Black Ark, a 12-ft structure modelled after slave ships, asks us to see Canadian history differently
The piece is a memorial to Africans lost to the slave trade and the first Black Canadians
After 22 years of living in Canada, U.K.-born, Nigerian-raised artist Oluseye Ogunlesi felt like something was missing in his relationship to the country. While he felt Canadian, his understanding of the history of people that looked like him — Black history — felt oddly thin.
"There was something missing for me to really feel truly connected to Canada," he says.
This absence spurred him to turn to the history books. Ogunlesi's search wound up providing the inspiration for his newest work, Black Ark. The cathedral-like 12-foot tall structure, made out of wood and polished metal, is being displayed at Toronto's Ashbridges Bay Park as part of Luminato but will remain up after the festival is over, until Sept. 5.
Black Ark is meant to reference the hulls of slave ships. In his research, Ogunlesi found that at least 60 such ships were built in what is now Canada — in the shipyards of Nova Scotia, Quebec and Newfoundland. The piece was designed and built with the help of collaborator Toluwalase Rufai, who is both an artist and an architect.
Ogunlesi's quest to understand Black Canadian history brought him to North Preston, N.S. The rural community outside of Halifax is one of Canada's oldest Black settlements, having been founded by Black Loyalists after the American Revolution and bolstered by subsequent waves of Black settlement, including Maroons forcibly removed from Jamaica and refugees escaping slavery in the United States. Over the course of his visits, Ogunlesi learned the history of the place and its people.
"In a lot of Black cultures, a lot of the history is passed along orally," he says. "Traditionally oral histories are regarded as being inaccurate, having things that are missing. We are both from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria and our histories are for the most part oral, so I also wanted to show the importance of oral history. In some ways I find [oral history] to be even more accurate because there's always going to be the emotional aspect that's attached to oral history and it makes it rich."
He said that the project was included by his desire to bring those oral histories "into a physical form." One story, he says, made a particular impact.
"There was a story that was told to me by a man by the name of Pastor Al," he says. "He told me how back in 1792, some of his ancestors had chosen to move to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to start a new life. And that resonated with me because it had me thinking, 'Wow, Black Canadians helped start this new African country.'"
Ogunlesi says that he wanted Black Ark to speak to this "dual migration," of Africans forcibly brought to the Americas and their descendants returning to Africa to start a new country.
The structure is made out of wood, with mirrored metal on the inside. The wood is blackened and partially burned using a technique influenced by one Ogunlesi discovered while in the Ivory Coast, where people use diesel sediment to stain the outside of their homes.
He says this treatment of the wood appealed to him on multiple levels. He appreciated using something that was supposed to be waste and finding a purpose for it, since he often uses found objects in his art. He also felt like it was a way for North American "Black art to be in conversation with an African aesthetic that currently exists." But perhaps most of all, he says, it functions as a metaphor.
"There's something symbolic about having to kind of destroy the surface of the wood in order to get the desired effect," he says. "It had me thinking about some of the riots that would have happened on the slave ships. In this quest for human survival, these people were prepared to burn down the entire ship or kill the captain, and I'm certain they didn't know how to sail the ships. But in this quest for freedom you're prepared to do whatever it takes, even if that might cost you your life."
The mirrored metal inside is meant to do two things: remind people of the fact enslaved people were sometimes traded for mirrors, and force us to reflect on how the legacy of slavery has impacted modern Canada.
"You're reflected in the structure, which means that you're then sort of participating in the history that we're exploring, and you're either complicit or implicated in that history," he says. "Regardless of who we are, our race, we all benefit from the legacy of slavery, from the labour of people who were enslaved."
Once the piece is done appearing at Luminato, it will stay at Ashbridges Bay. Ogulesi would like to take it across the country, and there's one place in particular he'd like to see it go: the Africville Museum in Halifax. The museum stands on the site of a Black Nova Scotian community that was raised in the 1960s, its occupants forcibly removed. Ogunlesi talked to some of those Africville survivors in the research that lead up to Black Ark.
"It's people from there that inspired the work," he says.
Ultimately, Ogulesi says he wants people who come to see Black Ark to think differently about the history of this country and explore it deeper.
"I want people to have something that's closer to a complete Canadian history," he says. "It's all of our responsibilities to know even just a little bit more about how these people came to be here. The Black people of Nova Scotia, Scotians, it's a small community, but in many ways, that should sort of be the dominant Black Canadian identity. So I think there's a responsibility that we all have, even Black people who migrated, to know that sort of history that came before them."
Correction: this article originally stated that Oluseye Ogunlesi was born in Nigeria. He was in fact born in the U.K. and raised in Nigeria. We regret the error.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.