This article has been written with the support of the High Commission of Canada.
#CanadaGoesDigital: Position as Desired
- Arusa Qureshi
- 13 October 2020
The High Commission of Canada in the UK partners with the Wedge Collection for an online exhibition of the work of a group of Canadian and UK Black artists
As we enter Black History Month in the UK, we must consider how the events of the past few months have changed the world. From the tragic death of George Floyd to the continued protests around the world in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, it feels as if there has been a fundamental shift both in terms of attitudes and actions. Commitments and pledges have been made universally for change, anti-racist work and also inclusion, but there is undoubtedly much work to be done to interrogate the nature of the Black experience, at home and abroad.
The High Commission of Canada launched their #CanadaGoesDigital programme in May with the intention of celebrating Canadian talent and values virtually (while venues remain closed). The next installment of their programme sees the launch of Position as Desired: Exploring Black Canadian and Black British identity, an online exhibition hosted in partnership with Toronto's Wedge Collection that will showcase the work of Black artists in the UK and Canada, looking at the powerful connections that exist through shared histories of migration and colonialism. As a contribution to the current discussions around representation and identity of Black communities around the world, the exhibition coincides with Black History Month in the UK (October) and in Canada (February), and will be available to access online across those four months.
Dr. Kenneth Montague, the director and founder of Wedge Curatorial Projects and the owner of the Wedge Collection, has toured Position as Desired across Canada already but is looking forward to the exhibition arriving online and at Canada House in London next summer.
'It's an exploration of not just Black Canadian work for Canada House, but also Black British artistic practices. The idea is to present similar tropes such as ideas of protest, community, family, gender, sexuality, style,' he says. 'All of these things are going to be explored on both sides of the pond in this exhibition. So I think it's a little show that might have some real reach because it just hasn't been done before.
I think it's important with Black History Month happening now in the UK for us to do something that explores our cultural connections. And it's hopefully a great preview to the physical show next year.'
Montague manages to balance his art project with running a dental practice in Toronto, and has been collecting art since the 90s, growing Wedge from a small project to something that has taken his collection all over Canada, the US and the UK. 'I've got my privately-owned Wedge Collection, and then Wedge Curatorial Projects—a non-profit arts organisation with a mandate to support and promote emerging Black artists,' he explains. 'I've built a unique collection, that I put together over a 25-year period, with its origin being a reflection of my own life story. So African Canadian identity in contemporary art is something that very organically became my interest.'
Montague's own background and upbringing is relevant to the nature of his work with Wedge and the context behind this exhibition too. His parents came to Canada from Jamaica in the 50s and, growing up in Windsor, they were typically the only Black family in their workplace, schools or church. But when visiting nearby Detroit as a teen, he was exposed to another side of Black culture that he didn't see in Windsor, at home or on TV. 'As a 10-year-old, I had this amazing experience seeing a photograph by the African American artist James Van der Zee. Even as a kid, I kind of knew this was special. And that was one of the first photographs that I bought as a collector many years later. The Black history story through photographs became this really important journey for me. Art became the tool that I would use to explore stories that I needed to learn and that I thought might be important for others. So it was very much a project for myself and it was just a happy accident that a lot of things aligned.'
Position as Desired has had a few iterations over the years, but the version that will be available online and at Canada House next summer is special to Montague, who says the idea behind it was like a eureka moment for him. 'I realised there's a parallel between what I'd been thinking about, seeing, experiencing as a Black Canadian and as a collector of works by Black Canadian artists and this very established, parallel world in the UK. So I'd always had it in my mind that a show needs to be done to reflect on this. I feel perhaps more kinship to the Black British art movement than the African American experience. Despite growing up across from Detroit, my Jamaican Canadian household felt more connected to the Commonwealth and the complicated British colonial story.'
The exhibition will feature the work of 10 Black Canadian artists and 10 Black British artists, but in the online preview, audiences will get a sneak peek at work by Anique Jordan, Dawit L. Petros, Stacey Tyrell, Jalani Morgan and Stan Douglas of Canada, and Liz Johnson Artur, Vanley Burke, Joy Gregory, James Barnor and Dennis Morris of the UK.
'This has been the signature image of the show from the start, it's so quintessentially Canadian.' Montague notes about Dawit L. Petros' Sign (2003), when asked about some highlights from the exhibition. It was conceived as a take on the artist Albrecht Durer's famous painting Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight, from 1500—but it ends up being such a brilliant rethink because of the ambiguity of his expression. It's the Black gaze; he's looking right at you from all angles like the Mona Lisa. And so there's a seriousness, it's an enigmatic thing. Is he looking at you? What do you see when you look back at him?'
Position as Desired allows the viewer to compare and contrast and find similarities and differences in both Canadian and UK experiences. As well as being able to see the artworks online, audiences will be able to engage with texts and a number of interviews featuring Montague, Autograph ABP director Mark Sealy, photography specialist and art historian Julie Crooks and independent curator Liz Ikiriko.
While Montague is hopeful that the physical exhibition will go ahead next year as planned, he also understands the importance of this online preview in the context of our current times. 'Maybe it will have a deeper resonance for people in this politically charged moment and this time with COVID, when we have this forced period of reflection.' He says. 'So maybe it's going to be even more powerful in the end.'
HE Janice Charette, High Commission for Canada in the UK, said 'I am delighted that Canada House has been given the opportunity to present this outstanding body of work which has enabled us to participate in a timely reflection on the Black lived experience both here in the UK and back home in Canada.'