‘For us, by us’: How a new Caribbean exhibition is changing the AGO

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Ashley Okwuosa (TVO) reviews the exhibition, “Fragments of Epic Memory,” which continues through February 21, 2022, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), located at 317 Dundas Street, West Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Okwuosa writes, “Through historical photos and contemporary art, ‘Fragments of Epic Memory’ reflects a community that’s long been underrepresented in galleries.”

Kenneth Montague was 10 years old when he first saw pictures from the Harlem Renaissance. A child of Jamaican immigrants in Windsor, he’d visited the Detroit Institute of Arts and been moved by the images of Black people in their Sunday best lounging in Harlem brownstones or sitting in Cadillacs. “It was definitely an eye-opener,” says Montague, who had before that seen mostly images that reflected negative stereotypes about people who looked like him. “For me, art and photography became this way forward to think about my own identity.” Since then, Montague, a Toronto-based dentist and art collector, says it’s been his personal mission to increase the amount of diverse artwork by and about people of colour in art institutions across Ontario. 

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

“The story of the Caribbean, the diaspora and its artists aren’t one story, but a range of histories, media, voices and lived experiences, and the Montgomery Collection offers us a similarly varied view of the Caribbean experience,” says Crooks. 

Crooks wanted the images for the AGO; Montague did, too. But Montague, who is also a trustee at the gallery, didn’t want to court an established donor to raise the necessary money. “We decided instead that we would petition people of means in the Black and Caribbean community to buy this one for ourselves,” he says. Crooks and Montague called friends and sent emails to personal networks. Word of the Montgomery collection quickly spread through 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 now forms part of the new exhibition Fragments of Epic Memory, titled after Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Lecture. The exhibit brings together 200 images from the collection and features paintings, sculpture, and video works by modern and contemporary Caribbean artists all attempting to answer the question, how do we see the Caribbean?  “[It’s about] not being reduced only to this moment of emancipation and colonialism and all of that kind of fraught history,” says Crooks.

Visitors will see passport photographs of Haitian immigrants to Cuba in the 1950s and photographs of workers from India and China who migrated to the Caribbean under indentured contracts between the 1800s and early 1900s. 

“For a contemporary Caribbean audience, these images are of great importance,” Lee L’Clerc, an instructor at the University of Toronto’s Caribbean studies program, tells TVO.org via email. “They demonstrate how notions of identity, whether through nation, gender, or race, can be understood as a set of cultural constructs that change with time, and Caribbean identity is a historically changing cultural identity.”

Displayed alongside these historical images are more contemporary works. For example, there’s Middle Passage (1970), a painting by Guyanese-born painter Sir Frank Bowling; Midnight Blue (2020), a patterned recreation of a woman dressed as Blue Devil, an iconic Trinidadian carnival character, by Paul Anthony Smith; and Afflicted Yard (2008), a two-minute video by Jamaican artist Peter Dean Rickards.

The exhibition is the first organized by the AGO’s Department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, which was established last October. “It’s the first of its kind in Canada,” says Crooks, who heads it. “There’s no other museum that has a department dedicated to these histories [and] these narratives.” The department is tasked with expanding the museum’s collections and its exhibitions and programs with an eye to 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] situated in an institution that is trying to think about how to kind of decolonize its collection,” Crooks says. 

While plans for the creation of the department preceded the racial reckoning of last year, Crooks says working on the exhibition in the wake of George Floyd’s death reinforced the need for a department dedicated to spotlighting Black stories.  “It can’t be just a kind of a fleeting moment,” says Crooks. “It has to be sustained. The community needs to see and have faith in what we’re doing.” 

Since its September opening, the exhibition has evoked strong responses from both artists and community members, who say the collection has connected them with familiar stories about their history and helped them discover new ones. 

Sabrina Moella has been visiting the AGO since she moved to Toronto from Paris 16 years ago. “I am not Caribbean, but I am part of the African diaspora, and in some pictures, it was clear this could be my aunty, my uncle, my nephew, my niece,” says Moella, who is originally from Congo. “I loved the beauty of it, the nobility, the pride. It gave me a lot of pride seeing the care that was given to the curation, because, historically, museums have done us a lot of wrong.” 

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

For full review, see https://www.tvo.org/article/for-us-by-us-how-a-new-caribbean-exhibition-is-changing-the-ago

Of possible interest, related to https://repeatingislands.com/2021/09/07/fragments-of-epic-memory-art-gallery-of-ontario-is-hosting-a-major-exhibit-dedicated-to-caribbean-history

See more on the exhibition at https://ago.ca/exhibitions/fragments-epic-memory

[Gomo George’s “Women’s Carnival Group,” 1996.]

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