February is Black History month, and museums and galleries across Canada have responded by programming art by black Canadians, a rare event in this country.
The exhibition Tribute: the Art of African Canadians assigns itself the task of "celebrating the strengths of the African Canadian community," and it is being presented simultaneously in two venues -- the Art Gallery of Peel and the Art Gallery of Mississauga -- both located in suburban communities of Toronto. The mission statement of Tribute places a social agenda over an aesthetic one, and predictably, perhaps, gradations of quality among the artists on show are extreme, with much of the work seeming -- at least to this white viewer -- to retread weary clichés about black identity.
Meanwhile, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a small show of new work by African-American artist Kori Newkirk speaks from a more sophisticated vantage point about contemporary black experience. Here, instead of being referred back to racial caricatures from the past, the audience is invited to examine, more rigorously, the now.
The intention behind Tribute has obvious merit. Few shows of this sort have been attempted in Canada, and there is surely a history to be written of the black artist in Canada, as there is about Canadian black history in general, perpetually upstaged as it is by the heroic U.S. civil-rights narrative from south of the border.
But Tribute is an almost willfully partial and erratic sketch, and thus represents a missed opportunity. While claiming to be a Canadian survey, it draws disproportionately from Toronto and environs, the home turf of the exhibition's organizer, the artist Neville Clarke. How can you do a creditable show about the black artist in Canada, for example, and not include Stan Douglas, or even cite his name in the catalogue? The Vancouver-based media artist is one of our country's most prized artists. And how about Toronto's Camille Turner (the performance artist aka Miss Canadiana) or Karma Clarke-Davis (now based part-time in Berlin), or Vancouver's Jan Wade, or Montreal media artist Wayne Dunkley?
Instead, Clarke presents a parade of banality punctuated by only occasional illuminations. He begins with some academic 19th-century landscape canvases by historic Afro-Canadian artist Robert Duncanson, a painter of the Hudson River School style. The show offers no explanation for his presence in an otherwise contemporary show (other than that he was black and able to find a market for his work), and a search of the catalogue reveals nothing but an account of his successful career and his numerous awards and honours. No analysis is offered of the meaning of the work in relation to that of his contemporary white colleagues, or to the subsequent history of black art in Canada. Is the curator presenting the work here as an example of assimilation or of alterity? We are none the wiser.
The best contemporary works in Tribute are the paintings by young Toronto artist Dionne Simpson, who creates intricately made paintings of urban scenes. Manipulating the surface of the paintings by painstakingly stripping fibres from the cross-weave of the canvas, she then fills in the gaps with hardened transparent gel, liquid paper and paint to create a shimmering mosaic effect, a metaphor for the unstable flux of identity and knowledge.
Toronto artist June Clark is also showing strong work in both venues. A series of works on paper at Peel is titled 2191 Reprise, completed while she was on a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Clark grew up in Harlem before moving to Canada, and the work expresses her rumination over those earlier experiences. In one, a black woman is pictured at work, while the text tells of her subversive reaction to her racist employers.
(She spat in their food secretly and served it to them.) We feel here -- as we do looking at her rusted metal on canvas rendition of a tattered American flag, at Mississauga -- that Clark's observations are made from a very precisely defined point of view, to which we are eloquently afforded access.
Much of the rest of the show, however, seems bent on recycling fatigued clichés about blackness. Grace Channer greets us at the entrance of the Peel show with a faux-fireplace featuring a ceramic frieze of naked, incarcerated black women and a huge free-floating vulva (in case we missed the gender reference), struggling to escape from behind bars. For all its obvious emotion, this feels like a coarse parody of the black woman's history of resistance.
Hollis Baptiste is exhibiting two large pseudo-tribal masks made from odd bits of hardware and rusted metal. In one, the eyes are suggested by two orange safety cones used to flag roadwork. Hubcaps have also come in handy here, that universal signifier of the urban hoodlum.
West Coast carver Dorsey James presents a naked female torso in highly polished cedar wood that seems to illuminate, first and foremost, the virtues of breast enhancement. Head, arms and legs are conveniently sheared away, and all attention is focused on the woman's hypersexualized midsection, her body hair coiffed into a bizarre pubic toupee. The effect is seriously creepy.
Another work by James appears at first glance to be a giant, gleaming pile of excrement. On closer inspection, it reveals itself as a host of writhing black figures. Since the derogatory association between blackness and shit (or evil) in white culture has been the subject of academic discourse among black and white academics alike for decades now, this work comes across as a painful exemplar of racial self-loathing.
Even Michael Chambers's very striking photographs seem to insist on the carnality of the black self, viewed in his work as a sort of livestock. His elegaic photograph, Boat (1993), shows a statuesque black woman standing naked in a battered wooden skiff, her head thrown back, her arms apparently bound behind her back, and her body scoured with sand as if she has endured some brutal hazing. It's as if Chambers is compelled to reiterate the image of the black subject as slave, magnificent in her heroic suffering and stoicism. Likewise Neville Clarke's clichéd watercolours of bare-breasted pregnant black women, as solemn and velvet-eyed as cows at the milking stall, swathed in their tribal cloths.
Thankfully, Kori Newkirk, at the AGO, raises newer, fresher possibilities. Newkirk grew up in the suburbs in central New York state, and his works provide us with the opportunity to consider the place of the black man in contemporary suburbia, far from the urban ghettos that many unconsciously associate with black lifestyle. In his photographs, we discover him lying on a manicured lawn, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, a startling intruder in a realm of (traditionally) white privilege. Newkirk uses himself as a model, but most of his photos are slightly blurred, a device he uses to depersonalize the image.
Some of the images are simply eerie, in a vague way that leaves you wondering. Others seem to evoke the threat of lynching or subjugation more specifically, but Newkirk leaves the images open-ended, skillfully constructing them in such a way that they provoke an encounter with our own assumptions, whether we approach the work from a black or white (or other) perspective.
Newkirk is also showing an enormous kite fabricated during his residence at The Fabric Workshop in Pittsburgh -- a giant white kite into which are interlaced panels of rainbow colour that are only visible from certain angles, colour infiltrating a predominating whiteness.
But most intriguing of all are Newkirk's series of beaded curtains, which he has fabricated from hair extensions strung with pony beads. These are the objects that have won Newkirk his growing following and you can see why. Hair beading is a vernacular black art form that flourishes within the black community, but it is also a feature of tourism favoured by white consumers in search of the exotic. Already a complex signifier, Newkirk turns the unusual medium to the task of representing the suburban bungalow (in Younger, 2004) or the eucalyptus tree (in Breaker, 2004), a tree he associates with dispersal and diaspora. (Originally from Australia, eucalyptus trees are now to be found all around the world.) Rather than reiterating clichés, Newkirk's works provide an open platform for fresh thinking, offering deliverance from the well-worn ruts of perception. We need more of the same.
Tribute: The Art of African Canadians continues at the Art Gallery of Peel until Feb. 27, and at the Art Gallery of Mississauga until March 27. Kori Newkirk continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario until April 24.