Classification Crisis – A retrospective of Sonja Ahlers’ work

Zines, poetry, installations, excerpts from her personal archive and a decade-plus worth of as yet unseen works are what awaits visitors at Sonja Ahlers’ Classification Crisis exhibition.

For the past 30 years, Ahlers has been an influential voice for generations of feminists through her D.I.Y. approach to collage art, poetry, zines, mail art and other publications. Classification Crisis will showcase an important overview of Ahlers rich, eclectic practice.

Highlights will include the artist’s career from Victoria to Vancouver to Whitehorse and back. The geographic moves correspond with major shifts in her artistic practice.

Sonja Ahlers.

“In a way, Classification Crisis tells a story of art in Vancouver in the 2000s. This period of rapid urban growth and international recognition for both a handful of artists and the city itself brought about a hyper-competitive art scene that left a lot of very good artists behind,” says curator Godfre Leung in a press release.

Leung adds that the exhibition highlights the importance of building communities and art infrastructures that are more humane and accessible.

The exhibition will run from Sept. 9 to Nov. 5, 2023, at the Richmond Art Gallery.

About the artist

Since the early 1990s the visual artist and poet based in Victoria has worked primarily in book and book-adjacent formats in a medium that she calls visual poetry. Ahlers is the author of Temper, Temper and Fatal Distraction (Insomniac Press, 1998 and 2004), and The Selves (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010), and was a key contributor to Rookie Mag from 2011 to 2015.

Ahlers began her career as a collage artist – a medium she describes as “gathering and collecting and organizing and archiving.” Her work became influential within the feminist Riot Grrrl and zine subcultures.

Sonja Ahlers, Shapes, 2022, mixed media, 11” x 17”. | Photo courtesy of Sonja Ahlers.

Moving to Vancouver in the early 2000s, she shifted to installation works and the creation of more idiosyncratic books. Her time in Vancouver was difficult as she juggled an increasingly impenetrable art scene, personal difficulties and the high cost of living.

When she moved to Whitehorse for a change of scenery in 2008, Ahlers found space to renew and refocus her artistic practice. Returning to Victoria in 2014 to care for her ailing mother and her affairs led her to take stock of her own life’s work as an artist. She continued to collect ephemera and produce art, which she archived in dozens of binders. Most of this remained private until the publication of her 2021 book Swan Song (Conundrum Press, 2021) that she described as “a goodbye to [her] former selves.”

A collaborative commentary

Classification Crisis is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated publication of the same title, edited by Leung. Bound to become a collectors’ item, the book includes contributions from such well-known feminist thinkers, writers and friends such as Rookie Mag founder Tavi Gevinson, musician Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame and author Doretta Lau.

Ahlers’ corpus is considered not only through the lens of biography and archiving but also the disturbing lessons taught by the #MeToo movement and vocabulary that has recently become common vernacular: grooming, negging and gatekeeping. The publication also features a brand new artist book, Rabbit-Hole, which Ahlers vividly describes as a “feminist memoir/scrapbook/confessional commentary on the art world and my place within it.”

The Richmond Art Gallery is organizing a wide array of programs in tandem with Ahlers’ survey exhibition. Visit the allery’s website and social media for the most up todate information.

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