Position As Desired / Exploring African Canadian Identity: Photographs from the Wedge Collection is the current temporary exhibition featured in the Ralph and Rose Chiodo Harbourside Gallery at the Canadian Museum of Immigration Pier 21, curated by Kenneth Montague, in Halifax Nova Scotia and the subject of this exhibition review. The exhibition features work from emerging photographers Shyronn Smardon, Megan Morgan, Christina Leslie, Stacey Tyrell and Dawit L.Petros and is accompanied by various contemporary portraits framing vernacular stories of African Canadian identity. The contemporary works are juxtaposed with archival portraiture of African immigrants throughout the 1900’s and document excerpts of Canada’s torrid historical immigration policies.
I wish now to verbally walk you through the gallery examining the various works and exploring their larger conceptual relations to ideas of identity formation through story, the wronging sentiment of tolerance in multiculturalism and the importance of ongoing redefinitions of self and community. I will show how these concepts weave between the three main themes of the exhibition “Historical Perspective, 1990s Identity Politics and Contemporary Viewpoints, intended to overtly or subliminally challenge the “single story” of African Canadian identity” (website) and in tandem critique the curatorial objectives outlined in the exhibition catalogue which are “to introduce the complicated topic of black identity in a multicultural and diasporic setting such as canada…. [and] to reflect on what it means to be African Canadian” (15) to the gallery audience.
Upon entering the gallery space one faces an introductory wall panel that states, “Position as Desired includes a selection of works that promote discussion about how each of us feels about our place in the Canadian landscape”. All photos in the gallery are blocked or obscured by this wall excluding the work Sign by Dawit L.Petros, a portrait of a stoic faced African Canadian mid aged male dressed in a hooded black parka signing something with his hand, the backdrop of the portrait is dark. This is the chosen promotional image for web and print use and so has likely been seen from the view before. But now it spans the wall vertically to five feet. Beside the piece is a quote of Austin Clarke largely written on the wall:
“How do I resist the dermatology of Canadian Culture imbued in me all over these years, and have the racial forwardness to regard myself as African? And why should I? Merely to give my protest a sharper context?… If I permit this am I saying Canadians are white and Africans are Black? And if one is Black one cannot have been born here. One cannot be Canadian.”
The set up is such as to ask ourselves what is a Canadian? Are we seen as Canadian, by who? What are the signifiers that identify one as Canadian? Why these signifiers? It is here we are confronted with the hyphenated idea of Canadianism, a tool used even in the title of the exhibition, Position As Desired/Exploring African Canadian Identity. Position as Desired “introduces new voices in the visual space of the Museum” (Catalog 15) but in doing so expresses a dichotomy of identity specified by geographical heritage. The gallery experience thus far is prefaced by those who have read the media statement or visited the website that display the chosen tag sentence firstly found in explanation body texts: “What does it mean to be African Canadian”? With this we are intrinsically asked “Who is African-Canadian?”. It is these labels one has at hand to self-identify with and claim identity proactively but also these labels that are used to subjugate and exclude. It is a tenuous relation. “It is argued that modern identities are based on binary oppositions of self and other and the notion of fixed homogeneous cultures” (Mackey 313) but in reality this no so. To the viewer without taking the time to discuss and thoroughly read and labels and statements the gallery space still operates within seemingly racist framework, a colonial framework that by complicating works, texts and exhibitions it is struggling to leave behind. Only when reading the exhibition catalog is the piece Sign presented along Old Master style paintings of white rich colonizing males, the much needed context to see though the colonized stigma of museum space and traditional portraiture. Here Position as Desired at Pier 21 has failed to bring forth a story of colonization so poignant to the framework which constricts the institution, a fault perhaps not found its original presentation at the Royal Ontario Museum where Old Master Paintings were displayed adjacent.
