An Art Gallery of Ontario department that brings together art from Africa and the African diaspora is celebrating its first year and first full exhibition.
The AGO’s Department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, created last October, has organized the exhibition called “Fragments of Epic Memory,” with works by more than 30 artists of Caribbean descent. Many of these artists are based in Toronto and Canada. The exhibition, which opened Sept. 1, 2021, runs until Feb. 21, 2022.
“Fragments of Epic Memory” includes historical photographs, paintings, paper-mache, sculptures and multimedia experiences. All of the artworks are rooted in the Caribbean after 1838.
The exhibition, organized loosely in chronological order, highlights the arrival of commercial photography to the region in the 1840s and the impact of the post-emancipation period on the present time.
Julie Crooks, curator of the AGO’s Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, said the exhibition includes more than 200 photographs from The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, which the AGO acquired in 2019. Crooks curated the exhibition.
The Montgomery collection itself contains more than 3,500 historical images from 34 countries, including Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. The images are studio portraits, landscapes and tourist views and the photos document the lands, peoples and cultures. The collection covers the period 1840 to 1950 and includes images produced by regional and international photographers and studios.
“We’ve been thinking about this exhibition since 2019, when we acquired the the Montgomery Caribbean photography collection,” Crooks told CBC Toronto on the weekend.
Crooks said it took the AGO about two years to organize the exhibition. She was tasked with sorting and selecting photos from the Montgomery collection.
“What you are seeing in the collection is the kind of lived experience of inhabitants of mostly British Caribbean, but also French Caribbean and a little bit of the Hispanic Caribbean as well.”
Crooks said the exhibition is important to Canada because Caribbean communities have existed in Canada for a long time.
“Caribbean individuals have been here since the 1910s. This is a Caribbean history, a Caribbean story, but also a Canadian story as well. We don’t really mine this history enough, especially through visual culture or photography. This is a kind of rare opportunity to see this moment in history through photography,” she said.
Crooks said the exhibition is personal for her because her mother came from Barbados and curating the exhibition has given her the opportunity to look at her own history, to gain insight and knowledge, and at the history of visual art and practice in the region.
“For me, it was personal, but it had broader implications in terms of telling these kinds of stories.”
Two highlights of the exhibition are artworks commissioned by the AGO. One is Moko Jumbie, a five metre tall sculpture by British-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové.
“Inspired by aspects of African masquerade and Trinidadian Carnival, it features a masked figure adorned in antique glass beads, cowbells and gold Air Jordan sneakers, standing atop towering stilts,” the AGO said in a news release.
Moko Jumbie is on display in Walker Court, the AGO’s central atrium.
“A guardian who travelled to the region to protect enslaved peoples from evil, the figure of Moko Jumbie blends African diasporic mythologies: in Central Africa, ‘Moko’ refers to a healer, while ‘Jumbie’ is a Caribbean term for spirits. Since the early 1900s, it has been a key figure at Carnival celebrations in Trinidad and across the Caribbean,” the AGO continues.
The second highlight of the exhibition is Feeding Trafalgar Square by Toronto-based artist Sandra Brewster. It’s a portrait of her mother, a large-scale photo transfer on wood.
“The latest in a series of photographic tributes to her Guyanese-born parents, Brewster’s blue tinged image bridges past and present, turning a joyful moment into a moving meditation on what it means to be displaced,” the AGO said in the release.
As for the Department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, the AGO said when it was formed last year that it would expand its collections, exhibitions and programs of historic, modern and contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora.
The AGO said its creation formalizes work that has been underway at the art gallery for several years.
Stephan Jost, CEO of the AGO, said in a news release in October 2020: “Engaging with the art of Global Africa must be central to any program that presents a global view of visual culture, because its multiple histories and influences intersect, deepen, and complicate in so many ways our understanding of Western and Contemporary Art.
“This new department brings together curators and educators from inside and outside the building, supported by the community, to help us tell these stories.”
Jost added that the creation of the department follows the 2017 creation of a Department of Indigenous and Canadian Art.
“The museum must be flexible and responsive if we are to better reflect where we live.”