As soon as former Studio Arts director Duncan deKerommeaux saw Shani Mootoo’s art portfolio, she was welcomed to Western – and Canada for the first time.
Her journey took her far from home in Trinidad, but closer to who she has become: an internationally renowned multimedia artist and award-winning author.
Western will recognize Mootoo’s creative accomplishments with an honorary degree at the fall convocation on Friday, October 22. (See more details on convocation below.)
Scientist Tak Mak, historian Natalie Zemon Davis, and community lawyer and philanthropist Janet Stewart also receive honorary doctorates.
“An honorary degree from Western University is indeed a huge honor,” Mootoo said from his home in Prince Edward County, Ont. “But on top of that, an honorary degree from my alma mater is touching. It was my first home away from Trinidad… and the place where, away from home, I could begin to try out how to be an individual, an adult, to learn who and what I could be.
“I was also very lucky to be in the visual arts, where these kinds of discoveries went hand in hand with becoming an artist,” she said.
Mootoo, BFA’80, cherished the time she spent “settled” in the art department under the wings of deKergommeaux, painter Paterson Ewen and sculptor Robin Peck. “It was a big deal for me,” she said. “I am not in contact with any of them now, but I often think of them, their support for me and all of us. It was the start of where I am now.
Author by chance
Mootoo was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to Trinidad at the age of three months. She immigrated to Canada a year after graduating from Western and worked as a visual artist and video producer in Vancouver, Alberta and New York. His paintings, photographs and videos have been exhibited in places such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Venice Biennale.
The publication as an author “was completely accidental” and occurred when her private writings were shared, unwittingly, with Press Gang Publishers, who ultimately persuaded her to write. On the main street, a collection of short stories in 1993.
Three years later, Mootoo wrote his escape novel, Cereus blooms at night, which was shortlisted for the Chapters First Novel, the Ethel Wilson Book Prize and the Giller. The novel was recently advertised as a Classic Penguin, a designation that the publisher reserves for books that “combine literary quality, historical significance and lasting reputation, and above all, still feel alive.”
His other works, Move sideways like a crab, He drowns her in the sea and Valmiki’s daughter, has also landed on prestigious literary price lists. Its most recent offer, Polar vortex, released in 2020, was a Giller Prize finalist. Over the past year, Mootoo has used his time during the pandemic to produce a part ordered for the Toronto International Festival of Authors, and a poem for Spike Island Gallery in Bristol.
Her success as a writer and visual artist is combined in Cane | Fire, a collection of poems based on memoirs presenting his art, scheduled for release in 2022.
With his words and his art intertwined, even his description of his writing process paints a picture.
“After the last book is written, the canvas is blank, waiting,” Mootoo said.
“I love when I’m surprised by the push and pull, the directions I’m taking and the unexpected outcome of my own story. Whenever I start with a known idea, I get bored quickly. When I let go and let the story unfold in its own logic, I’m sure, deliciously surprised. At one point, I see what the story is, then I take control and make it more like what it always wanted to be. ”
Western celebrates graduates with a virtual convocation starting at 7 p.m. EST on Friday, October 22. Three pre-recorded diploma-specific ceremonies will be posted online at Western Fall 2021 Convocation Page, allowing graduates, their families and loved ones to attend the ceremony that concerns them, when they wish. Each ceremony will feature celebratory music by Convocation Brass, with administration and faculty on stage, and remarks from this year’s honorary degree recipients.
A speaker will read the name of each graduate student, which will also be featured on slides displayed individually throughout the ceremony. Around 3,000 graduate students will then join 328,000 Western alumni from over 160 countries. Graduates will receive their scrolls by mail.