Time to shine the spotlight on contemporary Black-Canadian art by Ashley McKenzie-Barnes

It’s a long-standing and heavily discussed fact that opportunities for Black art and artists have lacked in the elite world of contemporary art, galleries and art dealing. So, when I was recently asked what I’m most excited about for my upcoming projects, the answer was easy: making space for and raising the profile of Black-Canadian art.

While sitting through various social events and creative team brainstorms, I’ve witnessed the political shifts and media frenzies that bring Black and people of colour issues to the forefront of mainstream attention. These issues eventually permeate the art world. The concern is, I’m not seeing influential Black-Canadian visual artists being given the stage to show works and join conversations.

I admittedly joined the crowds in anticipation and social-media documentation when major institutions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and Design Exchange slotted in prolific Black programming from across the globe, and presented us with Theaster Gates, Jean-Michael Basquiat and guest curator Pharrell Williams, to fill the obvious gaps in our market.

And they succeeded at having me fill a seat in the audience at the panels and artist talks that then included our appreciated practicing Black Canadian artists. However, forming any real legacy or visual reference for our home-based patrons was seemingly not the intention.

It’s no wonder that names such as Kehinde Wiley, Shani Crowe, Hank Willis Thomas and Swizz Beatz commonly and justifiably lead our conversations about Black art. Their often-strong association with musical acts helps to effortlessly profile the work.

The value of Black arts and culture continues to be heavily linked to its music, namely hip-hop, which has gained much international acceptance. So, when institutions want to create media hype and high attendance in the public art and culture scene, a Black musician is usually on the bill. The richness and contribution that Black artists have made in music spaces can very well be mirrored in art spaces. However, we continue to see prominent contemporary Black art overlooked in art fairs, public art installations, festivals, major institutions and, most of all, galleries — causing an imbalance of Black visual artists’ place in the arena.

Currently, there’s also a lack of Canadian Black-owned galleries dedicated to featuring Black art. This further perpetuates the marginalization of Black art and artists navigating their way through a predominantly white industry, which can be intimidating, to say the least. A few Canadian organizations, such as B.A.N.D. and Manifesto Festival, have demonstrated a clear mandate to create a shared platform that curates both diverse Canadian and international talent in their programming. They continue to tackle the difficult task of attracting gallery visitors and buyers and developing Instagram-worthy experiences, while putting a spotlight on local talent.

Beyond these limited examples, when seeking emerging and mid-level artists, many will travel all over the world and to art fairs, such as Art Basel in Miami and galleries like Jack Shainman in New York. In the specific case of Canada, when I asked members of my close social circle their top choice for Black Canadian art, the question was typically left unanswered. That speaks volumes and, sadly, isn’t uncommon.

I’ve marked 2019 the year to balance the scales by strengthening the fabric of Black art within our Canadian history. And, I extend that challenge to my peers: curators, thought-leaders and influencers.

As I’ve been granted the opportunity to curate various spaces (most recently Nuit Blanche Toronto, the largest free public contemporary art event in North America, and Kuumba at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto’s longest running Black History event), it’s time to move the needle — one show at a time.

Published by Toronto Star, Jan 8, 2018: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2019/01/08/time-to-shine-the-spotlight-on-contemporary-blac

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