I, Voyageur, in Search of Frances Anne Hopkins

Story by Sara Sadeghi Aval, Photos by Naomi Harris 

Thirty years ago, Janet Clark curated the first exhibit featuring the paintings of Frances Anne Hopkins at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, in the same building that now holds photographer Naomi Harris’s 2018 work tracing the same route as Hopkins, also guest curated by Clark. Travelling back in time, Harris set out to experience what that journey would feel like as a woman and to experience and document the landscapes that remain just as untouched as when Hopkins passed by them. Harris canoed and portaged the same route, except going backwards and mixing the historical with the modern. 


Hopkins, now famous for her large oil paintings featuring her iconic FAH monogram, travelled with her husband accompanied by voyageurs through the Hudson Bay Company’s fur trade routes in the 1860s. Harris’s work focuses on embodying Hopkins and depicting the “ending of canoe travel as it was known,” says the curator. 

Harris’s four-month journey, accompanied by a guide, is documented through photos and waterproof journals. “Frances Anne never kept a diary; her paintings are all we have,” explains Clark. A departure from Harris’s usual book projects, the exhibit juxtaposes her modern tools and supplies against the unchanging backdrop of Northwestern Ontario. Still-life photos of her first aid kit, energy bars, and toilet paper hang in the gallery’s main hall, next to the green canoe she used during her trek. Harris even duplicated Hopkins’s iconic blue travelling dress, posing in Renaissance-like tributes to scenes painted by Hopkins. “Naomi was injured on the French River,” explains Clark, referencing a striking photo of Harris, still dressed as Hopkins, on a modern-day emergency room bed, referencing the difference in resources between then and now, and the struggles of canoe travel. 


Amongst the photos and diary entries, dress models, and superimposed vinyl prints in the exhibit are miniature tintypes—a form of photography used in the 1860s and 1870s consisting of thin metal and dark pigment—which include a self-portrait made to resemble Hopkins and a nude image of Harris on the Superior shores, paying tribute to her personal work. The Toronto-based photographer previously trekked Canada in 2010 via the Trans-Canada Highway, photographing people she met along the way.


“I think this was another way of showing Canada,” says Clark on Harris’s reason for embarking on the journey. Clark’s favourite piece in the show is a particular nightlife shot of Harris standing by the shore with a small light, depicting the moments after the canoe paddles have stopped for the day and the beauty of “just being there, camping under the stars.”

I, Voyageur, in Search of Frances Anne Hopkins is open to the public until September 25. For more information, visit theag.ca.