“FREE BLACK NORTH” “MAPS AND DREAMS”
ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, TORONTO
Photography has long been contested ground for us Black people when it comes to issues of race and representation. While photography’s complicity with white supremacy dates back to its initial emergence in the early 19th century, Black people have simultaneously used the medium as a site of political and cultural resistance. Understanding that early photography was being deployed to document the scientific “fact” of racial difference and white racial superiority, Black people savvily responded to the lynching postcard, the eugenicist archive and the criminal mug shot by harnessing photography’s evidentiary authority in a corrective move that art historian and critic Sarah Lewis has dubbed “representational justice.”
Lewis focused on this complex relationship between photography and, specifically, the African American Black experience, as guest editor of the much-lauded “Vision and Justice” issue of Aperture. But despite the persistent Canadian myth of “It’s not as bad up here,” the recent exhibition “Free Black North,” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, excavated a Black Canadian history that demonstrates a similar urgent imperative at work in southern Ontario in the 1800s. Up here, Black people were reclaiming Black narratives too, pursuing what could be called a politics of positive self-representation.
Curated by Julie Crooks, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new assistant curator of photography, this impressive selection of more than 30 studio portraits presented Black men, women and children living in Amherstburg, St. Catharines and the Niagara region in the mid-to-late 1800s. The photos were culled from collections at Brock University and the Archives of Ontario and offer a rare look at Black Canadians of that era, many of whom were descendants of formerly enslaved Black people who had escaped from the southern United States.
The tintypes, cartes de visite and cabinet cards in the exhibition—most no larger than a trading card—bear all the hallmarks of formal portraiture of the era. Sitters are suited up and beautifully gowned, with shoulders erect and many holding the camera’s gaze with assurance. Their diminutiveness is arresting, commanding a certain intimacy from the viewer in order to be seen; no matter the familiarity or comfort level with Blackness, these images beckon the viewer to get close and to engage with these individuals on their own terms.
But with so little known about both subjects and photographers of these images, the repetition of absence in the captions proved a haunting lament within the gallery: “Unidentified woman, unknown photographer”; “Unidentified couple, unknown photographer”; “Unidentified man with a cigar, unknown photographer.” Though these Black people were seeking to assert their humanity, these factual omissions concede the restrictions to our full inclusion in Canadian history. As seductive a strategy as it remains, respectability politics will not save us. —MICHÈLE PEARSON CLARKE
painting and conceptual works, and are akin in expressing an intimacy of place. The exhibition owes its title to Hugh Brody’s anthropological book of the same name, first published in 1981, chronicling his 18-month stay among the Danezaa that began with research for a land-use and occupancy study funded by the Canadian government. More than the sum of its technical findings, the book emphasizes the author’s personal narrative, designating its odd-numbered chapters as attempting “to follow a route selected by the people.” The “Maps and Dreams” exhibition also emphasizes the personal. Jack Askoty’s photographs document his community in and near the Doig River First Nation. Taken with disposable 35-mm cameras, the images exemplify the quirks associated with simple point-and-shoots with fixed-focus lenses—charmingly soft, or warm, with a hot flash. They convey an ease of transport, going perhaps where larger cameras dare not to—on hunting trips, around campfires—offering glimpses that amount to a compelling portrait of regional life.
Emilie Mattson’s The Placenta Canoe (2006) sits in the centre of the gallery, lending the exhibition a sun-bleached, earthy scent. Its armature of intertwining willow branches fastened with wire is wrapped with translucent fibreglass sheeting and muscular dark red forms. Built with the assistance of her two sons, the canoe was paddled by the Mattsons on a swamp near home, then left to evolve in the elements as an outdoor sculpture for some years.
Family is also at the root of Peter von Tiesenhausen’s works comprising pages from a legal exchange with oil and gas industry representatives as well as aerial images of his land. Beginning in 1995, von Tiesenhausen worked toward copyrighting his property as an art piece; while he didn’t formally succeed, he managed to fend off encroaching pipeline efforts. In a 2014 interview in Vice, von Tiesenhausen blamed a nearby gas leak for family health concerns, and mentioned his son as motivation for hope and resistance.
While focused on a specific region, the tensions between culture and industry highlighted by the exhibition implicate adjacent contexts. Notable is the Audain Gallery’s location within the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, named for a mining company with operations throughout the Americas. Through its consideration of personal relationships to land, “Maps and Dreams” suggests the need for a careful engagement by industry with the stories of a region’s people, particularly as they pertain to the pace of resource exploration and extraction. —LUCIEN DUREY
Unknown photographer [Unidentified women, Niagara Falls backdrop] 1880–1900 Tintype 6.4 x 5.1 cm COURTESY BROCK UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
Karl Mattson Plan / Response (detail) 2016 Oil and gas compiled plan map, Marlin .45/.70 cal. Rifle and Winchester .30/.30 cal. rifle PHOTO BLAINE CAMPBELL