Fiber artist Dayna Riemland is haunted by the ghosts of a past that is not her own. Born into an exiled ethnic community in Canada, she internalized from an early age the sense of dislocation and loss experienced by her grandparents.
They were Russian Mennonites, a persecuted ethnic German religious sect related to the Dutch-German Anabaptists. The group left West Prussia around 1789 and settled in what is now Ukraine. They thrived in their adopted country, but history overtook them, and after experiencing escalating persecution as the Communist party gained ascendance, they were finally ejected during Stalin’s regime. Fleeing families scattered to regions throughout the world: Germany, Mexico, Bolivia, Belize, and Canada, to name a few, but would never re-unite as a community.
In A Watcher’s Skin, now on view at River House Arts Gallery through November 11, 2017, Riemland, a young artist who has no direct memory of the dislocation and trauma of exile, vicariously re-experiences it as a dream-like story that is both seductive and disquieting. Her sense of her family’s loss of home represents a kind of solastalgia, a term that describes longing for a lost time or place one has never experienced directly and that may not even exist.
The seven artworks that Riemland has created for this exhibit are modest in size and make good use of the crafts of embroidery and needlepoint she learned from her grandmother in childhood. She explores how tradition and its associated formalities and motifs “can be combined with ghosts of a collective history that has become pre-occupied with the past.” She takes fabric remnants– vintage handkerchiefs, gloves, bed sheets and pillowcases (many taken from the household of her grandmother) and labors over their surface to create images that are resonant and uncanny. Riemland’s visual vocabulary, especially her repeated use of the unblinking eye in My Seeing Skin and in Watcher, is reminiscent in mood to the nightmarish but captivating imagery from Pan’s Labyrinth, a film by Guillermo Del Toro. Perhaps not coincidentally, that narrative also tells the story of a child navigating an imagined world at the periphery of adult reality. Riemland likewise seems both disoriented and enchanted by her exiled grandparents’ stories of a lost and distant time and place.
Riemland describes the process of embroidering as an “act that creates a devotional surface.” She begins her compositions with traditional floral and decorative motifs and moves to more fantastic imagery in the center. In Watcher, the largest piece in the show and one which took her almost a year to complete, she begins with a frame of traditional roses and then moves inward to a many-eyed presence that seems to beckon us forward.
In An Inverse Tradition, Riemland inverts a female figure in ethnic costume, literally turning it on its head to make the familiar strange. The upside-down figure might be a visual metaphor for Riemland’s intimate yet distant experience of a vanished family history, one which can no longer be touched or experienced directly, but which haunts her and drives her creative process forward.
Dayna Riemland graduated from the Maine College of Art with an MFA in Studio Art in 2017. She currently lives and works in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada. This is her first solo show.