Fresh Start: Canada’s Black Community and the ROM via Here We Are Here

I’ve been reading Dan Pink’s new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (highly recommend.) In it he speaks about the advantages of initiating fresh starts to create new energy. The Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) new exhibition, Here We Are Here, featuring contemporary Canadian black artists and their works, is a great example of this.

In 1989 the ROM held an exhibition showing Africa’s colonial history through missionaries and the military. While its creators intended to be ironic, Into the Heart of Africa became infamous worldwide for how not to create a museum exhibition. The program was devised and produced without any input from the community, and when the community pushed back by actively demonstrating against its racist perspective – whether intentional or not – things went very badly. To this day the visceral effects linger for those who were arrested, served time and still have criminal records from their protests.

Flash forward 30 years. Five years in the making by curators Julie Crooks, Dominique Fontaine and Silvia Forni, Here We Are Here takes a contemporary look at the layered and complex identities of being black and Canadian. While the show has no main thesis, unlike its predecessor it was imagined and informed in collaboration with the community.

Gordon Shadrach  In Communication

Gordon Shadrach In Communication

One of my favourite pieces of the show is In Communication by Gordon Shadrach. A striking painting in and of itself, I liked it even more when Gordon explained the piece. The subject is (if I followed this familial relationship correctly) his brother’s wife’s son’s partner: a proud Nova Scotian woman whose ancestors include African’s and Métis. Shadrach wanted to challenge the expectation of what a Canadian looks like, and he tells her personal narrative through her clothes and expression.

She stands in front of an imperfect brick wall, symbolic of the cracks and vulnerability of being a person of colour in Canada, but with the fortitude and resilience of a still-standing brick wall. The fantastic wooden frame is a strong connection to nature. The subject is looking at the viewer, knowing she’s being looked at: as a person of colour, when you stand out you’re always being watched. Her necklace features a maple key, referencing a family tree and a story of rebirth, re-growth, and renewal. Her blanket represents different journeys: landforms and paths. Most touching to me is the belt bag, the strap of which encircles her waist three times, representing three strong female role models from her life, while the bag has a métis symbol. And those shoes! They are her favourite ones, of course, and they make her feel strong and powerful.

Bushra Junaid  Sweet Childhood  detail

Bushra Junaid Sweet Childhood detail

Connecting well to Ebony G. Patterson’s Bad Pickney at OCAD U’s Onsite Gallery is Bushra Junaid’s Sweet Childhood. Raised in Newfoundland by Jamaican and Nigerian parents, Junaid pays tribute to Newfoundland’s historic ties to the African slave trade in the context of international trade, where cod and timber were exchanged for slave-produced goods like sugar, tobacco and rum.  In Sweet Childhood she takes a photo of young St. Kitts sugar cane workers from the early 1900s, shown as a stereo image (the technology of the times) and layered with archival ads for sugar, salt, molasses and other historically slave-produced wares. Like Bad Pickney, the art’s young black subjects are victims of negative stereotyping. In this photo the children are being mocked, images that would shape the views North Americans have of blacks for generations to follow. As her mother was born in 1929, for Junaid Sweet Childhood represents a symbolic portrait of her grandparents. 

Michele Pearson Clarke  Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome)  | Carlos Osoria, The Star

Michele Pearson Clarke Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome) | Carlos Osoria, The Star

The exhibition also includes video installations. Psychologist-turned-artist Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome), a sound piece as much as it is visual, reflects her preoccupation with creating space for difficult emotions. The act of sucking one’s teeth, Clarke observes, is a way of showing frustration, disgust, and rage as a response to oppression, but expressed in a repressed way. Seventeen black Torontonians responded to her call for volunteers, and they are filmed communicating their personal interpretations of sucking teeth.

Why the repeated sounds of teeth sucking? Clarke admits to being obsessed with repetition: repetition is the same, but every version is different. There is a fascination in the way knowledge shifts because of repetition.

It’s worth a visit to the ROM to experience Here We Are Here, an exhibition that sheds a very different light on the black experience than its misguided predecessor from years ago.


Banner image is from Chantal Gibson's Souvenir from Here We Are Here.