Alberta’s Oil and Gas History Told in a Tapestry

The Black Gold Tapestry is breathtaking. The colours are stunning. Most articles start by talking about either the size or the story, and both of those are worth discussing, but it is the beauty of it that grabs the viewer from a distance. Up close the detail of the texture that takes over. The stitching is sublime and the textures cause the light to play with the colour in a way that is almost cinematic, which makes sense since the artist is a filmmaker.

First, a little background. The Black Gold Tapestry is a new artwork created by Sandra Sawatzky, currently on exhibit at the Glenbow Museum. It is an homage to the Bayeux tapestry – embroidered on linen, 70 meters long and a half-meter tall, with the main story portrayed in the middle and borders along the top and bottom. As the name suggests The Black Gold Tapestry tells the story of fossil fuels, through a series of vignettes showing technological innovations related to the history of oil, gas, and coal. Parts of the story are familiar, like the dinosaurs at the beginning of the story and the image of Henry Ford near the end, but most of the scenes are decidedly unfamiliar, like the scene of 2nd century Chinese salt merchants building bamboo pipelines to carry natural gas which fuelled the fires they used to distill salt from brine.

It is these unfamiliar scenes that make the piece captivating. Part of the purpose of art is to make us see things that have been in front of us for so long that we no longer notice them. Oil is a constant part of our daily lives. We think of it in either economic or environmental terms, not historical. The Black Gold Tapestry reminds us that the story of oil is a story of technological change. Like the transition from whale oil to kerosene, the discovery of new fuels spurs innovation, and innovation creates demand for new fuels. This is shown in the final panel with wind turbines, illustrating the current transition toward sustainable energy, and the Roman god Janus with one face looking back toward the past and another face looking off into the future.

The Black Gold Tapestry deserves to be seen in person. Descriptions and pictures can’t do justice to the colours, texture, or scale. It will be on display at the Glenbow Museum until May. I hope it gets to travel after that. Too much artwork is only displayed once then ends up in a box. Hopefully this piece be seen by many more people for a long time.

 Kat Hammer – Arts and Culture

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