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Comments on identity, by Black Canadian Artists

Curated by Karen Carter, at THEMUSEUM from January 25 – June 2023

Today, the idea of people dispersing around the world is often associated with immigration and the circumstances that push and pull large groups of people to leave their homelands to inhabit new and unfamiliar lands. For people of the African Diaspora, our dispersions are also closely associated with the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries. However, our global movements are also rooted in our desire to explore and travel around the world seeking the adventures that human beings have been seeking since time in memorial. We saw the world as Moors across most of modern day Spain and Portugal. The presence of Africans in Europe, Asia, and the Americas prior to the transatlantic slave trade is also well documented. Within the Canadian historic records, Mathieu da Costa is one such African explorer who acted as a guide and translator for early Europeans in their trade dealings with Indigenous communities. I find it hard to believe there was only one da Costa. I choose to believe he was one of many Africans who were here in the Americas before Europeans, likely with established trading relationships, but left out of contemporary Canadian historic records.

This exhibition asks you to consider these ideas as a way of opening up a new understanding of what it means to be Black and Canadian from the perspective of this group of artists. In the 21st century, it seems many Canadians still have a very limited understanding of what it means to walk through the world racialized as “Black” people in Canada.

We will explore the work of 11 artists who are Indigenous Africans in the diaspora or descendants of African Diasporic people who can trace their roots back to those who were forced into the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. The works presented here examine the various ways these artist works are a commentary on their understanding of these histories. It is a statement on how the individual’s sense of identity influences their approach to the works they are making. Historic threads between Indigenous Africans and their descendants are broken and yet relinked again in countries and cities all over the world where a forced duality reconnects us in new and challenging ways. The various ways we understand Black cultural identities in Canada at this time are very much informed by this duality. It informs the conversations about race and place. How one can be Nigerian or Senegalese when traveling across the continent of Africa and then become “Black” when navigating Canada. When terms like African-Canadian become complicated, when the land of our birth is in the Caribbean region and that nationhood is a stronger driver for your identity than your West African ancestry.

We ask that you enter this environment and experience the works here as a window to the artist’s identities and sense of self. In a time of heightened awareness of how anti-Blackness has influenced so much of Canadian society, we hope this exhibit reminds us that Black people are not a monolith. Black history and culture are Canadian history and culture, and we have been here before “Canada” and will continue to be here in the future in many ways and across many facets of society.

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Featured Artists

Ehiko Odeh
Ehiko Odeh is a multidisciplinary artist born in Lagos, Nigeria and living in Toronto, Ontario. Art is her spiritual practice fuelled by play, which leads her to material experimentation. She explores decolonization, unraveling spirituality linked to African masks, ethnobotany, sexual violence and memory, representation of Melanated hair, play and family history. Her style is characterized through an expressive palette with the use of a variety of textiles emulating the traditional Nigerian practice of craftsmanship through large scale multimedia paintings, performances, drawings, and installations. Her use of diverse media is a result of a belief that art cannot be interpreted through one form, but rather a range of artistic expression that is the root of many European and western styles. After receiving a BFA with a creative writing minor from OCAD University in 2021, she showcased work in Lagos, Nigeria and Toronto. As a freelance emerging artist, she was a recipient for the The Gladstone House Art Program and public exhibition “between star shine and clay” with Career Launchers at Yonge-Dundas Square. Her work is now part of The Wedge Collection and she has a private gallery of purchased work that can be viewed upon request.
Emmanuel Osahor
Emmanuel Osahor’s practice engages with beauty as a necessity for survival and a precursor to thriving. Through a rigorously playful inquiry into materials and image making processes, his works depict garden spaces as complicated sanctuaries within which manifestations of beauty and care are present. Born in Nigeria, Emmanuel Osahor lives and works in Toronto. He holds an MFA in Studio Art from the University of Guelph (2021) and a BFA in Art and Design from the University of Alberta (2015). His work has been presented in multiple solo and group exhibitions, including at The Art Gallery of Alberta, The Art Gallery of Guelph, SNAP gallery, The Works International Festival of Art and Design, and BAND Gallery. In 2021, he received the Joseph Plaskett award in painting. His work can be found in the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery of Guelph, Art Gallery of Alberta, Art Bank of Canada, RBC, and TD Bank. He is an Assistant Professor of Studio Art at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
Frantz Brent-Harris
Born in Jamaica, Frantz Brent-Harris, artist, sculptor and graphic designer, left Jamaica in 2003 to settle in Toronto, Canada.

Frantz studied Graphic Design at the Jamaica School of Art. Later, he ran an advertising agency as its creative director. Unfortunately, the LGBT community in Jamaica faces significant persecution. Having experienced the loss of friends due to their murder, he made the decision to leave Jamaica. He immigrated to Canada, a country he perceived as peaceful and where the rights of the LGBT community are respected. Arriving in Canada from Jamaica, he encountered a country in deep denial of its rampant anti-black racism and white supremacy.

