NOW Magazine: Black Futures Month Cover Story

Toronto, ON (January 30, 2020)Five Torontonians push for progressive change. An urban agriculturist, a poet, a planner, a curator and a fashion designer explain how they’re breaking down barriers to Black liberation.

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes

“Curate and commission art that reflects Black people – and they will come.”

After spending 15 years working with independent, institutional and corporate entities like TEDxToronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Artscape, curator, artist and educator Ashley McKenzie-Barnes is working toward making institutional arts spaces inviting to racialized people in Toronto.

In 2019, the Scarborough native curated the Kings And Queens Of Scarborough section of Nuit Blanche. She brought in art by Kent Monkman, Ebony G. Patterson, Hatecopy and more, work she felt reflected the people who call Scarborough home while bringing contemporary art into communal spaces like the mall, the civic centre and the movie theatre. 

This February, she’s curating the 25th Jubilee anniversary of Harbourfront Centre’s Kuumba, the city’s longest-running Black History Month festival. Eighty per cent of the programming – spanning visual arts, music, film, dance and theatre – is Canadian, something McKenzie-Barnes takes pride in.

“Not always, but we [curators and art institutions] often seek out work from beyond our borders because those artists already have the visibility, the investment opportunities and the art collectors. For example, Rashid Johnson and Omar Ba at the Power Plant or Mickalene Thomas at the AGO. We have so many artists here like Esmaa Mohamoud, Yung Yemi and Ekow Nimako, who are making great work, but we’re not necessarily taking the time to do the research. I don’t want to downplay the work that is being done by curators and programmers, but I do think that we can provide more of a platform, especially to emerging or mid-career artists. I always reference BAND Gallery [Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue], a gallery and organization dedicated to supporting, documenting and showcasing the artistic and cultural contributions of Black artists in Canada and internationally, because they do a wonderful job of looking at emerging Black artists. 

“We also have Wedge Curatorial Projects, and great curators like Julie Crooks at the AGO. What we need is more people with the mentality of BAND in positions of power within institutions. The institutions are starting to support and strengthen the art scene in different ways, with free admission, later opening hours and youth programming. The AGO partnering with underground art collective Blank Canvas is a step in the right direction. We need to continue that momentum.

“Investing in the talent that’s here will bring out the community. Sometimes the programming, as beautiful as it is, is not accessible, whereas if you are programming on a more communal level, word gets out.

“That’s what happened with Nuit Blanche in Scarborough: we invited audiences in. We balanced relevant and current contemporary art with an understanding of the culture of the first- and- second-generation immigrants that live there. 

“Durothethird’s Scarborough Royalty installation subversively named streets that regularly come up in the news with negative connotations – streets that people might associate with violence. It was placed in front of a government building purposely, for people to celebrate and feel proud of their communities. People loved it so much that it’s being remounted for a year at Scarborough Town Centre. There are people taking photos in front of it every day and you can’t achieve that without understanding how work can reflect the people.

“We are on a pathway – the Raptors won, our music scene is exploding – there are definitely a lot of eyes on Toronto right now. Outside of athletics and music, we have the next generation of artists, designers, architects and creatives coming out with innovative and important work. I’d love to see us build that cultural currency to compel all of North America to draw their gaze toward Canadian contemporary art.”  KA

Kuumba 25 runs February 1-29 at Harbourfront Centre. See listing.

Full NOW Magazine article can be found here:

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