One year ago on May 25, George Floyd was murdered in a callous act of police brutality. Tragically, he was not the first Black person to die in this way and he has not been the last. Yet, his specific death set off a chain reaction of sustained BLM-led protests that have reverberated around the world.
Those protests, as powerful as they were, have not yet been enacted into laws that will change the material conditions of Black lives. They have, however, had a profound effect on how systemic racism is understood. This impact is being felt across society, including within the Canadian art system.
Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires focusses on the conditions and the concerns of IBPoC artists. With BLM = BAM, we are specifically centring the voice of Black artists on the territory called Canada. We provided 11 Black artists with very modest means, a tight timeline and an invitation to address this theme.
BLM = BAM is the aggregated weaving of their artistic responses.
For more background, please click here.
*For video responses, click the Closed Captioning icon in the player controls to view subtitles in English or French
Jump to Response
The Passage: Waters of the Diaspora
Water is central to our story. My ancestors, the Black Refugee-Survivors of the War of 1812, were bold freedom runners—they were courageous, tenacious, willful.
Had my forebears not been imaginative, creative and determined, they would never have survived. I would not exist. They were the original Afro-futurists. I am who they imagined.
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I Kwenda I dile
BLM = BAM
Thumbnail Image from left to right: Andrew Creightney, Adrian Neblett, Kiomi Pyke, Omari Newton, Chris Francisque. From the play The Shipment by Young Jean Lee, produced by Speakeasy Theatre. Photo by Jens Kristian Balle
Prayer is Good O!
Prayer is good O! is a phone call between my mother and I that reveals a ritual we have shared for 35 years. Every year on my birthday, she recites the same prayer in Yoruba, and whenever I am feeling a little down I call her asking for her blessings. It’s one of the ways we’ve bonded throughout the years and in times of strain, this ritual grounds our relationship in love. For me, it’s always been the simpler things—like this mother-son exchange—that remind me of my worth, that I am loved, that I am important, that I deserve to be here, that to matter is the bare minimum.
origin[ate]: persistence and resistance in Black art
I got my introduction to art history as a field of study in a Canadian university in the late 1980s. I learned from white professors who only used Eurocentric textbooks—textbooks that seemed to be based on a structure borrowed from the Book of Genesis. The books used a ‘this-artist-begat-that-artist’ approach to impart a narrative in which artistic styles were handed down from one artist to the next, evolving as one genius, then the next adapted the vocabularies of the masters that came before them. This approach resulted in an unyielding, and rather facile account of human creation that took us through a telling of art history that was limited, primarily, to the region we now know as Europe, albeit with a foundational launch in ancient Egypt and then brief forays into western and northern Asia, as stylistic evolution necessitated.
Although I was introduced to art history through a narrow, colonial lens, I was always convinced of its potential expansiveness and pliability. When we would discuss how Picasso and his modernist companions used African masks and carvings (and those made by artists from other cultures whose artistic treasures had fallen prey to the pillaging deeds of European colonizers) I would think to myself, what if instead of honing in on just the visual attributes of the plundered works, Picasso and his peers had recognized and mimicked the tendency of non-European creative production to weave together visual creativity, music, dance, spirituality, ceremony, and celebration? What would it have been like to study that complex, multifarious, globe-spanning art history that of course included the art made for millennia all over the continent of Africa, rather than just the Egyptian creations appropriated by European chroniclers to give a foundation to what they imagined the canon to be?
In his 1964 book of essays Shadow and Act, the African-American novelist and literary critic Ralph Ellison wrote, “it was the African’s origin in cultures in which art was highly functional which gave him an edge in shaping the music and dance of this nation.” The objects from Africa collected as art in colonial institutions—textiles, jewellery, pottery, furniture, funerary objects, costumes and masks—served quotidian purpose or were central to ceremonial activities. It is true that museums have begun to move away from the decontextualized, static presentation of African sculptures as visual objects with meanings determined by the Euro-North-American canon rather than by their originating communities. Ellison’s observation, however, should propel museums not just to broaden their interpretation and contextualization of these objects, but to expand their definitions of art, so that they might fully encompass the work that has emerged from the diverse fields of production in which Black artists make art as a result of the impacts of colonial incursions on their lineal and creative legacies.
