Saturday, 18 of January of 2020

Black Geography

Two Sisters by Robert Purritt

As part of the exhibition 28 Days: Reimagining Black History Month curated by Pamela Edmonds and Sally Frater, I participated on a panel of artists and curators moderated by Rinaldo Walcott debating the idea of Black history month.

British artist Sonia Boyce spoke about collective memory and cultural amnesia. She told the story of working with a group of young Black women to recall Black British female singers and their silence when they realized that it took them a while to come up with any names. She began then to amass a massive database. Now, several years into the project, people have continued to send her material. Her work responds to the call of archival material that she says begs to be activated.

Robert Pruitt was skyped in from Houston. His work, pictured above is straight out of the Starfleet academy. Karen and I are so excited to encounter a fellow Afrofuturist.  Check out his piece, Glass slippers below.

Glass Slippers by Robert Purritt

Media artist Dana Inkster, who lives in Lethbridge, spoke about “the escapable double bind” of living in a house she didn’t build. She describes her struggle to free herself to be able to make the work she wants to make to which involves uncovering Black histories and making them public. She recounts her personal experience of gatekeepers, institutions that manage the public record and control whose stories are told and who owns the stories. For instance, the NFB, an iconic cultural institution whose mandate is to represent all Canadians, gave her the green light on a story about of Canada’s shifting prairie landscape that would have reshaped the public record. As she worked with them they made it clear that they in fact, owned her story and controlled the terms of engagement. In the end, she made a very different film and the story she wanted to tell was silenced.

UK curator, researcher Paul Goodwin noted that Black in the UK is a contested term that includes the identities of people of Asian as well as well as African and Caribbean descent. Paul spoke about the management of cultural difference through state multiculturalism that focus on visual signs of difference such as skin colour. He introduced us to Wilson Harris, a Guyanese writer who advocates a cross-cultural approach that opens up culture to self-critical analysis and discovering the self through another. He concluded that although Black artists are excluded from how modernity is framed in cultural institutions, they, in fact, played a central role in the formation of modernity.

My talk was about my body as an interface to a Black geography that reveals Black histories concealed within the White geography of Canada. After my talk, someone asked me if being Black limits the work I do. My work is definitely shaped by the experiences I’ve had because I live in a Black body but I do not feel that I choose my work. I feel that It chooses me. I am a vessel through which these stories come into being. The stories I tell in Miss Canadiana’s Heritage and Culture Walking Tours called out to me because I live in an area where Black bodies and histories have disappeared without a trace in the middle of one of the most multicultural sites in the world.

Rinaldo Walcott, who refers to himself as a critic of Black art and in my view, is an avid advocate of post nationalism, asked me how my work as a performance artist engages or resists the notion of the Canadian nation. I’m not sure what I answered then but here’s what I wanted to say. There is a tweeter who calls himself King George Nigga @BLACK_CANADA who has appropriated an image of Miss Canadiana as his avatar. When my sister Karen asked him why he was using my image he responded, “This picture is the most complete and comprehensive representation of Black Canada ever produced.”

My work stems from my feeling of alienation. Miss Canadiana, for example, was born out of a sense of irony. Canada imagines itself as a modern multicultural nation yet my image as a representation of Canada is still astonishing. If Blackness was not perceived as foreign, this image would not elicit the responses it does. Ten years after I created Miss Canadiana, my body is still not the body expected to represent Canada. My image disrupts the neat binary of Real Canadian and Diverse Other that is reinforced by state sanctioned displays of diversity…like Black history month.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Black history month is necessary—otherwise we’d be living perpetually in White history month. There’s all kinds of wonderfulness that surfaces this time of the year. Looking around me at all the beautiful people in the room during the exhibition and the talk, I am grateful that we have opportunities like these to get together with each other.

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