The Women Run­ning the Show

Black women cu­ra­tors have shaped a dis­tinct con­ver­sa­tion—re­spon­sive to set­tler-colo­nial his­to­ries and the unique ex­pe­ri­ences of the Black di­as­pora

Canadian Art - - Contents - by Yaniya Lee

Black women cu­ra­tors shape a dis­tinct con­ver­sa­tion— re­spon­sive to the unique ex­pe­ri­ences of the Black di­as­pora by Yaniya Lee

This spring, Julie Crooks, as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy at the Art Gallery of On­tario, put to­gether “Free Black North,” an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs of Black On­tar­i­ans dat­ing back to the mid-19th cen­tury. At a re­lated pub­lic talk, Crooks, along with in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist Deanna Bowen, poet and scholar Afua Cooper and dance artist and scholar Seika Boye, de­scribed a re­cur­ring chal­lenge of do­ing archival re­search on Black life in Canada. Three of the four women shared sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing turned away by li­brar­i­ans, ar­chiv­ists and other gate­keep­ers of his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts, who pa­tiently ex­plained that the ma­te­ri­als they sought did not ex­ist. Af­ter some per­sis­tence, each woman found that this was in fact not true: they ex­ist, in dusty boxes, pub­li­crecord of­fices and li­brary store­rooms. An as­sort­ment of doc­u­ments hid­den in plain sight holds traces of Black Cana­dian his­tory.

In the cir­cuit of mu­se­ums, gal­leries and artist-run cen­tres in Canada, Black women cu­ra­tors like Crooks are rare. Not much has been writ­ten about them. One rea­son is that Black women are sim­ply not hired. Two on­line stud­ies com­mis­sioned by this pub­li­ca­tion lay a del­i­cate sta­tis­ti­cal as­sault on any lin­ger­ing art-world myth of pro­fes­sional mer­i­toc­racy. In 2015, Cana­dian Art found that, over­all, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of white men in solo gallery shows was dis­pro­por­tion­ately high. Two years later, a study of di­rec­to­rial and cu­ra­to­rial po­si­tions de­ter­mined that “vis­i­ble-mi­nor­ity and Indige­nous gallery ad­min­is­tra­tive staff is se­verely un­der­rep­re­sented” and that “gallery man­age­ment is whiter than Cana­dian artists in par­tic­u­lar, and the Cana­dian pub­lic in gen­eral.” Our na­tional art com­mu­nity is struc­turally cal­i­brated to priv­i­lege white men, mak­ing the re­mem­ber­ing of the con­tri­bu­tions of Black women in the field even more cru­cial.

Ac­cord­ing to art his­to­rian Alice Ming Wai Jim, the 1989 trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion “Black Wim­min: When and Where We En­ter” was the first Cana­dian ex­hi­bi­tion to be cu­rated by, and to fea­ture, Black women artists. Or­ga­nized by Buseje Bai­ley and Grace Chan­ner, the show toured mu­se­ums, gal­leries and artist-run cen­tres across the coun­try. “Bring­ing for­ward is­sues of his­toric­ity and spa­tial­ity,” Jim wrote in a 2004 es­say, “the ex­hi­bi­tion pre­sented it­self as a chal­lenge to dom­i­nant, tra­di­tional Euro­cen­tric pol­i­tics of aes­thet­ics and rep­re­sen­ta­tion and its var­i­ous un­der­cur­rents ex­ist­ing in the Cana­dian art arena, which, in its de­nial of dif­fer­ence in the name of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist lib­er­al­ism, ha­bit­u­ally ig­nored the con­tri­bu­tions of artists of colour.” Jim de­scribes how the works dealt ex­plic­itly with Black Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ences, as well as is­sues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and re­sis­tance. Th­ese same con­cerns have reemerged in many of the ex­hi­bi­tions or­ga­nized by Black women cu­ra­tors since.

Pamela Ed­monds, now cu­ra­tor at Thames Art Gallery in Chatham, On­tario, has been cu­rat­ing since the late 1990s. Ed­monds de­scribes be­ing in­flu­enced by Bai­ley’s work as an artist, or­ga­nizer and cu­ra­tor. While in her early 30s in Hal­i­fax, she be­gan ap­proach­ing gal­leries and artist-run cen­tres to cu­rate ex­hi­bi­tions that would counter the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Black artists in her com­mu­nity. “At the time there weren’t a lot of cu­ra­tors, so to speak, who would call them­selves cu­ra­tors,” she says. “It was at the very be­gin­ning stages of pro­fes­sional cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice. There weren’t any de­gree pro­grams then.” Ed­monds learned to bal­ance the in­ter­ests of the artists and the in­sti­tu­tions, and even­tu­ally de­vel­oped a sub­ver­sive ap­proach to the lat­ter’s diver­sity man­dates.

“I felt at the time a sort of re­sis­tance, in a broad sense, to what a cu­ra­tor does,” says Ed­monds. “It was seen as a po­si­tion that was go­ing to re­strict the artist. I was very cog­nizant of this, of try­ing to not be some­one who was po­si­tion­ing my­self within a hi­er­ar­chi­cal re­la­tion­ship.” As a re­sult, Ed­monds learned to ne­go­ti­ate mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives in her cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice. “A cu­ra­tor is a fa­cil­i­ta­tor be­tween the in­sti­tu­tion and the artist and the pub­lic. As a woman of colour, I think we are used to do­ing that, to al­ways ne­go­ti­at­ing and in­ter­pret­ing th­ese voices and in­ter­ests.”