This alternative timeline of art history takes as its foundation the performative, ritualistic and ceremonial aspects that provided the original framework for the objects that are now generally referred to as“traditional” African art. The performative qualities of African cultures were the creative impetus that crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the slave ships and came to define music and art in the African Diaspora. Mainstream art history has unfolded in a manner which has seen great Black visual artists first omitted, and more recently paternalistically inserted into an exclusionary art history. The colonial subtext to both the leaving out and the letting in is the presumption that the standards of artistic achievement that had once prevented the entry of Black artists into the canon must be “lowered” to permit their inclusion.
We only have to look at the non-Black appetite for Black art—whether the Benin Bronzes or the Blues—to recognize its excellence and make an argument for a new art historical framework that allows for the incorporation of all of the great Black creatives that have their roots in the multifaceted expressions of African art. Although they had minimal time or materials, enslaved Africans found ways to carry forward the artistic languages of their ancestors. The music, storytelling, dance, medicine, ceremony, ritual and worldviews that they held onto are still at the root of a great deal of twenty-first century Black creative endeavours, even that which takes the form of contemporary popular culture. An understanding of Black art has to start with a recognition of the distinctive art historical framework in which it exists: one in which traditional, popular and high cultures co-mingle, crossing barriers of time, geography, genre and, that which is perhaps most at odds with the constructs of mainstream art history—class. Black artists have been historically excluded from the platforms of high art, and have chosen the realm of the popular for reasons ranging from accessibility to survival. While the mainstream art world holds these platforms of creative expression in hierarchical relationship, in the Black community, enduring African tradition can be found at the foundations of almost any form of art.
Of course, we need to recognize the value of Black art and artists in the context of our drive towards undoing anti-Blackness and fighting for the recognition of the value of Black lives. We need to do this in a Black art for Black art’s sake kind of way, but we should also recognize that Black experience and creativity encompass and embody legacies, experiences, and resistances that are valuable tools in the work that we all must do in order to dismantle systemic racism and inequities. When we speak of decolonization in Canada, the tendency is to limit the discussion to the binary of settler-Indigenous relations. This approach only serves to once again centre whiteness, ignoring the fact that we will never get to the other side of this struggle we call decolonization if we are not aiming to undo all of the colonial structures that have been cast upon us.
I CAN’T BREATHE
I have been thinking of altars. I have been thinking of ceremony. I have been thinking of honouring the dead. I have been thinking of the ethics of dying and death. I have written of and continually returned to the idea that Black people die differently. That even when our deaths look like others’ deaths, our deaths are different. Our dying is wrapped up in how blackness comes into being. Our deaths are what makes this world, the one we share in and the one that continually violently expels us from it. I am not a spiritual person, but I have come to think about what ceremony might do. What ceremony might offer as psychic repair. Before George Floyd, before the pandemic, ceremony was underway. It took George Floyd; it took the pandemic for me to notice that ceremony. The notice has not put me at ease, it has put me in crisis. It is not a crisis that I should not experience. Praisesong might be another way to name it.
Denise Ferreira da Silva in the essay “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World” gives us a number of terms to think a Black feminist poethics with and I am particularly drawn to her articulation of The Thing and The Category of Blackness as those terms unfold into something like value. I am especially interested in what those terms produce for me as an intellectual link to a concern I have about Black art, its pedagogies and the value of it as A Thing about The Thing. In abbreviated fashion, I am interested in how The Thing is now replayed as art—in this instance visual art—art world value—where a certain measure of universal reason must import the art thing of The Thing into its economies, but The Thing has always been a part of the economy (the slave), so nothing new, but maybe a sensation of a new positionality? I add to The Thing and The Category of Blackness, reparation as another term, not reparation of the economic kind, that too da Silva signals that she is also less concerned with, but reparation of the psychic kind. Of course, you will immediately note that reparation or the reparative turn I seek to make is more of a verb and thus in tension with da Silva’s noun-ing of The Thing and The Category of Blackness.
