You are currently viewing Interview / Crabba – Two Memorials: When the ordinary reveals the heinous underlying side of history

Interview / Crabba – Two Memorials: When the ordinary reveals the heinous underlying side of history

September 27th 2023 – November 23rd 2023, Massy Arts will host, Two Memorials for Residential School Victims, a window installation by Vancouver-based artist and political activist Crabba.

Exhibited in one of the building’s windows, Two Memorials for Residential School Victims meditates on the impact of state-led social intervention, cultural indoctrination, and repair. Antique porcelain Canadiana and Eurocentric memorabilia are sourced, collected, and violently broken through a variety of methods. Then, through slow and dissociative composition, the pieces are recombined to form a glimmering façade upon reclaimed schoolhouse furniture; one chair and one desk.

Here, the artist places imagery of churches, papal figures, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to defy narratives of national identity. Unlike traditional masonry or mosaic, Crabba takes expressionistic liberties with grout application, preparing different viscosities and pigments for experimental, and improvised play. 

This project is supported by the Community Arts Council of Vancouver + First Peoples’ Cultural Council.

The Massy Arts Gallery is located at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.
The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm to 5pm.
Entrance is free, and masks are mandatory.

To contact the gallery, send an email to:

: :

To celebrate the installation, Rafael Zen interviews Crabba for Massy Arts, addressing the artist’s process of investigating the in-betweens of official history, memory, and identity.

: :

Crabba – Two Memorials: When the ordinary reveals the heinous underlying side of history

: :

Rafael Zen – First, I would like to ask you about the installation’s title: Two Memorials for Residential School Victims. What do you think it informs about your intentions as an artist + activist? What do you want to discuss in these memorials?

Crabba – I don’t really see these pieces as activism; they come from such a deep place of solitude. I think of them as prayers— I had contemplated whether to show them publicly and whether to attach my identity to them, because I wanted to preserve that act of prayer and I feared what releasing them into the world would do to its integrity.

But I want to tell you a little story about it: I started working on the white chair in January 2022, and the whole time I was breaking plates of Pope John Paul II, I was wondering, “why hasn’t the pope made an apology yet? It’s so simple.” Then in the Spring when I finally finished the mosaic and I was ready to grout it, I heard the news that Pope Francis was going to come to Canada. It was so hopeful. On the day I finished the chair, the pope apologized in Edmonton. It was a wonderful synchronicity.

So in a strange way, it felt like all of that meditation went somewhere, even though it was just a great coincidence. Back to your question though, in terms of the artist / activism dynamic, I thought about dropping off the pieces downtown, at the plaza where all the other memorials were, but for whatever reason I got lazy.

Now, I am very thankful for this opportunity to share my work here. The title “Two Memorials for Residential School Victims” is to me just a blatant explanation of what these pieces are to me, without getting too poetic or metaphysical.

: :

RZ – For these pieces, working through memorials, your process seems to investigate the in-betweens of official history and memory. Do you think this would be a fair assumption? If so, what do you think is the correlation between these two? By bringing antique objects and destroying/collaging them, what did you want to conceptually convey?

Crabba – Yeah, thank you for bringing this up. I like repurposing porcelain, especially decorative antiques, because you have to confront colonial authorship with it. It’s such an interesting material, historically, from imperial China to Europe, to the British colonies worldwide.

I always think of this poem, “Song of Lawino” by Okot p’Bitek, where the narrator, a woman who represents anti-colonial Uganda, goes on about how stupid porcelain is; how it makes food weird and how it’s unsustainable and redundant; like you could just use a pumpkin rind as a bowl, you know…

Then I also think of Josiah Wedgwood, the ceramist who created “Am I not a man and a brother?” the emblem promoting abolition in the late 1700s. This ceramic relief was hugely influential as a fashion piece amongst upper class women—the world’s first “activism merchandise.”

There’s something very authoritative and almost imposing about a medium that intends to be permanent, also. All of these contradictions are what I love so much about working with pre-made objects and antiques, both in the façades of the mosaics and in the structural components as well.

The recombination of familiar objects is really like generative grammar to me; when a socially-recognizable narrative merges with another, by proxy of their corresponding objects, they can be read together in new ways.

In the collective memory of the status quo, a school chair and a child’s desk are familiar and perhaps even endearing objects, but with this added layer of context, the façade of broken antique plates depicting the pope and the Canadian flag; or shards of monochromatic orange and a shattered RCMP officer, this output reveals a heinous underlying history of what is considered ordinary.

: :

RZ – Your artist statement affirms that this installation invites for discussions on the impact of state-led social intervention, cultural indoctrination, and repair. What is this impact that you are specifically addressing? And in this sense, what would repair sound like?

Crabba – I’m sensitive to the tragic impact, the loss of lives, and the inheritance of PTSD, which also claims life. But I want to caution against soft power and concepts of charity as well. The status quo is often uncomfortable with being passive, as recipients or processors, when listening is very much indeed a form of action.

I’m addressing this long legacy of white saviorism, with it. Also, I should clarify that I’m considering the institution of the church as “state” in this context. Following the peak of the residential school system, the foster care system in Canada became a new mode of suppression and control. We don’t talk about these things enough.

I hope in the future it becomes more normal to register paternalistic power asymmetries and to recognize moments when moral superiority goes unchallenged, especially when it is at the detriment of another virtue (which it often is).

There is so much deep healing that needs to happen across the board.

: :

RZ – Your process seems to include embodied arts / body art, as you “violently break” old memorabilia, through “a variety of methods”. How do you think this gesture, to violently break something, informs the piece? In this sense, I would also like to know about the use of violence as a cathartic process/performance, and what it feels like for you as the artist/body participating in the process.

Crabba – I wish I could say that I’m not angry, because I know how futile and impotent anger is, but rage is 100% present. When I’m channeling this anger into smashing plates or throwing teacups, I know that ultimately I will be constructive with it, so the violence becomes part of the larger meditation.

It also just feels good to destroy things. Maybe it’s emotional immaturity. Diabolical satisfaction. There is a release that happens. The irony of breaking dishes like this however, is that you have to tend to them even more afterward; you have to collect the pieces, carefully so that you don’t cut yourself, and dust them off and clean them— so it creates a lot more work in the end— as opposed to just nipping them with the proper tools.

Overall I would say the impulsiveness grants me a more kinetic understanding of the material properties, though, which wouldn’t be as explorative if I were behaving.

: :

RZ – What other artist/artists would you suggest our viewers to know as a dialogue with your piece? Is there a particular artwork that you think, when paired with Two Memorials for Residential School Victims, would take this conversation further?

Crabba – Yeah, definitely. I started doing this because I was studying Rosie Lee Tompkins for studio at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (thanks to Leslie Van Duzer.) Tompkins was known for her improvisational quilt-making. She was Black and grew up in Arkansas before moving to California in the 1940s. The way she processed complex feelings and observations about the world through quilt-making was so inspiring to me.

I read that she would go to flea markets and thrift stores to find specific textiles that she was interested in working with. The quilts are often very large as well. I haven’t seen them in the flesh yet but I can really feel that these are laborious, private interfaces. This “Untitled” piece, in particular, was influential to me; it’s so radical but so understated and soft.

Some of her quilts have this underlying tenor of grief about them too, even though they might seem simplistic at first. One of the last pieces she made before passing away is this huge monochromatic black quilt, so unlike the rest of her work. Most of her pieces are vibrant and sort of humorous, but this later piece left a strong impression on me for its contrasted gravity.

: :