Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Big Picture 16

In any given month, I see a couple of dozen art exhibitions. It’s my job, after all – and, sometimes I even like to go. But one thing about all this bounty continues to puzzle me: why are there so few black artists exhibiting their work in Toronto?

I’ve seen works by every imaginable group of people on display in our multi-culti haven – from transgendered Asians to rich WASP trust fund kids – but I can count the number of exhibits I’ve viewed by Caribbean/African-Canadians on one hand.

Without a doubt, the artists and their work are out there, and I’m probably not paying enough attention. But who is? Curators? Not many. Artist-run centres? A couple, some better than others. Commercial galleries? Don’t get me started.

If this sounds like classic white liberal finger-pointing, or, worse yet, do-goodish altruism, let me say that queers like me know all about the price of invisibility, and we also know that if one community gets excluded, we’re likely to be next. A more diverse gallery landscape benefits us all.

Multi-media artist Natalie Wood, curator of an important new exhibition of video installations by black Canadian women entitled The Hero Project, points out that many black artists, especially black women artists, have in the past been drawn almost exclusively to more traditional forms of art making, such as painting and sculpture, and therefore have not been embraced by galleries looking for new media works.

“When I talked to Women’s Art Resource Centre (WARC) about curating a show of work by black women, I knew that there were very few black women artists working in new media, so I wanted to highlight the ones who are employing video and digital technologies.”
But why are so few black female artists using new media?

“Hmm, that’s a tough one,” Wood admits.

“Perhaps the issue of access is what keeps black women from working in new media. And yet, to some extent, when you look at most art forms, new media is one of the most accessible, and a lot of the new media organizations – artists’ co-ops and the like - are trying to bring in under-represented communities, to show them how to gain access to the actual materials. So, I don’t know the immediate answer to your question. It gives me a moment of pause.”

“But when I think of the people out there who are all busy making their own things with new technologies - burning cds, creating digital images and films, mixing music as DJ’s – I think that maybe the answer is to give black artists a new context for what they are already doing, to show them they can take the skills they already have to a new level.”

Just looking at the accomplished, layered (and sometimes very funny) works on display in The Hero Project, it’s obvious there is no shortage of talent. The three video-based works, by multimedia artist Sandra Brewster, animator Grace Channer, and performer/internet artist Camille Turner, convey an obvious comfort with new technology and, more important, a jovial but poignant sense of purpose.

Brewster’s short documentary “Listen” is a collection of reminiscences by elders in the Caribbean diasporic community - people who have faced all the hardships of dislocation and not only thrived, but remain in good spirits. Far from the type of sad-sack “immigrant story” beloved by too many Canadian publishers and the CBC, Brewster’s film depicts a community managing its duality quite nicely, thank you, from the comfort of their living room chesterfields.
“Listen” struck me as a more gentle version of the Out Art made in the 90’s by queer artists - artists who resisted any hint of victimization and created works that were defiantly buoyant. “Listen” shows us that not every moment in the life of an outsider is packed with melodrama. There is also tea and sponge cake.

Drama, however, is at the core of Grace Channer’s smart-ass installation “Bat’Hari Biguum”, a fake film promotion display for an animated super heroine flick starring Big Woman, or Biguum (a kind of black she-Hulk). Complete with posters and even a “win a trip to Biguum’s island” contest (the fictional land of Bat’Hari), Channer’s installation simultaneously mocks and embraces North American pop culture’s obsession with heroism. As unlikely as Hollywood might be to finance a film about a large-and-in-charge black super woman like Biguum, it still made Catwoman, which it marketed as the first African-American super heroine movie. Channer mines this disconnect in pop culture brilliantly, giving the viewer a first glimpse of what hero movies might look like if the dominant culture actually paid attention to the communities it pilfers for inspiration.

Similarly, Camille Turner’s “Miss Canadiana” project - a long-running series of performances and video documents wherein Turner appears in public as the reigning queen of the fictional Miss Canadiana pageant - uses the familiar pop culture tropes of the beauty pageant queen and her sashes and tiaras to pose a simple, but not simply answered question: who is a Canadian?
Turner’s answer, delivered with flair and no small amount of mockery toward the inherent stupidity of the question itself, is that trying to codify one’s identity in a country created by the jarring twin engines of empire and immigration, is, at best, an act of performance. If nobody is absolutely Canadian (even aboriginal peoples belong to each other first), nobody can tell you that you are anything less– so, why not crown yourself queen? It’s all a construct, a form of drag, as the academics say.

“When I started to put this show together,” Wood concludes, “I wanted to know who the heroes for black women are today, because I had a hard time figuring out who my own heroes are. So, I posed the question to the artists - and, true to form, they created their own.”

The Hero Project
WARC Gallery
Suite 122, 401 Richmond Street
Until February 12