From December 22, 2018 to July 7, 2019 the artist Winsom described as Canadian and Maroon, who lives between Victoria Island, BC and Pickering, ON, exhibited two installations in Winsom: I Rise called “The Masks We Wear” and “I Jump the Boa” in which one might say that a new ceremony was underway. My initial encounter with this work was experienced as difficult. I was unmoved. Or I experienced my encounter as unmoved. I did not forget this work, this encounter. I was struck by the inscrutability of the exhibited works and the refusal of a certain knowability or legibility in them. In the aftermath of George Floyd and the pandemic I now experience Winsom’s “art” as a different kind of knowledge of our predicament, of our predicament and her “art’s” inscrutability. Winsom crossed Black and Indigenous; urban and rural; religious and spiritual evoking the terror of how we got here, but in many ways moving the register of knowledge somewhere else without conceding thing-ness. The late Barbara Christian in an essay titled “Fixing Methodology: Beloved” joins da Silva and they would immediately recognize the afro-diasporic religious/spiritual (Vodou, Obeah, Santeria, Condomblé) resonances, practices, and ceremony in Winsom’s work and they would know that these resonances and practices offer another account of Black being one that has not been assimilable to European philosophy, but rather a significant bother for it. Christian was explicit about this; Winsom and Christian then point to another register of reason, not European universal reason, but another account that might, just might be reparative. What if breaching thingness is inscrutable or as Édouard Glissant named it, what if it is a right to opacity? I now think that inscrutability might offer an added something that profoundly also shapes opacity—unreadability, illegibility. So, alongside and besides opacity, I offer inscrutability. I think this articulation of blackness, of Black people, also actually breaches universal reason and operates without any recourse to it, which is to say it exists in spite and despite Euro-American white supremacist thought. There is then another articulation—dare I say, practice—of a Black feminists poethics, one that Christian hints at in “Fixing Methodologies” that we might need to account for, that of the dead, that of ancestor worship—(these words do not capture it, cannot capture it, but approximate an utterance of what it is). The praisesong. This latter poethics operates with a value many of us, myself included, are not yet able to or capable of accessing. The poet Canisia Lubrin captures the opacity and inscrutability of the praisesong, of the ceremony, of the reason beyond universal reason. From Voodoo Hypothesis the poem “Elliptical Narrations…” by Lubrin utters the double entendre that I think is poethics:
This is no window finally opened, this is after-end
a stumbling to the river, to daguerreotypes
removed from the whole to be taught
how writhes the root heaved from its maternal sand
repairs of a language over-read
Another narration is possible. Another narration is the ceremony found. Another narration is blacklife found.
Show curated by Andrea Fatona, Art Gallery of Ontario, December 22, 2018-July 7, 2019.
Things to Read
Alexander, M. Jacqui, (2006). Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred. Durham: Duke University Press.
Christian, Barbara, (1993). “Fixing Methodologies: Beloved” in Cultural Critique (Spring, pp.5-11).
da Silva, Denise Ferreira, (2014). “Towards a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World” in The Black Scholar (Summer, pp.81-97).
Glissant, Édouard, (1997). Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Lubrin, Canisia, (2917). Voodoo Hypothesis. Hamilton, Ontario: Wolsak and Wynn Publishers. Walcott, Rinaldo, (2016). Queer Returns: Essays on Multiculturalism, Diaspora, and Black Studies. London, Ontario: Insomniac Press.
Mon coeur bat fort
* To view subtitles in English or French, click the Closed Captioning icon in the player controls