Walking through the stacks at Artexte, in the heart of downtown Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles, we come to a small dark nook where two documentary videos play on monitors. In one thirty-two-minute film from 1994, curator Andrea Fatona and media artist Cornelia Wyngaarden document the unrecorded history of Vancouver’s Black community—specifically, the energy of Hogan’s Alley between 1930 and the late 1960s. The warm, reminiscent, and thoughtful voices of artist Thelma Gibson, jazz singer Pearl Brown, and community member Leah Curtis welcome us into the room as they recall in the video their experiences working in chicken houses or at Papa White’s gambling establishment. Emerging from Artexte’s forest of information—artist books, exhibition catalogs, magazines, periodicals, and other objects and relics—we find ourselves in the welcoming clearing of an archival exhibition in which scholar and curator Joana Joachim presents her most recent research project, Blackity.

From the outset, Joachim acknowledges her indebtedness to curatorial elders, a critical heritage, and researchers who have come before her with a vinyl text in a large, bold, yet barely perceptible light-grey font on a dull white background. A long quotation pulled from an interview with Fatona in a 2020 issue of C Magazine clearly sets the conceptual and aesthetic tone for what is to come: “I have to say that erasure continues today, even though in a way there are these blips in time where the work [we are doing] is visible …” Erasures, gaps, holes, and lacunas in the archive of Canadian contemporary art in recognizing, highlighting, or even maintaining the works of Black creators are manifested throughout in Joachim’s clever curatorial design. The exhibition’s light-grey colour palette against the traditional white-walled gallery signals toward a shadow history, a fragmented and incomplete accumulation of memories, oral accounts, traces of works, and sparse collections of paper forming a fluid, changing, and expanding art community across a large country. Inside the single gallery space dedicated to displaying the entirety of Blackity’s material findings, a timeline spanning across four walls starting in the 1970s and continuing until today also uses thick and thin bands of grey. This temporal cartography, though presented as roughly linear, moves to a rhythm that attests to the flows and lacks, the buildup and drops of information throughout the decades. Seen from a distance, Joachim’s faded chronology dips in and out of a much bolder and more institutionalized storyline, embodying a much-needed counter-narrative to formal, canonized Canadian art history.

This exhibition is the product of over six years of work, a gradual cataloguing and pulling out of the Artexte collection what constitutes a fraction, or a few “blips in time,” of a constellation of Black Canadian art tradition from the 1970s on.

Stretched across this timeline, hung on the walls with delicate magnets, in wooden holders, or nested in open-faced cases, are a plethora of documents and objects that constitute the material wealth of the exhibition. Starting with a beautiful black-and-white book by the East Coast conceptual artist Michael Fernandes, The Crown, Tossed, Lands on this Vast Horizon (Remembering) (1977), and ending on the West Coast at Grunt Gallery with Syrus Marcus Ware’s striking poster for the project 2068: Touch Change (2018), the edges of the gallery produce an archival journey that spans the country to reveal a textured and complex history of Black Canadian contemporary art. Although certain time periods seem better represented, which Joachim recognizes and accounts for in her curatorial essay in the must-read foldout companion to the exhibition, certain artists, mediums, and genres also wax and wane. The remarkable poster for Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter (1989), the first Canadian exhibition dedicated exclusively to the works of, and organized by, Black women artists and curators, attests to the gender imbalance of the archive. The presence of Busejé Bailey, Claire Carew, Grace Janner, Kim McNeilly, and Suli Williams, among others, underlines how a select few Black men, such as Tim Whiten and Russell T. Gordon, received individual recognition with solo exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s, whereas Black women remained mostly marginalized. These juxtapositions, woven into the material archive and potentially hidden from plain sight unless brought together in this form, create powerful moments of understanding and recognition that are invaluable to Canadian contemporary art discourse. They also gesture toward work to be done in unpacking these histories, in granting these objects and their makers due time and attention, as well as intellectual and aesthetic care and recognition, as we reconstitute our national art history to be more conscious of past, present, and future non-white contributions and narratives.

Misrule at the Apollo artwork
Roland Jean; Oliver Girling; Jennifer McMackon (1994) Misrule at the Apollo. Photo : Paul Litherland
Misrule at the Apollo artwork 2
Roland Jean; Oliver Girling; Jennifer McMackon (1994) Misrule at the Apollo. Photo : Paul Litherland

Perhaps the most stimulating aspect of Blackity is the closeness that the viewer can have to objects on display: they are almost all available for handling, consultation, and perusal. The nature of Artexte, as a hybrid research centre, library, and exhibition space, means that the pedagogical aspects of the project extend beyond strictly viewing the works to allowing us to pick them up, scan them, and find new things on our own. Uncanny gems such as Misrule at the Apollo (1994), an exhibition catalogue featuring the work of Haitian Canadian artist Roland Jean stored in a Ziploc sandwich bag with a toy plastic bull, can be considered with uncharacteristic proximity. This “living archive” works in parallel to Joachim’s vision of the work, as it suggests malleability, a certain transparency, and, most important, accessibility to the primary sources. It also points to Blackity’s limitation by the bounds of Artexte’s collection, for inevitably certain aspects of this history have slipped through the cracks and cannot be reported here.

The online portal that accompanies the exhibition, available for anyone to visit from home, further expands the project by giving it new life with even more context, replete with didactic notes for each object as well as a full catalogue of other pertinent details. Building from e-artexte, the centre’s comprehensive repository and search engine, Joachim has curated a platform that digitizes the project and stores it for generations to come. 

Aesthetically sharp, pedagogically rich, and conceptually detail oriented and astute, Blackity is a necessary dive into Black Canadian contemporary art from the perspectives of one of the country’s most important collections, with over thirty thousand documents covering the visual arts from 1965 to the present. In all of its facets, it will continue to ripple throughout Artexte and, I hope, capture the imagination of critics, curators, historians, artists, and cultural workers in the city, the province, and the country.

Walking away after bearing witness to the exhibition, back through the tall stacks of artist names and places, the sounds of Thelma Gibson’s, Pearl Brown’s, and Leah Curtis’s voices continue to resonate, flowing into the research centre. Even after the objects from Blackity return to their resting places in archival cardboard boxes, once the exhibition closes on March 26, 2022, Artexte will still ring loud with their stories, echoes of past astral clusters to inspire newfound constellations.

SEPTEMBER 23 2021—MARCH 26 2022