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November 23, 2000



Artist Jennifer Willet met Bill Clinton at the APEC summit in Brunei. Behind them is her work, Untitled (Hudson's Bay Blanket)

Artist Jennifer Willet met Bill Clinton at the APEC summit in Brunei. Behind them is her work, Untitled (Hudson’s Bay Blanket).


Jennifer Willet and one of her works.

Jennifer Willet and one of her works.

When Jennifer Willet was invited to show her art at the APEC conference last month in Brunei, her first instinct was to refuse. Like many Canadians, she associated APEC with the notorious pepper-spraying incident at a previous meeting in Vancouver.

However, she couldn’t resist this opportunity to show her work — and say something about Canada — to a highly influential international audience.

That’s Jennifer in the photo, standing next to U.S. President Bill Clinton in Brunei Darussalam, at the meeting of the organization for Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC).

The blanket behind them is the famous red-yellow-and-green-striped Hudson’s Bay blanket, that icon of Canada’s trading origins, radically altered by Willet with text, photographs, quilted fabric, acrylic paint and other media to make a provocative statement about Canada’s landscape, people and economic history.

Jennifer, who is 25 and grew up in Alberta, already has an impressive list of exhibitions to her credit. She got a Canada Council grant this summer, and when that agency was asked to find promising artists aged 25 and younger for an exhibition to run concurrently with the international conference, she was invited to represent Canada.

In Brunei, a wealthy Muslim oil-producing nation of only 300,000 people, she was billeted with a hospitable family. “I learned so much more that way than if I had travelled around by car,” she said in a phone interview. “We did a lot of cooking together, and I learned about their daily life, including the cycle of prayers.”

The works of the young artists at the exhibition presented an unusual challenge for the local organizers, since Brunei has no infrastructure for transporting, storing and showing art in the Western tradition.

In fact, Jennifer’s work, Untitled (Hudson’s Bay Blanket), is staying in Brunei. It has been acquired as part of the country’s first art collection.

Before she left, Jennifer was interviewed coast-to-coast by Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio’s This Morning. When she got to the APEC event, as well as meeting President Clinton, she met the Sultan of Brunei.

Now she’s at Concordia, starting her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies (Humanities), which will involve applying literary theory, including the theories of the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, to representations of the body and the emerging field of the digital arts.

— by Barbara Black