarthy Gallery, UT Scarborough, 2004),Thin Air (Koffler Gallery, Toronto, 2008) and Relay(Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, 2008).

Featured in Being She along with Levitt are Sarah Anne Johnson, a Winnipeg-based Grange Prize-winning photographer and sculptor, and Toronto artists Jane Martin and Meryl McMaster. The artists will be present at the opening reception for the exhibition, which takes place June 9 from 6:30 to 9pm, with remarks at 7pm.

A second component of the show presents works by 20 other artists, including York visual arts alumni Laura Barron (MFA ’09), Hoda Ghods (BFA ‘09) and Elaine Whittaker (BFA ‘98). These works, selected from an open call for submissions, will be on view at the Gladstone June 9 to 15.

Since its founding in 1911, Women’s College Hospital has led many breakthroughs in women’s health. The hospital is celebrating its century of innovation with a series of events and exhibitions throughout 2011; Being She is one of the highlights. For more information on the exhibition and the centenary, visit the 100 Years of Women’s Health website.