“Having a nation is not an inherent attribute of humanity it has now, in modernity, come to appear as such” (McKay 4). Before modernity humans were constricted more or less by the bounds of their terrain and mobility. This is perhaps why the constructed national narrative script relies so heavily on geography based signifiers and to who has claimed physical and emotional ownership of a land. In painting we see this claim evoked in regionalist/nationalist landscape painting. Official nationalist narratives, “constantly mobilize images of land- be it homeland, motherland or fatherland- to do the work of constructing a sense of ‘oneness’ from diverse populations which may never meet face-to-face” (Mackey 312). In Sign the parka worn, “alludes to the Canadian landscape and winter; key markers in the formation of Canadian identity”(Panel). Moving on past the main panel to “Contemporary Viewpoints”the first themed section in the gallery we see that only Shyronn Smardon uses geographical information to speak of identity. The work A Pixilated Image of Africville is just that, a map of photos in color and sepia that show bad, good, old and new elements of the Africville that is no longer: a repressed story of subjugation in the Halifax area. Here we see the artist and museum working against a prescribed collective forgetting, put forth by by paralleling Pixilated Image of Africville made in 2003 with works from the “Historical Perspective” third and final themed section of the show particularly a 1909 Petition to Council for a community well by Africville residences, a well that was not granted and Bob Brook’s Photographic Portrait of Africville in 1962 and 1965 and collection of photos showing happy interacting families at home. The plaque accompanying Brook’s montage reads:
“From 1849-1967 Halifax did not extended water, sewer or other municipal services to Africville. In 1962, as part of as part of an Urban renewal strategy, the city began the processes of eliminating Africville be relocating residence and eventually demolishing buildings”.
Without these multiple views and stories a “Mountie Myth” is perpetuated, the idea of Africville as a strong group resisting mainstream culture, “that utilizes the idea of Canada’s tolerance and justice towards minorities to create national identity” (McKay 4) and re-enforce the idea that we Canadians are a united mosaic where signifiers of difference are highlighted and tolerated. The very idea of tolerance deems a thing unwelcome and declares a hierarchy of allowance. As McKay writes, “How can we critically understand a cultural politics seemingly based on inclusion and tolerance rather than erasure and homogeneity”? The piece Position as Desired, Digital Print by Stacey Tyrell from which the show takes its name depicts four girls on a bench in the United Kingdom during the 60’s the artists mother, of dark skin, is sandwich between three girls of light skin and the photo has been cropped to we only see from their bare knees to their shoes. The photo is a snapshot taken from the artist’s mother’s photo album. By cropping and displaying the photos in such a manner we are offered a new narrative. It is these vernacular tellings that we must actively listen to and let shape our idea of national identity. Curator of Oh Canada, Denise Markonish in her dissemination of what can is or is not be Canadian reminds us of Marshell McLuhan’s famous words, ““Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity” (19) but we are arguably not living well within the colonist storyline. “Tyrell re-photographed the images and in the process not only recontextualized private family images but also revealed the ways in which immigrants of color have negotiated and reconciled their precarious positions in diasporic spaces.” (panel).
This exhibition is what Monica Kin Gagnon puts forth as a Intergreationalist strategy that redresses, “the exclusion of artists of colour in written histories, and countering the enduring misrepresentations that proliferate within the cultural mainstream” (126). The exhibition does this well by contrasting through subjects and the three time period themes of display. The remaining artists in the Contemporary Viewpoints express ideas of heritage and identity visually in a variety of manners. Megan Morgan’s Re-Photography Series navigates the“difficult terrain of her own mixed race identity, adoption, and fragmented family history by re-photographing images of members of both sides of her immediate family” printing them on wither white, orange of cream colored paper framed in a homogenized standarized wooden frame and displayed in a family tree like map on the wall. The various color background are seemingly randomly chosen for each image- yet the eye looks to these colors and the shade of varying grey skin tones in hopes to depict pattern, “testing viewers assumptions- an autobiographical study of genealogical connections. However, it is also a window into carious histories and subjectives associated with heterogeneous Black Atlantic identities and a warning against unidirectional and essentialists reading if these experiences within a Canadian context” (Panel).
