How to rewrite the story of home
Ontario artist Dr. Kenneth Montague showcases the lives of black people in Windsor in the present by juxtaposing them against images and artwork from the past
Although it is technically the third show Dr. Kenneth Montague has organized by the name, there is a sense that the new Art Gallery of Windsor edition is the first to fully live up to its moniker: Position as Desired.
Some of that is personal. Montague grew up in Windsor, Ont., in the sixties and seventies, one of – as the class photos that take up a small but potent corner of the show can attest – the few black children in a city that was vastly more white than not. Curating and showing off a significant portion of his life's work, Canada's pre-eminent collection of contemporary black photography, is not just a homecoming for Montague, but a chance to rewrite some of that home's story.
"I wanted to have people, locally, understand that that kid in your class at high school, or that guy you know at the bank, or that teacher, or that retired teacher – that these people have these experiences in your town," Montague says. To that end, he did not just showcase art but created it, too, commissioning a video piece featuring some of Windsor's black residents relating their stories (including his own father, who was the first black teacher hired by the city's school board).
"That other narrative can be so simplified. 'Yeah, you were a Jamaican immigrant, you worked at the factory, you retired and you're gone.' One of the ideas underlying the show has always been sameness and difference; I want people to see their parents and their aunties and themselves in these stories."
Much of that positioning resonates beyond Montague's head and chest, though. Position as Desired's two previous exhibitions – at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2010, and at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in 2013 – were smaller affairs. In Windsor, the show dominates half of the showcase gallery, encompassing everything from historical snapshots to almost-abstracted works from 2016, dozens of images bookended by two large video installations.
This expansion of space has coincided with an expansion of place in the Canadian artistic conversation. Although the earlier editions of his show were lauded, the attention, by Montague's reckoning, was nothing close to what it is now. Position as Desired, which runs in Windsor until May, was one of Canadian Art magazine's must-see shows of the year; according to the gallery, the opening was the most attended in its history. And reporters are not the only ones travelling to Windsor to see it.
For Montague, who has been collecting and curating under the Wedge name for two decades, it is welcome, if lagging, attention. Wedge was so named because it was an effort to drive in a space for a black artistic and cultural experience in Canada; the country seems to be finally shifting over in its seat a little.
"Michael Chambers was in my first show, 20 years ago. I've learned a lot, since then, but it's not new for me," Montague says, in his usual indefatigable tone, as much fan as expert. "I'm not being, like, 'Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah' about it; it's nice to see."
If Position as Desired has always been unequivocal in its statement about the black Canadian experience, its most recent edition also alludes to why it is Canada that is now more likely to hear it. In a central position on the fourth wall of the exhibit is Jalani Morgan's Black Lives They Matter Here (2015), an aerial view of Toronto's first Black Lives Matter protest. As pure image, it is a stark work, hundreds of bodies in black and white – in both senses of that term – framed by the asphalt of the street they're lying on, ringed by standing observers, broken up only by a banner with the now famous slogan. It is an immovable mass finally drawing attention.
which circles and obliterates the right half of a young black man's head; Chambers's Sunflower (1994), a naked black body holding, almost merged with, an unfurling, flowering stalk of the plant; Zanele Muholi's Sasha "Kalmplex" Morrison (2008), a portrait of the activist flashing a Derringer in front of a baseball jersey that proclaims "too black" across the front. It took all these bodies massing in the street, reduced almost to abstraction, to get the country to pay attention – and still, their individuality is as invisible as it was when these works were created.
"Put it this way: if I'm going to have a work like Jalani Morgan's view on that first Toronto Black Lives Matter rally, you really need to have that context. It can just end up being a token if you don't fill in the blanks, show some of the groundwork," Montague says. "Twenty years ago, you have artists talking about police violence, about issues of representation, I'm not being seen, I want to control that statement about who I am. Twenty years ago.
"I don't want people to come away from a contemporary work thinking it's the whole story, or it's a new story. It's been happening this whole time," he continues. "So it's a show of portraiture, a show of gestures, facial expressions, body language. You have to have beauty, and you have to have abuse and subjugation. You have to tell that whole story."
Two pieces in particular capture both the weight and the potential of that story. Dawit Petros's Sign (2003) is the first image you see upon entering the gallery, a piece that has become the show's unofficial symbol. It is a plaintive portrait of a young black man, taking cues from Albrecht Durer's famous self-portrait. His braided hair is ringed by the furry halo of an oversized parka, his hand held in front of him in an arcane gesture, just below a simple cross on a chain. The placidity of the image is a sly undercutting of typical media representations of young black men; the final effect is beatific – he might be the patron saint of Canadian hip-hop and people who have moved here from warmer climates. It's an image that feels like it couldn't have come from anywhere but Canada.
In an opposite corner, the four portraits that make up Anique Jordan's Detail from 94 Chestnut at the Crossroads (2016) are arranged in a square. In it, a woman dressed in funereal garb circles outside the construction site of a former black church in Toronto, the stark black hand denying her entry playing off the sketched Haitian symbols at her feet. Though it was originally commissioned as a response to Lawren Harris's paintings of Toronto's immigrant community The Ward, here it takes on more fulsome life: Denied rightful access to black history, history that even now is in the process of being erased, she seems to be looking for a direction forward and compelled back at the same time, supported only by the few memories and symbols she can recall. It's a vision of the dizziness that can result when your society only seems to be aware of you in the now, your past ignored and your future a promise that hasn't been broken yet.
The importance of establishing that past is one of the show's serious undercurrents, from Montague's class pictures to the history of the images themselves, a thread gloriously wound up in the video installation by Deanna Bowen, sum of the parts: what can be named (2010). It is a video of the artist recounting as much genealogy and family history as she could discover, stretching back to 1815, the first mention of Bowens as slaves in Georgia, and interspersed with notable historical dates from the United States and Canada.
On the one hand, it is a profound act of tracing roots. As Montague notes, "Very few black people have the ability to go back four, five, six generations, in this culture. It's just the legacy of slavery; we lost it." In Windsor, though, it takes on added layers. At the window just outside the exhibit, you can see across the river to Detroit – one of the cultural centres of black American life, a font of cultural history that can obscure the uniqueness of the Canadian experience.
As much as separating ourselves from the United States is one of the quintessential Canadian projects, it takes on a more troubling shade when applied to the black Canadian experience: Leaning on America's black culture only helps Canada to keep black people as some kind of other.
"There's more money in America, there's more attention in America, but there's a rich history that's been happening the entire time here," Montague says. "How many people, including myself, knew about black settlers who came as cowboys into Western Canada?"
In the video of Windsorites' stories, one woman explains the experience of having a teacher entirely unaware of the Underground Railroad's spurs into Canada – spurs that brought her own family here, which she proceeded to teach the class. Bowen's century-plus history of her family in Canada shakes the foundation of this separate chestnut, and ploughs the field for a more fulsome understanding to grow.
Call it one more important position for the show to take.
Position as Desired: Exploring African Canadian Identity runs at the Art Gallery of Windsor through May 7 (agw.ca)