Canadian Art - - Reviews -

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

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