“For us, by us”: how a new Caribbean exhibition is changing the AGO

Kenneth Montague was 10 when he first saw Renaissance footage from Harlem. The child of Jamaican immigrants in Windsor, he had visited the Detroit Institute of Arts and had been moved by the images of blacks in their best Sunday lounging in Harlem brownstones or sitting in Cadillacs. “It was truly an eye opener,” says Montague, who had previously seen mostly images that reflected negative stereotypes about people who looked like him. “For me, art and photography have become this way of thinking about my own identity.” Since then, Montague, a Toronto-based dentist and art collector, has said his personal mission is to increase the amount of diverse works of art produced by and about people of color in art institutions across the country. Ontario.

So in 2018, when Julie Crooks, curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, called Montague to tell him that she had come across a collection of over 3,000 historical images from countries like Trinidad and Tobago. Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados, Montague flew to New York to see them for himself. The collection included black and white images of plantations in Martinique, families picnicking in post-emancipation Jamaica, and the 1948 West Indies cricket team.

“The history of the Caribbean, the Diaspora and its artists is not a single story, but a range of stories, media, voices and lived experiences, and the Montgomery collection offers us an equally diverse vision. from the Caribbean experience, ”says Crooks.

Crooks wanted the images for the AGO; Montague too. But Montague, who is also a gallery administrator, did not want to court an established donor to raise the necessary funds. “Instead, we decided to ask the well-to-do black and Caribbean community to buy this one for ourselves,” he says. Crooks and Montague called friends and emailed personal networks. Word of the Montgomery collection quickly spread throughout Toronto’s Black and Caribbean community, and after less than a year of fundraising, 27 donors had raised $ 300,000. The AGO acquired the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs from art collector Patrick Montgomery in 2019.

The collection is now part of the new exhibition Fragments of epic memory, titled after the 1992 Nobel Lecture by Caribbean poet Derek Walcott. The exhibition brings together 200 images from the collection and features paintings, sculptures and video works by modern and contemporary Caribbean artists who all attempt to answer the question: how do we see the Caribbean?

“[It’s about] not just be reduced to this moment of emancipation and colonialism and all that kind of loaded history, ”says Crooks.

Visitors will see identity photographs of Haitian immigrants to Cuba in the 1950s and photographs of Indian and Chinese workers who migrated to the Caribbean under contract contracts between the 1800s and early 1900s.

“To a contemporary Caribbean audience, these images are of great importance,” Lee L’Clerc, professor in the Caribbean Studies program at the University of Toronto, told TVO.org via email. “They demonstrate how notions of identity, whether by nation, gender or race, can be understood as a set of cultural constructs that change over time, and the Caribbean identity is a historically changing cultural identity. “

Alongside these historical images are more contemporary works. For example, there is Middle passage (1970), a painting by the Guyanese painter Sir Frank Bowling; Midnight blue (2020), a patterned recreation of a woman dressed as Blue Devil, an iconic character from the Trinidad carnival, by Paul Anthony Smith; and Distressed court (2008), a two minute video by Jamaican artist Peter Dean Rickards.

The exhibition is the first organized by AGO’s Global Africa and Diaspora Arts Department, which was established last October. “It’s the first of its kind in Canada,” says Crooks, who runs it. “There is no other museum that has a department dedicated to these stories [and] these stories. The department is responsible for expanding the museum’s collections, exhibitions and programs with an eye on Africa and the African diaspora. “Being in Toronto and having such a large demographic that makes up these communities, it makes sense [for the department to be] located in an institution that is trying to think about how to decolonize its collection, ”says Crooks.

While plans for the creation of the department predated last year’s racial calculation, Crooks says working on the exhibit following George Floyd’s death reinforced the need for a dedicated department for setting light of black stories. “It can’t be just some kind of fleeting moment,” said Crooks. “It must be supported. The community needs to see and have faith in what we are doing.

Since opening in September, the exhibition has received strong reactions from artists and community members, who say the collection has connected them to familiar stories about their history and helped them discover new ones. .

Sabrina Moella has been visiting AGO since moving from Paris to Toronto 16 years ago. “I am not Caribbean, but I am part of the African diaspora, and in some photos, it was clear that it could be my aunt, my uncle, my nephew, my niece”, explains Moella, originally from Congo. “I loved the beauty, the nobility, the pride. It gave me a lot of pride to see the care that has been taken in conservation, because historically museums have done us a lot of harm.

“When I look at the photographs, I can see people who look like me,” says Natalie Wood, a Trinidad-born artist whose painting Mazalea, which depicts a 17th-century Maroon settlement, is featured in the show. “I can see spaces in the Caribbean that I recognize, and it connects me to a story that I often feel disconnected from.”

Members of the Friends of Global Africa and the Diaspora, a committee created to support the work of the new department, raised funds to continue to support acquisitions. It’s not just about an exhibit or a department, notes Co-Chair Liza Murrell, who acted as lead donor for the Montgomery Acquisition – it’s also about expanding the reach of the ‘AGO within the community. According to Murrell, the committee is made up of 17 members ranging from graduate students to professionals, like Murrell, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology.

“What this group is saying is that the people in our community are very interested, willing and enthusiastic. [to contribute]. And museums and galleries must think about approaching [them], but you can’t approach people who are not in space, ”says Murrell. “I wasn’t a donor in the art world before, because nobody ever asked me to. So how can I contribute if you’ve never approached or welcomed me into this circle? “

“It has become a real collective thing,” Montague says of the fundraising efforts. “For us, by us. This is the great legacy of this Montgomery collection, that it not only reflects the history of the Caribbean community, but that it has today become a lightning rod for the community.

AGO Fragments of epic memory exhibition will run until February 21, 2022.

About Elaine Morales

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