"The Dress," the legacy

Art Gallery exhibition showcases Mayann Francis' unique garments and their stories

- November 25, 2016

Items from "The Dress." (Danny Abriel photos)
Items from "The Dress." (Danny Abriel photos)

The Honourable Mayann Francis has spent her life making history, and continues to be an integral member of the Dalhousie community in many ways. Her most recent endeavour is a collaboration with the Dalhousie Art Gallery with her exhibit, The Dress: Mayann Francis and the Call To Serve.

Most people know Dr. Francis as the first African Nova Scotian to serve as Lieutenant Governor. Prior to her appointment, she was CEO and executive director of the Nova Scotia Human Rights commission and the first woman to serve as Nova Scotia’s provincial ombudsperson. Most recently, Dr. Francis was awarded an honorary degree from Dalhousie and became the School of Public Administration’s first Distinguished Public Service Fellow. Over the years, she's delivered more than 30 workshops and lectures on campus.

Art and dress

After decades of public service, Dr. Francis has begun to explore new ways to promote equality and justice: through art.

Last year Dr. Francis published her first book, Mayann’s Train Ride. The children’s picture book tells the story of Dr. Francis’ first journey from small-town Cape Breton to New York City. And this fall, she embarked on a new artistic journey with her exhibit in the Dalhousie Art Gallery.

The Dress: Mayann Francis and the Call to Serve debuted in September and runs through this Sunday (November 27). The exhibit features a collection of outfits Francis wore during her time as Lieutenant Governor, and highlights the impact of race, gender and class on selecting the garments.

“Each garment tells a story,” says Dr. Francis “It was important for me, as the first African Nova Scotian to hold the position, to get the dress right.”

Dr. Francis pitched the idea for the exhibition in early 2013, hoping to begin a discussion for a textile museum for Nova Scotia as well as draw attention to the detail that went into each outfit. These were not off-the-rack outfits: Dr. Francis worked with Halifax-based designer Etalier Salwa to create outfits that would set a stylish but respectful tone.

“I wanted to open up a conversation about textiles,” says Dr. Francis of the exhibit, “and to show the public what the garment meant to me in terms of class, race and gender.”

Sharing experiences

Dr. Francis and the Dalhousie Art Gallery have hosted a number of public events through the term to profile the exhibition, and last week Premier Stephen MacNeil made a special visit to tour the exhibit with Dr. Francis.

The gallery space is being shared with Dalhousie Lecturer Shauntay Grant, former Halifax Poet Laureate. Grant’s exhibit Stiched Stories features a series of handmade quilts, each with a unique history.

Grant and Francis gathered together on November 17 to speak about the “common threads” between the two exhibits and the two women themselves.

“The excitement hasn’t dwindled since we started,” says Grant on the shared gallery space. “There are stories behind each garment, each quilt, that we share — this has given us so many opportunities to talk.”

The two spoke about their shared experiences with art, family and home.

“It was frightening to put everything out there” says Dr. Francis, humbled by the reception that the exhibit has gotten, “but you have to take the leap and go forward from there.”

Both exhibits are on display through this weekend (until Sunday, November 27. The Dalhousie Art Gallery is located in the basement of the Dalhousie Arts Centre and admission is free for all. Visit its website.


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