As a response to the trauma of encountering toxic levels of racism, he began creating art; sculpture that was focused on Blackness and the reality of being in a hostile environment as a Black body. In his practice, he creates realistic figurative sculpture that conveys the beauty of Blackness, but also addresses their painful history. Black people have contributed immensely to the wealth that western caucasians have inherited and enjoy, however the attitude towards Black people in Canada is that we should be grateful for being allowed to exist – this is usually an underlying theme in his art. In his opinion, Canadian art seems to be centered on white supremacy, capitalism or reflecting the tastes of exclusionist curators who dictate to rich investors what is art and what is “genius.”

Sculpting and creating art is where Frantz Brent-Harris finds his center and sanity.

Gloria C. Swain
Gloria C. Swain is a multidisciplinary Black fem artist, social justice activist, researcher, seniors’ rights and mental health advocate and writer. Swain works within the mediums of installation, painting, performance and photography to challenge systemic oppression against Black women and trans folks.
Krystal Ball
Krystal Ball is a Jamaican-born emerging fine artist and muralist currently based in Toronto. She began using painting and drawing as an outlet at a very tender age and it grew into a life-long passion which saw her winning multiple awards, including placing first in an international art competition held by the Pan American Health Organization at the age of 10.
Krystal attended Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia where she studied Fine Arts and spent her years after school volunteering her talent to social projects across the world. She represented Jamaica at an international level at the World Festival for Youth and Students, where she received a medal for her contributions to the festival.
Krystal has most recently shown at the BAND Gallery in Toronto, PAMA, and was featured in the Toronto Star in November 2020.
Leone McComas
Leone McComas is a visual artist and designer specializing in mural art, oil painting, and graphic design. She is British-Canadian-Nigerian, Toronto-based and UK born. Following a growing sense of artistic responsibility, Leone creates faith inspired works with a focus on hope and transformation; as such, her paintings feature a heightened sense of movement, transparency, and luminosity. Leone’s mural practice carries a similar heart to uplift; seeking to revitalize neighbourhood/spaces, honour community stories, and highlight subtle but distinctive characteristics. As such, her process involves getting to know people and creatively responding to her discoveries – to multiply the inspirational qualities that are core to them. Since receiving her B.Des from OCADU, Leone has exhibited in solo and group shows, and art fairs across Toronto, as well as internationally in Italy and South Korea. She is a recipient of the OIEOS 2010 Scholarship, OAC 2018 Visual Arts Project Grant, and Akin Collective X MOCA Toronto’s studio residency 2018-19.
Owen Gordon
Owen Gordon is a Jamaican-born, Canadian artist whose practice spans painting, sculpture and collage. Gordon emigrated to Toronto in 1983 and has amassed a remarkably diverse body of work including figurative, abstract and environmental subjects. While nods to specific movements in art history demonstrate Gordon’s depth of knowledge and curiosity, the consistency throughout his work has been his passion and innate ability for storytelling. Gordon engages with both collective and personal histories, current events as well as people he has encountered or learned about. He then combines figurative and abstract elements to retell these stories with a striking use of colour, pattern and texture.
Peter Owusu-Ansah
Peter Owusu-Ansah is a Deaf visual artist. He believes we can communicate through our eyesight without words. In 2009, when he zoomed into one of his works of Pop Art, he became deeply curious about all the colours imaginable. Inspired by the pixelated colours and their connection to the nature of life, Peter uses Photoshop to create compositions that vibrate with energy. His works have been shown around Canada. Some of his works are privately collected in Toronto and New York. In 2021, his work was acquired by the TD Bank for its corporate collection. He also won the Murray and Marvelle Koffler Founder’s Award at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair.
Raoul Olou
Raoul Olou is a multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto. He creates work that references personal experiences. Concepts of nationality, citizenship, race, identity, and archiving the mundane are core themes explored in his work.
Tabitha Lewis
Tabitha Lewis is a visual artist, singer, educator, and visionary. She is always excited for creative opportunities to share her work with her community. Tabitha currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Niagara Artist Centre in St. Catharines contributing to the great work of building and nurturing Niagara’s vibrant local artist community. She has been painting and drawing since she was very young and has come to love the limitless and revelatory nature of the creative process. Today, she counts herself blessed to have opportunities to still be expressive in this way.
Natalie Asumeng
Natalie Asumeng is a Ghanaian-Canadian multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto, working under the alias of 135 Studio. Her practice centres heavily on the genre of conceptual/ contemporary art. She creates and photographs environmental sets and organic sculptures. Natalie also produces soundscapes that thrusts listeners into experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, allowing them to dive into their inner thoughts. Concept is important in Natalie’s work; everything is structured and has meaning, mainly through the element of design of form and colours.

 

Supported by Ontario Arts Council

 

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