When the Art Gallery of Ontario reopened to the public in July, following the closure related to COVID-19, I was fortunate enough to see Sandra Brewster’s solo exhibition Blur. Brewster was born in Toronto to Guyanese immigrants; her work, informed by diasporic Caribbean narratives, centres Black presence in Canada.1
The exhibition’s title is a valuable clue to the tone and ethos of Brewster’s photographs and video works. Lining the four walls of the gallery are portraits of Black individuals captured in motion. Untitled (2016–18) is a grid of photo-based gel transfers on archival paper that presents partial busts of Black subjects, sometimes almost entirely out of frame. Each person is captured shaking his or her head, resulting in blurred faces and hair. On an adjacent wall are Blur 18 and Blur 21 (2017), two medium-sized portraits that are presented in a manner more traditionally associated with portraiture—both framed with compositionally centred subjects. Whereas the purpose of portraiture is often to memorialize an image of a person for posterity, Brewster’s photographed individuals are distorted with undisclosed identities. We can interpret these concealment methods as a way to resist what psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon describes as the fixing White gaze, which objectifies and others Black people.2 Rather than present her subjects in focus or in static poses, Brewster’s visual strategy embraces flux and action, complicating both the viewer’s and camera’s essentializing look.
The concept of movement, as it relates to migration or displacement, suggests that individual and collective diasporic identities are multifaceted and reject a singular reading at first glance. Brewster’s choice to use an image-transfer technique to depict her subjects supports this reading. The process is imprecise and involves an element of chance, as the exact results are unknown. The outcome is often an uneven surface, rough edges, and blank patches where parts of the image have lifted during the transference. Such qualities echo the experience of migrants and their descendants when moving from one place to another. This aesthetic also highlights the ongoing changes—creases, stains, and wear—the slow erosion that begins immediately after a photograph has been taken. We are reminded that neither the life of the photographic object nor that of the subject’s diasporic identity is fixed in time or place.
The concept of movement, as it relates to migration or displacement, suggests that individual and collective diasporic identities are multifaceted and reject a singular reading at first glance.
Across the room is Untitled (2015–16), a self-portrait of the artist in the form of repeated transfers on several large wooden panels. The panels are displayed on the ground, propped up against the wall, and layered above and below each other, playing with our sense of depth. Despite the repetition, no two prints are completely alike. Layered with visual nuances, Brewster’s self-portrait invites us to look and then look again. It is noteworthy that the artist’s identity is also not explicit and that she has chosen to represent herself blurred, as she presents her subjects. Both the photographer and photographed are unknown.
In consideration of the shared parallel history of photography and video with biopolitics, Brewster’s exhibition possesses another layer of meaning. On the topic of the surveillance of Blackness, sociologist Simone Browne asserts that viral videos of police brutality do not make a substantial difference to Black people who are resisting surveillance. Browne suggests, however, that they offer an alternative perspective that recognizes and challenges white supremacy.3 In this sense, Brewster’s work is a form of counter-surveillance. The racialized subjects are seen but cannot be identified, and through anonymity they are empowered. Brewster’s video Walk On By (2018), a colour, silent film shot on Super-8, depicts Black citizens walking through Toronto—blurry, out of focus, and presented at varied frame rates. The grainy texture of the film format imbues the contemporary footage with nostalgia, much like a home-made family movie from the 1960s or 1970s. The extended label for this work reads “These figures blend into the landscape, emphasizing their indisputable, rooted presence,” reflecting the film’s poetic declaration of Black dignity and poise in the city’s past and present.4
The most monumental work in and crux of the exhibition is Untitled (Blur) (2017–2019), a floor-to-ceiling photo transfer on the wall, depicting a Black woman mid-motion. At the vernissage reception, Brewster revealed the identity of the woman as local musician and artist Tuku Matthews, and acknowledged her as someone whose work and family has “left lasting impressions on communities in Toronto.”5 This larger-than-life portrait is a celebration of the generations of Caribbean-Canadian vitality. Rips and tears—traces of the installation process—are visible on the photographic imprint. A up-close look reveals superficial wrinkles that are reminiscent of skin, muscle, and tissue or palm lines on a hand. Such markings breathe a powerful dimension of life into the work. Physically embedded into the architecture, Brewster’s mural is a literal and metaphorical institutional intervention. These blurred portraits put Black presence into focus and evoke a much-needed movement beyond the gallery walls.
(1) “Sandra Brewster: Blur”
(2) Frantz Fanon, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” in Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 95.
(3) Sidney Fussell, “How Surveillance Has Always Reinforced Racism”, interview with Simone Browne, Wired, June 19, 2020
(4) Object label for Walk On By, in Sandra Brewster: Blur, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario.
(5) Neil Price, “The Legacy of Presence,” interview with Sandra Brewster, canadianart, August 21, 2019.
Sandra Brewster, Blur
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
July 24, 2019—September 13, 2020