Even if it hasn’t al­ways been strictly in a cu­ra­to­rial role, Black women in Canada have or­ga­nized and pre­sented many ex­hi­bi­tions since “Black Wim­min.” In 1997, Bai­ley re­turned to her ini­tial cu­ra­to­rial premise with “Women’s Work: Black Women in the Visual Arts” at YYZ Artists’ Out­let in Toronto. In 2000, Ed­monds worked with the Sis­ter Vi­sions col­lec­tive to or­ga­nize “Through Our Eyes” at the Art Gallery of Nova Sco­tia in Hal­i­fax. The show’s sig­nif­i­cance to the lo­cal Black com­mu­nity was ex­em­pli­fied in a col­lab­o­ra­tive piece made of found ma­te­ri­als from what was once Africville, which claimed space in an in­sti­tu­tion that had ex­isted for more than 150 years with­out ever host­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion by Black con­tem­po­rary artists. Ed­monds later cu­rated “Black Body: Race, Re­sis­tance, Re­sponse” at the Dal­housie Art Gallery in Hal­i­fax in 2001. Mean­while, Gaë­tane Verna cu­rated “Epistro­phe: wall paint­ings” by Denyse Thoma­sos in 2004 at the Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s Univer­sity in Sher­brooke, Que­bec. In 2017, “We are the Gri­ots” was

“A cu­ra­tor is a fa­cil­i­ta­tor be­tween the in­sti­tu­tion and the artist and the pub­lic,” says Thames Art Gallery cu­ra­tor Pamela Ed­monds. “As a woman of colour, I think we are used to do­ing that, to al­ways ne­go­ti­at­ing and in­ter­pret­ing th­ese voices and in­ter­ests.”

cu­rated by Jade Byard Peek at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Hal­i­fax.

Over time, the the­matic fo­cus of th­ese cu­ra­tors’ ex­hi­bi­tions has ex­panded be­yond rep­re­sen­ta­tion to in­clude con­sid­er­a­tions of how colo­nial­ism, im­pe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism af­fect us all in unique ways. In 2007, cu­ra­tor and re­searcher An­drea Fa­tona col­lab­o­rated with Bowen to cu­rate the tour­ing group ex­hi­bi­tion “Read­ing the Im­ages: Poet­ics of the Black Di­as­pora,” in which sev­eral artists cre­ated new visual vo­cab­u­lar­ies to ex­plore the Cana­dian na­tion-state’s re­la­tion­ships to Black di­as­po­ras. In 2014, Fa­tona and Kather­ine Den­nis cu­rated the “Land Marks” ex­hi­bi­tion, which toured to three gal­leries in south­ern On­tario. “In An­other Place, And Here,” cu­rated by Michelle Jac­ques and Toby Lawrence in 2015 at the Art Gallery of Greater Vic­to­ria, asked Black, Indige­nous, white and peo­ple of colour artists to closely ex­am­ine the re­la­tion­ship be­tween where they lived and worked, em­pha­siz­ing in­ter­sec­tions of iden­tity and place.

Po­lit­i­cal trends in the art world have shifted in re­cent years from iden­tity and rep­re­sen­ta­tion to diver­sity and in­clu­sion. Eu­nice Béli­dor, emerg­ing cu­ra­tor and pro­gram­ming co­or­di­na­tor at Ar­tic­ule Gallery in Mon­treal, is a part of a younger gen­er­a­tion of Black women cu­ra­tors for whom the In­ter­net has served as a ve­hi­cle for re­search and so­cial ex­plo­ration. Béli­dor de­scribes a gen­eral self-aware­ness among her col­leagues and peers that things aren’t quite right—that marginal­ized peo­ple are of­ten the ones who end up do­ing the ex­tra work of out­reach and sys­temic ad­just­ment. Ev­ery­one can and should be do­ing this work, Béli­dor ar­gues: “You don’t have to be a per­son of colour to un­der­stand peo­ple of colour is­sues,” she says, “or to want to bring their per­spec­tives into your cen­tres.” Re­gard­ing in­clu­sion, Béli­dor sug­gests: “You don’t have to only have one of them, and you also need to make sure that’s its not just POC visual rep­re­sen­ta­tion: you have to in­clude them in your in­ter­nal struc­ture as well.”

The con­tin­ued work of Black women cu­ra­tors in Canada shapes a dis­tinct con­ver­sa­tion re­spon­sive to set­tler-colo­nial his­to­ries and the unique ex­pe­ri­ences of the Black di­as­pora. Black cu­ra­tors, schol­ars, crit­ics and artists are get­ting to­gether more fre­quently, learn­ing about each other’s prac­tices, and cre­at­ing projects for the fu­ture. Fa­tona’s 2014 con­fer­ence at OCAD Univer­sity, The State of Black­ness: From Pro­duc­tion to Pre­sen­ta­tion, was one such ma­jor event. In 2015, cu­ra­tors Verna, Ed­monds, Fa­tona and Crooks joined cu­ra­tors Do­minique Fon­taine, Sally Frater, artist Camille Turner and critic and scholar Ri­naldo Wal­cott to at­tend the 56th Venice Bi­en­nale, cu­rated by Ok­wui En­we­zor, as a Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion.

Trips such as this, part of the con­tin­ued or­ga­niz­ing of Black women cu­ra­tors, make their work known abroad, while al­low­ing them to con­tinue their im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions at home. Béli­dor puts it best: “I re­ally want to just see Black sub­jects or sub­jects of colour be­ing re­peat­edly in the pro­gram­ming. Not be­cause we have to have one each year, but be­cause they ac­tu­ally do great stuff.” ■

Buseje Bai­ley Ex­plain Black 1992 Per­for­mance with slide projects, quilts and au­dio tape PHOTO VITA PLUME

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