Arts·Point of View

In just two editions, this festival of black art changed Canada's cultural landscape

The legacy of the Celafi festival lives on in filmmakers, artists and TIFF's Cameron Bailey — but its story has largely been untold.

Celafi's legacy lives on in filmmakers, artists and TIFF's Cameron Bailey — but its story is largely untold

Glace Lawrence (centre), co-founder of Canadian Black Artists in Action (CAN: BIA), sits with filmmakers Ousmane Sembene (L) and Kwaw Ansah. (Courtesy of Glace Lawrence)

It was the late '80s. The global movement against apartheid in South Africa was at its height. Spike Lee was making movies that would change Hollywood forever. Public Enemy were crafting a hip-hop soundtrack of critical consciousness. And here in Canada, black artists were in the midst of building their own cultural and political movement — one that's yet to receive the documentation it deserves.

It was during this time that the Canadian Black Artists in Action (CAN: BAIA), a grassroots network that connected creatives across the country, was formed in Toronto.

We walk around as living legacies of that work. The problem is that there is a new generation that don't know the history.- Glace Lawrence, co-founder of CAN: BAIA

25 years ago they founded Celafi (an acronym for "Celebrating African Identity"). Celafi was one of the Canada's largest international festivals of black art, featuring six days of exhibits, film screenings, concerts, book readings, panels, dance performances, theatre shows and more. Though it only held two editions, the festival — and CAN: BAIA itself — would fundamentally alter the cultural landscape.

When I first learned about CAN: BAIA, I was a grassroots organizer myself. I thought that my generation was the first in the city to attempt the kind of work we were doing. I sat, mouth agape in a restaurant one evening, as African-Canadian film pioneer Roger McTair regaled me with stories that I never learned in school.

Then and now

When CAN: BAIA emerged in the '80s and early '90s, the political climate was unnervingly similar to today.  

In 1988, the Black Action Defence Committee was formed, and they — much like Black Lives Matter Toronto — mobilized and organized communities in protest against police brutality.

Black artists joined that fight but also spearheaded their own battles, contesting the racist and exclusionary practices of major art institutions. They protested the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum and the production of Showboat  at the North York Centre for the Performing Arts.

You had a generation coming up who [...] began to demand what they saw other fellow creative artists had: access.- Cameron Bailey, co-founder of CAN:BAIA and artistic director of TIFF

It was a few years before the Yonge Street Riots of 1992 and young black people were mobilizing in a way never before seen in Toronto.

Cameron Bailey, now the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, was a co-founder of CAN:BAIA. "You had a generation coming up who were either born in Canada or who came as children and saw themselves not as outsiders but as Canadians and began to demand what they saw other fellow creative artists had: access," he says.

"We want access to Canada Council grants but the jurors don't even know what hip hop is," he says of those days. "We want access to the Canadian Film Centre positions but they don't understand our stories. So people began to mobilize."

History in the making

Under the leadership of the late poet, feminist and art advocate Ayanna Black, a small group of multidisciplinary artists gathered in the fall of 1988 and began brainstorming what would become Celafi.

Protestors called the Royal Ontario Museum's 1989 exhibit "Into the Heart of Africa" racist. (CBC)

"It was historic, but you never know if you're the first," says filmmaker and CAN:BAIA co-founder Glace Lawrence.

The organizers spent the next four years planning. CAN: BAIA received arts funding from various levels of government, a fact that Bailey argues cannot be separated from the political climate of the time. He points to the U.K. as an example, where race riots in London led to funding for black film community groups, enabling them to build alternative institutions.

"There is a direct connection between political action [and] legislation or policy that produces money and gives it to artists who are organizing in grassroots ways and then the culture that is produced as a result," he says.

Going international

In partnership with the international development organization C.U.S.O., festival organizers like Lawrence were able to travel to countries such as Senegal and Ghana, making connections with artists that they would eventually bring to Canada for Celafi.

Making international connections helped shape the aesthetic and politic of black artists in Toronto. "We saw black arts and the world of black artists as part of a continuum — traditional, contemporary and experimental," poet and CAN: BAIA co-founder Marva Lord says over email.

"Many black creative traditions in Canada have links and roots in other parts of the world including Africa, the U.S., South America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. We recognized this and felt it was important that Canada and the rest of the world understood this."

Introducing Celafi

For the first edition of Celafi in 1992, delegates arrived from all over Africa, Europe, the U.S. and Canada. It featured individuals such as Canadian literary legend Austin Clarke, world renowned Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, scholar and activist Cornel West, choreographer Geoffrey Holder, jazz legend Salome Bey and the rap group Dream Warriors.

Says Lord: "My favourite memory is of the joy seeing so many Canadian and international artists coming together in an empowered self-determined way to create such a phenomenal event for the time."

The 1997 edition of the festival featured a playwright series organized by theatre legend Djanet Sears, a film series on black film in Canada, more than a dozen exhibits and a special edition of Revue Noir magazine dedicated to exploring African-Canadian contemporary art.

However, it was a markedly different political climate. In Ontario, the Mike Harris government's "Common Sense Revolution" threatened artists and arts organizations with cutbacks. With less funding and more artists leaving the organization to pursue their individual art practice, CAN: BAIA ended Celafi after its second year.

"It was so exhausting," Lawrence told me. "There was a lot of disappointment in terms of what we were unable to achieve."

The legacy continues

But CAN: BAIA's legacy, and the legacy of the era's artists who mobilized, endures. It can be found in the increased access black artists now have to funding and art institutions that once seemed impenetrable.

TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey speaks onstage at the TIFF Awards Brunch during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at the InterContinental Toronto Centre Hotel. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Its legacy also continues in the work of its founders. Lawrence's time at CAN:BAIA inspired her to make Coming to Voice, a feature-length documentary about the emergence of black cinema in Canada.

Lord, who now lives in Wales, became the station manager of Toronto's CKLN. She says CAN:BAIA equipped her for the challenges of running the influential community radio station. (It shut down in 2011.)

Meanwhile, Bailey is the artistic director of one of the largest film festivals in the world. He says his grassroots organizing experience prepared him to do much of what he does now.

"We walk around as living legacies of that work," Lawrence tells me. "The problem is that there is a new generation that don't know the history."