NS reviews

Reviews of theatre and art in Nova Scotia and beyond

Here We Are Here: dramatic, complex exploration of black history and identity

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Chantal Gibson, Souvenir, 2017, Multimedia installation with 2000 souvenir spoons (metal, silver, copper, pewter), black spray paint, in Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.  (Image courtesy of Brian Boyle, Royal Ontario Museum)

Sylvia D. Hamilton’s list of 3,000 names of Nova Scotia black settlers from the 1700s to 1812 gives its name to Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art.

This dramatic, exciting Royal Ontario Museum exhibit, now at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to Oct. 27, features large-scale works by eight artists exploring themes of identity, belonging, racism, presence, erasure and amnesia.

“Black history seems to be represented as a recent phenomenon,” curator Sylvia Forni said at a media preview before the show opened Friday. “’Where are you from?’ is a question that still gets asked.”

Hamilton’s work is the most historic. A descendant of Black 1812 refugees, she grew up in Beechville learning her ancestral history from her family and her community but never in school. She only found it documented when she started rooting around the Nova Scotia Archives in the 1970s.

“To uncover it means we know we are valuable,” said the award-winning Nova Scotia filmmaker, writer and artist. “We can say to other people: ‘Whether you know it or not, we are valuable.’ This is our history. This is who we are.”

On one wall she lists over 3,000 names of African-descended people in Nova Scotia going back to the 1700s – enslaved blacks, free Black Loyalists and free War of 1812 refugees.

“It’s a memorial and recognition of black people in Nova Scotia,” Hamilton said at the preview.

Hamilton’s installation includes a display case of racist artifacts from her personal collection and from the ROM’s collection divided by a gun. “It was crafted by a black man in Ontario with incredible skill and incredible intelligence.” He is the true representation of “who we are,”  she said, not the racist objects which are “still in circulation.”

When the tall ships first came to Nova Scotia “I was struck by my visceral reaction,” she said. “I thought about my ancestors, the African people who were captured, kidnapped and brought to North America.” They were transported across the Atlantic in nightmare voyages crammed into the holds of ships like the ones being feted in Halifax.

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Esmaa Mohamoud refers to NFL football players kneeling during the national anthem in their 2017 protest in Untitled (No Fields). 

Hamilton is not the only artist to refer to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and to connections between Canada and the Caribbean.

Chantal Gibson’s haunting installation of 2,000 souvenir spoons, each one different, all painted black, is both poetic and violent, said Forni, as it looks at identity and erasure.

The way the spoons are laid side by side references the bodies of enslaved people crammed into cargo holds as well as lynching images, she said. “Even as violence is applied each individual characteristic remains intact.”

Toronto artist Esmaa Mohamoud refers to a 2017 event in her free-standing costume of a football player’s helmet with a cape of chains, originally installed at the ROM as a performance piece.

In 2017 American football player Colin Kaepernick started a controversial protest against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem at gametime.

“She is looking at the idea of objectification of black male bodies and the continuing connection between slavery and athleticism in a reduction of the black male body to a powerful machine,” Forni said. Mohamoud is equating sports fields and the brutal “cutting fields” of cotton and sugar cane.

The exhibit includes magnificent portraits about black identity which, said Forni, “is more complex and unreadable than we tend to assign to people. There can be a shared expeirence but there is also a complex identity.”

Sandra Brewster’s blown-up, crinkled snapshot of her parents hiking in the 1970s is the opposite of a stereotypical image of destitute, new immigrants.

In this picture her parents are recently reunited in Canada to make a new start. “There is a sense of exploring and optimism,” Forni said. “There is a lot of happiness in this image.”

Charmaine Lurch also pushes back at negative stereotypes in her lovely, must-see, charcoal on parchment drawings of her black daughter as a confident, young woman moving through space.

She started with the idea of exploring how black bodies occupy space, Forni said. “She is inspired by her daughter, a young black Canadian she sees moving in a landscape with a harmony and freedom the artist does not recognize from her own youth.”

The drawings symbolize “a new generation, a new hopeful way of being black in Cnaada.”

Having this exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia – its third stop – is very important, chief curator Sarah Fillmore said, “because this is the earliest presence of African people in Canada.

“The work is very challenging, it’s very necessary and very important,” she said. “Our hope is many people of all ages and backgrounds come to see these works. This is a snapshot. There are many black artists in Canada doing phenomenal work. These artists have the right to be in these spaces.”

Artists whose work is included in the exhibition are Sylvia D. Hamilton, Sandra Brewster, Chantal Gibson, Bushra Junaid, Charmaine Lurch, Esmaa Mohamoud, Michèle Pearson Clarke, and Gordon Shadrach.

Information on events and programs related to this exhibit are on the gallery’s website at http://www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca.here2Sylvia D. Hamilton, The Ledger, 2017, Taken from Guy Carlton’s Book of Negros (1783), Original Historical Document. Image courtesy of the artist.

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