Arts·Point of View

5 Black Canadian artists whose names should be known alongside the Group of Seven

Artists appearing in Here We Are Here, the ROM's show about Black Canadian contemporary art, share their picks.

Artists appearing in Here We Are Here, the ROM's show about Black Canadian contemporary art, share their picks

Chantal Gibson. Souvenir, 2017. The piece will appear at Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, an upcoming exhibition at the ROM in Toronto. (Courtesy of the ROM)

In the canon of Canadian visual art there are certain names frequently cited: Emily Carr, Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven. Their work is found in galleries, museums, textbooks — and taught in schools across the country.

The search for Black Canadian visual artists — historic and contemporary — can be significantly more challenging. It is rare to find the names of pioneering artists such as Edward Mitchell Bannister, Audrey Dear-Hesson or Edith Macdonald Brown in Canadian art institutions.

Later this month, the Royal Ontario Museum will be tackling this question of under-documented presence with their exhibition Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art.

Featuring original work from nine artists — Sandra Brewster, Michèle Pearson Clarke, Chantal Gibson, Sylvia D. Hamilton, Bushra Junaid, Charmaine Lurch, Esmaa Mohamoud, Dawit L. Petros and Gordon Shadrach — the exhibition promises to explore issues of race, belonging and exclusion.

The show made me wonder: who are the other Black Canadian artists whose names we should know? I reached out to some of the artists featured in Here We Are Here and asked them that question.

Learn more about their picks!

June Clark

Harlem Quilt by June Clark. (June Clark/juneclark.ca)

Born in Harlem in 1941, June Clark moved to Toronto in the late '60s. Working in photography, sculpture and collage, she's known internationally for her installations and interventions.

In Michèle Pearson Clarke's opinion, everyone should be familiar with Clark. As she explains, her art explores "themes of Black diasporic identity, exile and memory work."

And yet, Clarke herself only recently discovered the artist.

"I first learned about her and her work when I saw Formative Triptych (1989) on display in the Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the fall of 2016. Even though she has been making work since the 1970s, that was the first time that her work was shown at the AGO. Needless to say, it was long overdue."

Buseje Bailey

Explain Black by Buseje Bailey. (Buseje Bailey/Library and Archives Canada)

Both Bushra Junaid and Charmaine Lurch say that Halifax-based artist Buseje Bailey is an artist you need to know. She's a multidisciplinary artist, and her practice often reflects on her Afro-Jamaican/Canadian identity.

Says Lurch: "Buseje Bailey's work includes, among other topics, the politics of difference [and] Black female subjectivity."

"Her work remains for me critical, sublime and fearless in discourses on the Black female body."

David Woods

David Woods. (Supplied by David Woods)

Woods is a painter, poet, playwright, curator, arts administrator and activist. And on top of that, he curated the first ever exhibition of Black Nova Scotian art (1998) and the first exhibition of art from and about Africville.

Says Sylvia D. Hamilton: "David has worked tirelessly for years to uncover early Black artists in Nova Scotia — to say, 'Yes, we have always created art, and here are the artists.'"

"It is rare to find a visual artist who undertakes such curatorial work, and at the same time does his own work."

Justin Augustine

The Faith Catchers by Justin Augustine. (Justin Augustine/Supplied to CBC Artspots)

Hamilton also suggests checking out another Nova Scotia artist: painter Justin Augustine.

Born in Dominica and based in Halifax, Augustine studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and has been showing his work for roughly 25 years across Canada. His paintings often feature life-sized figures set in familiar East Coast locales — places such as Preston and Africville.

Says Hamilton: "It gives me joy to see him create work from his personal experiences — memories of his homeland, beautifully rendered and positioned beside perspectives of his 'new' Scotian home."

Joan Butterfield

Zebra by Joan Butterfield. (Joan Butterfield/joanbutterfieldartist.com)

An artist, curator and author, Butterfield has had a very personal influence on artist Chantal Gibson.

"She gave me my first art show at the ROM in 2010," writes Gibson by email.

"She has dedicated much of her career to mentoring new Black Canadian artists and providing opportunities for them to show their work publicly. She has provided knowledge, time, energy, canvases, brushes, gas miles and storage space to support the careers of many emerging artists, including me."

The creator of more than 7,000 works of her own, Butterfield has curated more than 100 exhibitions. Says Gibson: "She was the first person I told about my 'crazy spoon idea' in 2012. [Now] in 2018, I'm back in the ROM. [My work] Souvenir is touched by her knowledge and her encouragement."

Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Art. Featuring Sandra Brewster, Michèle Pearson Clarke, Chantal Gibson, Sylvia D. Hamilton, Bushra Junaid, Charmaine Lurch, Esmaa Mohamoud, Dawit L. Petros and Gordon Shadrach. Opens Jan. 27 at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. www.rom.on.ca

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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