History

Mayann Francis, Shauntay Grant find common threads in fabric exhibits

Former lieutenant governor and writer both have shows at Dalhousie Art Gallery

The curators discuss their exhibits at the Dalhousie Art Gallery on Thursday night.
Curators Mayann Francis and Shauntay Grant discuss their exhibits at the Dalhousie Art Gallery on Thursday night.   Madi Haslam

Mayann Francis and Shauntay Grant know textiles can speak and that materials have many stories to tell.

Francis, former lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, and Grant, a writer and professor at Dalhousie University, both have exhibits on display at the Dalhousie Art Gallery that focus on fabric. They got together at the gallery Thursday night to talk about what their shows have in common.

The Dress: Mayann Francis and the Call to Serve showcases Francis’ dresses from her time as lieutenant governor. Stitched Stories: The Family Quilts displays the intergenerational quilts belonging Grant’s family.

“Both of us are looking at our relationship to fabric individually, but also the stories that come with it,” Grant told the audience.

For Grant, those stories live in the patchwork quilts her grandmother and great-grandmother made for harsh winters in North Preston, N.S. The women used scraps of fabric from their family members’ old clothes.

One of the family quilts on display in Grant's exhibit.
One of the family quilts on display in Grant’s exhibit.   Madi Haslam

“My grandmother was collecting pieces of her family history and not letting them go,” said Grant. The fact that they meant that much to her makes them mean that much to me.”

The quilts are well-known and well-used within Grant’s family, but putting them on display allows them to be seen in a new light.

“Making quilts is what we do. The chance to be able to celebrate that outside the home is how I say thank you for these patchworks that were made to keep our family warm,” she said. “Having them in a gallery is about honouring the generations of women who inspire me.”

For Francis, her custom outfits reveal what it meant to be the the first African-Nova Scotian representing Queen Elizabeth II.

Two of Francis's outfits as Lieutenant Governor.
Two of the outfits Francis wore as Lieutenant Governor.   Madi Haslam

“There are certain expectations for somebody who is the first, especially if there are stereotyped images people might have of women — especially black women,” she said to the crowd. “I was very conscious of that and so the aspect of the dress became very critical. I took the time and effort and research to think about how I was going to dress; I had to get it right.”

Francis’ dresses were handmade, many of them by Halifax-based designer Salwa Majaess, for special occasions during her time in office from 2006-2012.

The exhibit includes the outfits Francis wore when she met the Queen and when she signed the posthumous pardon of civil rights activist Viola Desmond. Desmond was jailed in 1946 for sitting in an all-white section of a racially segregated film theatre in New Glasgow, N.S.

“The thought that went into the Viola Desmond outfit was to downplay whatever I was going to wear because the significance of that day was more important than what I wearing,” said Francis. “I wanted the thought to be on Viola Desmond’s freedom because that’s what I was signing.”

The dress Francis wore when she signed the pardon of Viola Desmond.
The dress Francis wore when she signed the pardon of Viola Desmond.   Madi Haslam

Francis’ outfit for the signing was also designed to look like it was from the 1940s.

“That was a tribute to her, but it also gave me a spiritual connection to her and strength to be able to give her her freedom without being overwhelmed with emotion,” she said.

Francis told the audience she hopes the exhibit inspires a younger generation of women to follow in her footsteps.

“I want little girls to aspire to be lieutenant governor  — black, brown, white, whatever,” she said.

She would also like her dresses and other historically significant textiles be permanently displayed somewhere in Nova Scotia.

“There’s so much diversity in our province: the Acadian population, Mi’kmaq, African-Nova Scotian and Celtic,” she said in an interview. “There’s such a rich history here; you could have material tell stories about things that are particular to each group of people.”

The Dress: Mayann Francis and the Call to Serve and Stitched Stories: The Family Quilts are on display at the Dalhousie Art Gallery until Nov. 27.

View the slideshow below to see more dresses and quilts: