Hailing from the Scottish Highlands and living in Canada for more than ten years, Johan Hallberg-Campbell travels to explore communities and what it means to belong. In 2009, while visiting family in Scalpay, a small fishing community in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, he lamented the dying tradition of his ancestors. His uncle, a lifelong fisherman, spoke of the disappearance of herring, which he referred to as “silver darlings,” and the imminent loss of his vocation. It was during this trip to his homeland that the photographer and filmmaker came to understand his connection to this heritage and his relationship to the coast. The following year, he embarked on the first of many journeys to investigate Canada’s coastline, experience its beauty and its harshness, and capture life on the edge, where the land meets the sea.
Through photographs and videos, Coastal (2010 – ongoing) tells stories about those who live alongside Canada’s vast oceans, depicting the customs, hardships, and resilience of these communities. Hallberg-Campbell began his journey in the outport towns of Newfoundland, which reminded him of his native Scottish lands. There, he documented the villages of Grand Bruit and Petites, which now sit empty due to the cod stock collapse and fishery ban. His sojourns have led him to locations such as Moose Cree First Nation in Ontario, as well as Haida Gwaii and Tofino in British Columbia, where he has focused on Indigenous cultures and the traces of the early European settlements that impacted traditional ways and current lifestyles. In further explorations, he has ventured to the former site of a rocket range in Churchill, Manitoba, and captured industry and development, as well as methods of travel, fishing, and hunting, in numerous regions. Over the years, Hallberg-Campbell has been guided by countless people who share their lives and their stories, and through these encounters he has crafted a visual narrative that extends across the country.
Immersing viewers in the landscapes of these journeys, this exhibition features large-scale murals overlaid salon-style with photographs of different sizes, culled from the more than 200 works that currently comprise the growing series. Rather than conveying a geographical or chronological order, Hallberg-Campbell’s portraits, still lives, and seascapes are perspicaciously arranged to evoke poetic connections. On the corresponding north, east, and west walls of the gallery, videos capturing the three oceans project both undulating and frozen scenes: Arctic, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories (2016) explores the small village of Tuktoyaktuk, at the end of the Ice Road on the Beaufort Sea Coast, where the Inuvialuit have hunted and harvested caribou and whale for centuries; Atlantic, Lennox Island, Prince Edward Island (2015) focuses on the Mi’kmaq, among the original inhabitants of Canada’s Atlantic provinces, whose island is gradually being swept away by the waters of Malpeque Bay due to intense erosion; Pacific, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (2017) traces the home of the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-cha-nulth, and Coast Salish peoples, who have lived on this land for more than 8,000 years.
As a touchstone of sorts, the exhibition also includes a picture of the artist’s great-great-grandfather—a looming man with a white beard, guiding his boat and his crew through a cold, foggy sea. The family photograph draws Coastal back to the artist’s own personal history and intimate connection to the ocean. With a span of more than 243,000 kilometres, Canada’s coastline represents the world’s largest, and Hallberg-Campbell’s travels along these three oceans will continue to evolve.
Extending the exhibition to the grounds of Harbourfront Centre outside the gallery, three of the artist’s photographs are presented as large murals, and resonate with the surroundings in view of Lake Ontario. The images of a cabin and of sleigh-dog houses both echo the form of the small building on which they are situated, while the pastoral scene of an unfinished war canoe, dating back some 150 years, beckons to the shoreline.