Making Black art visible

How a new database is reversing the erasure of Black artists’ contributions to Canadian culture

BlackGrange is a walking tour that re-maps the erased and forgotten history of the Black diaspora in Toronto’s Grange neighbourhood, and questions the dominant mythology of enslaved people fleeing the United States and finding freedom and refuge in Canada.

Photo: Camille Turner, After BlackGrange Series (Image #4), 2018, 11x14, pigment print on metal

Black artists in Canada have always produced art, but too often, that art isn’t exhibited publicly, discussed in critical or mainstream media, or included in art education curricula. As a result, the art and its creators effectively disappear from the Canadian cultural landscape. Andrea Fatona, Canada Research Chair in Canadian Black Diasporic Cultural Production and associate professor at OCAD University’s Faculty of Art, is building a new online platform to bring greater visibility to Black artists in Canada and their work.

Fatona has been an artist and curator since the late 1980s, when the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was adopted by Parliament and brought more funding to artists of colour. She saw firsthand how this led directly to the production of more Black art—but failed to deliver an equivalent boost to the presentation of that art. This has perpetuated the ongoing impression that Black artists have not been active contributors to the creation of Canadian culture, which is not and has never been the case.

“The lack of visibility has deep implications for questions of belonging, citizenship and how Black people participate in Canadian society,” she says.

A database built for Black artists, by Black artists

In the photo series Wanted, exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2017, artists Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner repurpose “wanted” ads published in 18th-century Canadian newspapers, which described the clothing worn by people who had resisted enslavement by fleeing. Descriptions of these outfits are reinterpreted as contemporary high-fashion spreads.

Photo: Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner, The New Brunswick 5 (Wanted Series), 2017, 68” x 47”, lightbox

Fatona is working to change that with a new database of Black artworks. This online platform will serve as a central repository where people can learn about Black-created visual, audio, media arts, performance, crafts and other works from 1987 (shortly before the Multiculturalism Act came into effect) to the present. While the full works themselves will not reside within the database in most cases, it will feature links to the archives, catalogues and collections where they are held. The platform will also house related materials, including critical writing as well as oral histories in which the artists and curators speak to their work in their own words, giving voice to the realities of being Black in Canada.

To populate the online platform, Fatona is working with art galleries and artist-run centres to identify Black-produced art in their collections. Starting with Toronto galleries A Space and Vtape, the project will eventually expand to collections across Canada.

Fatona and her team will also augment existing descriptions and metadata attached to the works to better reflect their cultural context and significance. This includes the creation of new, more relevant metadata categories and search algorithms to make the works more findable in online searches, and to enable scholars and curators to trace the genealogy and develop a better understanding of Black artistic culture in Canada.

“We want to ensure the database allows Black folks to present ourselves as we see ourselves and know ourselves,” says Fatona. “We want it to answer the questions we ask, not the questions that others ask about us.”

Lessons for today from the art of the past

Once the database is up and running, it can be used by artists, scholars, educational institutions, curators and anyone else interested in exploring Black art and culture. To further encourage those explorations, the project also includes a series of ongoing events to raise the profile of some of the earlier works in the database and inspire dialogue around what those works said about the world at the time when they were created—and what they still say about the state of Blackness today. The events held so far have been well attended, and Fatona is thrilled by the enthusiasm shown by participants.

“It’s gratifying to see how people today are really interested in these historical works, and how they can still resonate and help us understand the social and political issues we’re facing right now,” she says. “I can’t wait to see what else people will do with these works once we make them easily accessible.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about the project and find out about upcoming events, visit the Centre for the Study of Black Canadian Diaspora and follow @thestateofblackness on Instagram.