Tuesday, 30 January 2018

LESSONS IN UNLEARNING - EXPLORING HERE WE ARE HERE: BLACK CANADIAN CONTEMPORARY ART

AFRICAN CANADIAN HISTORY

BY KENDRA CAMPBELL

“Collections take time to transform,” explains Dr. Silvia Forni, Curator of African Arts and Cultures in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Department of World Cultures. I had the privilege to speak with Dr. Forni, hours before an opening of the new ROM exhibition Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art. She, along with Dr. Julie Crooks and Dominque Fontaine, were co-curators of the new show that features the works of 9 emerging and established Black Canadian artists. The installations by Sandra Brewster, Michèle Pearson Clarke, Chantal Gibson, Sylvia D. Hamilton, Bushra Junaid, Charmaine Lurch, Esmaa Mohamoud, Dawit L. Petros and Gordon Shadrach all comment on themes of race, exclusion and belonging, but are ultimately distinct. Collectively, Here We Are Here provides a lens to understand the varied and dynamic experience of Blackness in Canada.

Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome), Michèle Pearson Clarke, 2017.
Photo courtesy of the ROM. 
Knowledge about Blackness and Black history in Canada is skewed by the mythologizing of the underground railroad and other lore, which is particularly pervasive at this time of year. This is further compounded by the fact that the sights and sounds of the Black diaspora are not given adequate space in public discourse, let alone the opportunity to be refracted on gallery walls. This is one of the reasons why Here We Are Here is so important. According to the co-curatorial team, there is a great deal of unlearning that must take place. This multi-narrative show challenges Canada’s purported anti-slavery past as well as the current narratives of acceptance and multiculturalism.

Sweet Childhood, Bushra Junaid, 2017. Photo courtesy of the ROM.

Beyond the unlearning of Canada’s Black past and present, there is a deeper lesson of unlearning the biases of curatorial practice. This is a lesson that would benefit many professionals within this sector. Regarding the curatorial process, Dr. Forni notes that the curatorial team did not have studio visits where they selected the best examples of artists’ work. Rather, the co-curators supported a 9-member community of artists who worked closely together to refine their individual work. Regarding the curatorial vision, there is no sweeping narrative or protracted timeline of Black history in Canada. Instead, each work reflects vestiges of time and emphasizes the specific linkages to the present.
Most importantly, Here We Are Here is not a fleeting 28-day stint of inclusion. Dr. Forni comments that in many ways the show was a culmination of the 3-year multiplatform Of Africa initiative, led by the same curatorial team. In addition to issuing an apology for the 1989 Into the Heart of Africa exhibition, the Of Africa curators partnered with an advisory council, listened to community members and worked with a range of artists to think through the process of interpreting and engaging with the complexity and diversity of Africa.


Souvenir, Chantal Gibson, 2017. Photo courtesy of the ROM.
As Dr. Forni alluded to in our conversation, the importance of time cannot be underestimated with respect to rebuilding museum and community relations. Evidenced by the ROM’s increasingly diverse collection and exhibitions, systemic change requires continuous effort and commitment from the institution. Next month and thereafter, I look forward to more examples of transformation at the ROM and elsewhere within the broader museum sector. In my active search for sustained models of change in the museum sector, I wonder, what else do today’s and tomorrow’s museum professionals need to unlearn?

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