They were cargo. Kept as steerage below deck in the dark with spoiled food and no sanitation. For 99 days, 60 young women braved dire conditions aboard the S.S. Tynemouth, a “bride ship” sailing from Dartmouth, England to Victoria, B.C. in 1862 as part of an initiative to send women to the mining camps to help populate British Columbia with British citizens.
Their perilous journey is the subject of Vancouver-based multi-disciplinary artist Tracy McMenemy’s latest exhibit, “The Girls Are Coming!,” which kicks off with a reception on International Women’s Day and officially opens on March 9; it runs through June 16 at Vancouver’s Maritime Museum. Those dates were chosen with purpose: It’s the same amount of time as the girls’ voyage. The exhibit name, McMenemy notes, was the headline in the British Colonist newspaper prior to the ship’s arrival: “The girls are coming, the girls are coming, they’ll be here any day!”
“My creative response started with historical photographs, archival newspaper clippings, and antiquated sails from the last of the sailing Arctic fur trading ships,” McMenemy says. “As these materials infiltrated my studio, they inspired a space for innovation and experimentation—a workshop to examine their physical and conceptual limitations.”
Works within her exhibition include sculpture, installation, and painting. For example, for the mixed-media installation “60 Sisters Torn Apart,” McMenemy “measuredly and rhythmically” ripped a sail cloth into 60 pieces to represent each girl. The sculpture “Select Bundles of Crinoline” features ripped crinoline and wedding dresses that she fumaged (a technique that uses smoke from a flame to create an image) and bundled with a red satin fumaged ribbon that sits atop an oak pallet.
For the sculpture “Life Saver,” McMenemy made small abstract paintings on sail cloth, but decided they felt disconnected and opted to rip the paintings apart and affix them to styrofoam mannequin heads, which represent the young women’s lack of voice, sight, choice, and freedom. She placed them in a circle to suggest an unbreakable cycle. “I gave them a voice to tell their story via a hand reaching up from the middle, breaking through with hope and healing,” she says. “The audience’s image is reflected in the mirrored base below the brides [heads], exposing the tension between individual freedom, safety in numbers, and allowing the viewer to see themselves.”
The exhibit’s unveiling on International Women’s Day holds a huge significance for the artist and raises important questions. “The journey of the young women on the bride ship, who faced dire adversity to reach their destination, resonates with women’s ongoing struggle for equality,” she says. “Just over 150 years ago, 60 brave girls were pronounced as cargo on the ship. They were considered an invoice. How far have we come? We’re not progressing fast enough. In another 150 years, will we be having these same conversations?”
“The Girls Are Coming!” is on view to the public March 9–June 16 at Vancouver’s Maritime Museum, vancouvermaritimemuseum.com