Moving on though the gallery to the display area of 1990s Identity Politics “These artists, under the guise of ‘identity politics’ were informed by personal experiences and an acute political consciousness” (panel), their work functions to “refashion and reconstruct” ideas of African Canadian identity. Here we experience the work of Michael Chambers’ Sunflower 1994 showing a naked black body, considered wild and savage obscured by sunflower a beautiful symbol of nature. Stella Fakiyeski’s Untitled (from series Target Market), 1999 depicts a black male with a target market drawn his face alluding to hate crimes again blacks at the time. David Zapparoli’s You are just a child, 1992 Shows a child school photo with a “Progress Report” overlay at the bottom it states on a child’s hand “you are just a child”. Lastly of the four displayed together we see Buseje Baily’s Explain Black, 1991 naked portrait of herself a African-Jamacian-Canadian with a paragraph of text projected on her body, the words we can read most are “Explain” and “Black” a work once again questioning the hybridity of us all. These for works are particularly effective for when standing in-front of each you see your reflection super imposed in each portrait, a gesture asking us to question and empathic with the subjects at hand.
Leaving the gallery on the final wall of the Historical Perspective themed section we are confronted with the legacy of Canadian racism, official documents declaring Africans with “climatic unsuitability” as an medical excuse at immigration being turned away or due to a lack of education or skills. It is refreshing to see this story of exclusion told, a narrative so hidden in the Immigration Museum’s permanent display upstairs. It is a reminder of the manner in which broad narratives inform a nation’s idea of what is Canadian is and how those narratives are sanctioned by government and each other when we do not listen or seek out new perspectives. The exhibition effectively deconstructs our notion of what it means to be African Canadian or simply Canadian by bringing forth critical individual narratives to the engaged viewer who is forced to compare the known prescribed national narrative. The constant complicating of our identities and ideas adds to their wholeness and richness. It is an active pursuit to break away from a hierarchical system of colonization and in the exhibition space such as this that is done.
“Cultural Identity.. is a matter of becoming as well as being. It belongs to the future as much as it does to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture… like everything which is historical [identities] undergo constant transformations… Identities are the names we give to the different was we are position by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of past.”
Stuart Hall (panel)
Canadian Museum of Immigration. Position as Desired, 2012. Pier 21. 29 Feburary 2013 <http:// www.pier21.ca/position-as-desired-nova-scotian-component>
Canadian Museum of Immigration. Position as Desired, 2012. Pier 21. 29 Feburary 2013 <http:// www.pier21.ca/position-as-desired>
Monica Kin Gagnon, “Building Blocks: Recent anti-racist initiatives in the Arts,” in Ghosts in the Machine: Women and Cultural Policy in Canada and Australia, edited by Alison Beale and Annette Van Den Bosch, 115-130. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1998.
Eva Mackey, “Tricky Myths: Settler Pasts and Landscapes of Innocence,” Settling and Unsettling Memories: Essays in Canadian Public History, edited by Nicole Neatby and Peter Hodgins, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 310-339.
Denise Markonish, “Oh, Canada or: How I Learned To Love 3.8 Million Square Miles of Art North of the 49th Parallel,” Oh Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America, edited by Denise Markonish (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 18-53.
Eva McKay, “Introduction: Unsettling Differences: Origins, Methods, Frameworks,” in House of Difference (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998) pp 1-19.
“Position as Desired/Exploring African Identity: Photographs from the Wedgewood Collection.” Canadian Museum of Immigration. Jan. 22 – March. 30, 2013. Panel.
Position As Desired Exhibition Catalog. Canada: Wedge Curatorial Projects on the Occasion of Position As Desired /Exploring African Canadian Identity: Photographs from the Wedge Collection, 2010.