The Senate celebrates black artists; minister says ‘doing more’ to promote black history

Trinidadian-Canadian painter Denyse Thomasos stands in front of her work Metropolis in 2007.The Canadian Press

The first art historian to be appointed to the Senate says the work of black artists in Canada is not sufficiently recognized or celebrated.

But now Senator Patricia Bovey, former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and a member of the board of the National Gallery of Canada for many years, has set out to change that.

She produced the first exhibition of works by black artists in the Senate. Works by famous black artists now hang in the Senate foyer, the second in a series of photos honoring their contributions to Canadian culture.

They include an anacrylic on paper work by the late Canadian Trinidadian painter Denyse Thomasos, titled ‘Wyoming Saddle’, as well as ‘Light Laureate’, a mixed media work by American-born Tim Whiten.

Bovey said the installation is designed to “highlight the very significant accomplishments of black artists in Canada.”

“Their contributions are neither sufficiently known nor sufficiently celebrated,” she said.

“I hope their visual voices will be seen and heard on the Hill and across the country and that displays of their work will rise up and announce the substance of their art and their contributions to the fabric of Canadian expression.

Bovey introduced a private member’s bill to create a Visual Arts Laureate in Parliament. If approved by MPs and Senators, the winner will choose artwork to hang in Parliament that reflects all communities in Canada, including Black and Indigenous artists.

Bovey mounted an Inuit art exhibit last year in the Senate. But her attention has turned to promoting black art in Canada, which she says is rich and diverse.

“Light Laureate” is behind glass engraved with a delicate floral motif. It includes maple wood, shards of burnt paper, and a mirror that reflects the image of anyone looking at the piece.

She calls Thomasos’ “Wyoming Saddle” a “stellar” work. The painter, who grew up in Toronto and then moved to New York, died suddenly in 2012 at the age of 47. Internationally acclaimed, she often used an abstract ribcage motif to evoke themes of slavery and confinement.

Last year’s works included “Stolen Identities”, a work by Winnipeg painter Yisa Akinbolaji, depicting Louis Riel in a Métis dreamcatcher, and “Who’s Who in Canada 1927”, a multimedia installation by the artist from British Columbia Chantal Gibson.

Gibson explored the omission of black voices in Canadian historical texts, working the dark thread in a 1927 edition of “Who’s Who in Canada.”

Next to it, an electronic player played a recording of Gibson scanning the reference book for entries of black Canadian historical figures.

The Senate isn’t the only place politicians seek to shine a light on black cultural history.

Diversity and Inclusion Minister Ahmed Hussen said black people have been an important part of Canadian history for hundreds of years, a fact that has sometimes been overlooked.

In Nova Scotia alone, he discovered a depth of black history going back centuries that “wasn’t something I learned before I became an MP,” Hussen said in an interview.

Nova Scotia became home to Maroons who left Jamaica after fighting the British in 1796, communities of freed slaves, people fleeing slavery south of the border via the Underground Railroad and waves of black immigrants who followed.

Hussen said the government is helping preserve a 165-year-old church built by former slaves in Ontario, including Harriet Tubman, a key figure in the Underground Railroad. Some of their descendants still attend the chapel.

The Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines, Ont., was in poor condition, raising security concerns. Last year, he received a $100,000 grant under the Federal Initiative to Support Black Communities in Canada.

“It was a piece of Canadian history that was falling apart,” Hussen said. “We were able to provide funding that will rejuvenate this structure.”

He said the stories of black figures, including Mathieu da Costa and Viola Desmond, were an integral part of Canada’s past, but “we need to do more” to celebrate and teach black history in Canada.

He said the government had also approved a 2017 stamp commemorating da Costa, the first recorded free black person to arrive in Canada.

Born in 1589, da Costa is believed to have arrived in Canada in the early 1600s. He was employed as an interpreter between Indigenous peoples and Europeans mapping North America. Some accounts say he helped Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded Quebec City in 1608.

In 2018, Desmond became the first Canadian to appear alone on the front of a banknote – a $10 bill.

In 1946, Desmond challenged racial segregation by refusing to leave the whites-only area of ​​a movie theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

Hussen said stories like hers are too little known. He didn’t hear of Desmond “who preceded Rosa Parks by nine years” until he went to law school.

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