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Toronto
Letticia Cosbert
Redefining Black Identity at BAND Gallery
August 22, 2018

It is a pleasure to see art institutions continue to expand their definition of gallery space by making use of exterior walls, stairwells, adjunct billboards, and, in the case of BAND Gallery’s Redefining Black Identity, wooden fences. The first in a forthcoming series of On the Fence exhibitions that will explore Canadian archival photographs of Black Canadians, this inaugural iteration features portraits of Black Canadians from the 19th Century. The specific dates and identities of the sitters are unknown, but the images are drawn from the personal collection of Alvin McCurdy, a professional carpenter who moonlighted as an antiquarian. You probably haven’t read that word in a while (or ever), and if you have, it was probably in a pejorative sense to label someone’s interests or worldview as narrow minded. Nietzsche believed that the antiquarian objectivized history and drew no meaningful connections between the past and present. However, BAND’s current exhibition exemplifies an alternative view of the antiquarian: a figure laser-focused on preserving the memories some would prefer we forget.



Redefining Black Identity at BAND Gallery

I first arrived at BAND (Black Artists’ Networks in Dialogue) expecting to enter the house-turned-gallery space, but was surprised to find Redefining Black Identity on the surrounding fence. I began my tour under a maple tree that spilled over the fence from the backyard. The first portrait is of a woman, taken ca. 1870s. She sits in what appears to be a beautiful home. In the background I can make out brocade curtains and either an ornately decorated door or elaborate wall molding. The arm of the chair she sits on has tassels (which I love) and the sleeves of her dress are so perfectly pleated that I can’t help but smile thinking of how important this occasion must have been.

The photos continued as I walked along the sidewalk: one of an impeccably dressed young man leaning on a book placed atop an accent table (ca. 1875), another of a tastefully accessorized woman and her son (ca. 1900). She wears a waist-cinching belt and a pair of shoes with the most delicate button details; he wears an oversized newsboy cap in houndstooth. My favourite is the last in the series, underneath the leafiest linden tree: a woman with her back to the camera, perched atop a railing, feathers in her wide brimmed hat, her hair styled in a thick long braid down her back. She stares off into the distance with a leather minaudière in hand (ca. 1875).



Redefining Black Identity at BAND Gallery

Had it not been for Alvin McCurdy (born in Amherstburg, Essex County, Ontario in 1916), who made it his personal project to seek out and collect all things relating to Black Canadians and Black Northerners, where would these photographs now be? Just as much as Redefining Black Identity presents those who “defied attitudes and ideologies of the time,” it also reveals the results of someone who defied racist, exclusionary institutional practices by creating their own archive. An antiquarian in the truest sense, McCurdy’s collection contains seemingly trivial or ephemeral items such as newspaper clippings, postcards, scrapbooks, letters, research files, meeting minutes, and photographs relating to local, contemporary Black culture. And yet this highly specific collection remains, according to the Archives of Ontario, the most important source of information about the history of the Black community in the province. McCurdy’s archive paints a picture of 19th Century Canada that is rarely on view and hardly discussed, in order to, in McCurdy’s words, “build a bridge of memory...to span the years and grasp, out of the past, certain accomplishments that may be utilized for the betterment of ourselves and for all mankind.” Though some would have antiquarians relegated to the ranks of hoarder, Redefining Black Identity demonstrates the necessity for, and power of remembering, collecting, and sharing. Take that, Nietzsche.


Redefining Black Identity continues until September 21.
BAND Gallery: http://band-rand.com/
The gallery is not accessible (but the fence is).


Letticia Cosbert is a Toronto based writer and editor, and is currently the Digital Content Coordinator at the Koffler Centre of the Arts. Letticia studied Classics, earning a B.A. from the University of Toronto, and an M.A. from Western University, where she specialized in erotic Latin poetry. Her writing and editorial work has been featured in Ephemera Magazine, Sophomore Magazine, The Ethnic Aisle, and publications by Gardiner Museum, YTB Gallery, Xpace, and Trinity Square Video. She can be followed on Instagram @prettiletti.

 

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