Artist travels to an ancestral past

As a child, photographer Marion Penner Bancroft never thought she would have the chance to visit the homelands of her ancestors.

Back then, Ukraine and Scotland were places that were distant and “existed entirely in my imagination,” says Bancroft, who now resides in Vancouver. She finally travelled overseas in 1997 to visit Ukraine, the homeland of her father’s ancestors and in 1998 to Scotland, that of her mother’s.

From For Dennis and Susan Running Arms to a Civil War, 1978. Photo by Marion Penner Bancroft, courtesy of Vancouver Art Gallery

Bancroft wanted to “have a physical experience of those places where I could actually breathe the air, feel the prevailing winds… get a sense of light.”

It was while she was there that she documented her journey of the land her ancestors had grown up in and eventually had to leave behind.

As a part of the first generation of her family to grow up on the West Coast of Canada, a sense of interconnectedness comes into play in much of her work.

While she doesn’t notice many similarities between the places she has travelled to and Vancouver, apart from the estuaries and flatlands of Richmond and Ladner, she was made aware of “how recent European history is in this part of the world” and how the places in her travels and the West Coast were “landscapes that both people had to leave.”

Her previous work, Lost Streams of Kitsilano (1995), references the rivers that were covered over to make way for urban development, just as XA:YTEM (1991) contrasts the coordinates of Bancroft’s home in Kitsilano with the site of Hatzic Rock, the location of an old indigenous village in British Columbia.

“Displacement is a fundamental condition of the modern world,” says Grant Arnold, Audain curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). To Bancroft, it is in this way that Vancouver, Scotland and Ukraine are inherently linked. Her work posits that who the inhabitants are of many a land has consistently been in a state of flux, and living in Vancouver has given her a deeper sense of this.

An exhibition of Bancroft’s work SPIRITLANDS: t/HERE, which is showing at the VAG until September 30, features her series By Land and Sea: Prospect and Refuge, Bancroft’s homage to her travels to her ancestral homelands. In her series of colour photographs, she depicts the Dnieper River in Ukraine, the Odessa Steps, and a multitude of nature scenes.

The images are relatively straightforward but as Arnold mentions, they are “a system of representation…not just something that’s beautiful.”

He says that it is the story behind them and the history that Bancroft is alluding to and trying to access that makes them more complicated than a person viewing them might initially assume.

“The photo isn’t the thing that it’s depicting,” says Bancroft.
Bancroft’s family was left in search of another land, leading to Canada. For her, Vancouver is a veritable fusion of people with different experiences, ethnicities and backgrounds. To live in Vancouver is to be “a person whose roots are mostly elsewhere,” and it is something about the city that she appreciates.

“I see Vancouver as a city mostly of immigrants, and that is a wonderful thing.”