As a black woman in Toronto, this artist felt she turned it into her 'superpower'

Artist Charmaine Lurch is among the 150 women celebrated by HERstory in Black, a landmark multimedia project that celebrates black women in Toronto.

Artist Charmaine Lurch is among the 150 women celebrated by HERstory in Black

Amanda Parris (not pictured) and Charmaine Lurch (front row, second from left) are among 150 Toronto women celebrated in the multimedia project, HERstory in Black. (Ebti MNabag/Courtesy of HERStory in Black)

HERstory in Black launched earlier this week, a landmark multimedia project that celebrates the pursuits and endeavours of 150 black women in Toronto.

The brainchild of Emily Mills — the founder of How She Hustles and a member of CBC's communications team — HERstory in Black is a welcome antidote to the stories we usually see during Black History Month, narratives that fossilize the accomplishments of black folks. This project shines a light on those who are excelling in their fields and building their communities today.

I was one of the lucky women invited to attend a photo shoot for the project, and I carried the glow of that day for many weeks following.

Toronto artist Charmaine Lurch. (Meghan Gilmore/Courtesy of Charmaine Lurch)

During the shoot, we were all asked to introduce ourselves. As each woman spoke, my head rose higher and I stood a little straighter, basking in the glow of our collective brilliance.

When the project launched, I spent some time clicking on each of the women — scientists, lawyers, community leaders — marvelling at the diversity of our work, and feeling hungry to know more. I wanted to learn about their struggles and the complexities of pursuing their passions in Canada.

So for my column this week, I had a conversation with one of the artists featured.  

Charmaine Lurch is a painter and wire sculptor originally from Jamaica. Her solo sculptural exhibit Through the Material Landscape is on now at Daniels Spectrum. Her work will also be featured in the AGO's upcoming Canada 150 exhibition, Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood.

We spoke about HERstory in Black, Canada 150 and her experience of being an artist in Toronto.

What stood out for you about the HERstory in Black project?

What really stood out was the variety and richness of what I was being told by these people — everyday people with the same struggles, but [who are] just doing really good work. The ordinary and the extraordinary in these people. I see the breadth, the vastness of our input and how we move in the city.

How do you feel now that the project has launched? How did you feel when you saw the photos for the first time?

Just really good. I feel more connected in some way. [...] A grounding — grounding in this place, in this city.

Knowing there are all these black women who often, like me, feel alone. I go into many spaces where I'm the only black person and they're doing that too, but I know they're out there now and I hope to encounter more of them and I'm wondering how to.

The grounding I'm talking about is just that knowing. It's knowing that they're there.

Part of the inspiration from this project emerged from the celebration of Canada's 150th. What is the significance, if any, of the anniversary to you?

[The] 150th for me is just a point on a map; it maps this point in time. But I'm thinking of how we're gonna move forward from here as well — so this point allows me to look back and to look forward.

How do you think Canada has shaped your artistic practice and your aesthetic choices?

I think the actual landscape and the climate [here] really influence my work. I work on wild bees; I think about encounters with different animals and also with people. I think it's those encounters in the land that shape my work and tells that story.

This location shapes my work on many levels — in the cars that drive by, in the people that move, in the opportunities that I'm given. Being from the Caribbean is the centre point — then the city surrounds me and the world surrounds that, and I pull from all of that.

Charmaine Lurch. Solitary Mining Bee. (Kevin Arsenault/Courtesy of the artist)

That makes sense. I'm just thinking about what it means to practice and to create art here.

I know a lot of artists who've just had to stop to survive. We remain pretty well invisible. Even though I've done the work, I guess I'm not good at promoting myself, which is another whole aspect. You get exhausted by working alone. I'm out there. I'm in other countries. I have a show right now at Daniels Spectrum — it's my wire bees.

I put together black subjectivity and bees because I'm always looking at spaces in between. The black body is always hyper-visible or invisible. I'm looking for where we're comfortably grounded in visibility — like with our families or with our friends or when we meet each other as black women, there is something there. We are just visible to each other and that's what's beautiful. I'm always looking for these spaces.

I've had to adopt invisibility as a superpower.- Charmaine Lurch, artist

My wire, because of the way I wrap it, there's spaces between the wire. We're always in flux, looking for that visible space where we're allowed to just be human. The work is about that. It's about science and art. And I can't even get people to come out and look at it, even though I sent out a lot of things.

That's one thing within our black community — we stay within our bubbles and it's hard for us to go and look at other different things. Maybe my work is too different. I have no idea.

I'm telling you this because there was a show upstairs [in Daniels Spectrum], a fabulous show called the Florida Highwaymen. A lot of people, even people I know, flew by me and said hi and went upstairs and saw that show, and then didn't have time for my show. So they were going to a show about these people who were invisible in the '50s and then made me invisible by passing right through me, and I had to really think about that.

I think we need to pause as black people and look at each other. And that's what [HERstory in Black] allows us to do.- Charmaine Lurch, artist

I just don't get this. I do my work because I need to and I find spaces for it and I find people who are willing to pause, but I don't do my work for the masses because then I would be always disappointed.

I've had to adopt invisibility as a superpower. It's a means of survival. Because I'm a small black woman, I am a lot invisible. People want to step on me, stand in front of me, and so I find the spaces where invisibility now is my superpower. And once I adopted that means for myself, I've become more powerful in how to manage myself. But it took all these years.

Do you experience the same thing when you travel or is it specific to Canada?

No, I find it specific to Canada. In other places, people stop or take the time.

I think we need to pause as black people and look at each other. And that's what [HERstory in Black] allows us to do. It allows us to look at each other. That's it: we pause and we look at each other.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Charmaine Lurch. Through Material Landscape. To March 12 at Daniels Spectrum, Toronto.

Check out the CBC News Interactive: HERstory in Black.