Exhibiting an uneasy tension between manifestation and meaning, Garry Neill Kennedy’s work consistently strives to penetrate the artfulfulness of surface in order to explore what aesthetic conventions simultaneously convey and conceal. As he investigates the social uses of colour, form, and representation, he pushes us to loosen the hold of cultural habits upon the eye and imagination. In Somalia, with disturbing effect, the artist juxtaposes two socially constructed artefacts of a peacekeeping mission gone terribly awry.
On the external west wall of Gallery 101, Kennedy has created a stripe painting based on the colours of the ribbon used to suspend the Somalia Medal, which was issued by the Department of National Defence to Canadian Forces Personnel who served in Operation DELIVERANCE (November 16, 1992 to June 30, 1993). Inside the gallery, Kennedy shows an edition of the Times Literary Supplement dominated by an unsettling photograph of a United Nations Peacekeeper kicking a Somali boy. These two images - the aesthetically captivating wall painting and the uncompromisingly raw photograph - stand in stark and seemingly irreconcilable contrast. Indeed, the installation physically precludes the possibility of seeing both images together at the same time.
A viewer unfamiliar with Kennedy’s work might read Somalia as an ideological tract exposing the distorting power of official commemorative images. But such a reading would be superficial and incomplete. As Kennedy’s work repeatedly makes clear, that which lies ‘beneath’ aesthetically constructed surfaces also refuses to tell us the unvarnished truth. Rather than reducing ambiguity to certainty by privileging one surface over another, Kennedy propels the viewer into an unremitting oscillation between representation and reality, appearance and authenticity, and semblance and significance. The juxtaposition of the wall painting and the Times Literary Supplement produces both a sense of strangeness in what had seemed familiar and a discomfiting sense of identification with what initially appears alien, unwanted, and denied.
In his book Contingency, irony, and solidarity, Richard Rorty reminds us that we can better establish solidarity with what may appear "other" through our imagination rather than through rational analytics:
In my utopia, human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away "prejudice" or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, "They do not feel it as we would," or "There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?"
In Somalia, Kennedy brings together irony and imagination to quicken a fragile sense of human solidarity from both the beautiful constructions and the harsh contingencies that shape our experiences of the world and of one another. To see Somalia is to see ourselves as the boy and the soldier depicted in the photograph while being enfolded within colours representing the Somali flag (blue and white), the three services of the Canadian Forces (navy blue, scarlet, and airforce blue), and the obdurate but shifting desert sand. Martin Barlosky