Every family, every community needs an archivist — Deanna Bowen's art does this with warmth and care
See the artist open an ambitous exhibition on her family and the rarely-told legacy of Black life in Vancouver
Deanna Bowen's critically-acclaimed work documents her family's history as descendents of enslaved people who undertook continent-spanning migrations — from tracing the presence of the KKK in the Prairies to now, in her latest work, documenting erased Black culture in Vancouver. In the Making meets her as she is preparing to unveil A Harlem Nocturne, named after the city's historic Black nightclub and her largest exhibition yet. Bowen takes In the Making host Sean O'Neill to the CBC archives from where she draws much of her historical material, to the former site of Hogan's Alley, a Black neighbourhood that was demolished by the city of Vancouver, and then introduces her mother to the artwork that she hopes will help illuminate their lives and experiences.
See Bowen's family story on this week's episode of In the Making, streaming now on CBC Gem and airing Friday, October 18th at 8:30 p.m. (9 p.m. NT). Below, writer, curator and art historian Gabrielle Moser writes for CBC Arts on the power of Bowen's work and the careful listening and warmth that makes her work so special.
There are some histories that require a deep form of listening to be heard. Though they are right there in front of us, they lie, seemingly silent, below the noise of the national narratives we have been told. A careful ear can detect them humming at a frequency right below what is audible.
Deanna Bowen is an attuned listener: when she's working in the archives, she seems to have perfect pitch. Whether it's the disturbing history of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada, the rich tapestry of Black nightlife in Vancouver or her own family's migration across the United States border into Alberta, Bowen's artworks illuminate the stories that have evaded our perception, some of which we might prefer to forget. Working in both institutional and familial archives — and frequently turning her attention to the holdings of the CBC — she mines the intersection of personal and public histories. In her hands, a local petition becomes a searing indictment against Canadian racism; a modern dance routine becomes a stage upon which the double standards of multiculturalism are rehearsed; and a family photograph becomes a blueprint for quiet acts of Black refusal and survival.
Bowen does it all with such warm affection for her subjects, and careful attention to the tensions and contradictions that make up an individual and collective history, that absorbing one of her works makes you feel you are listening in on something intimate and rare. Watching the subjects of The Promised Land, a 1962 CBC documentary that the artist re-appropriated from the state archive and which features several family members as well as the renowned jazz vocalist Eleanor Collins as they recount their memories of the small Black church they helped establish in Edmonton, I find myself leaning in, wanting to hear what goes unsaid beneath their scripted performances. (What were they thinking?)
Sifting through the 67 artifacts that make up her latest installation, God of Gods: A Canadian Play (2019), which examines a play written and directed by Carroll Aikins — the founder of the first national theatre in Canada and artistic director of Hart House Theatre — I am astonished by the wide-reaching and durable fantasies about Indigenous and Black subjects that have underpinned the national imaginary over the last 100 years. (What were they thinking?)
Rather than tell her audience what to see, Bowen asks us to look — truly look — at the ways images have real, tangible and sometimes violent effects on their subjects. Her work helps us to see how art might matter in the broadest civic sense.
Every community, like every family, needs an archivist. To know Deanna — to be able to work, to think, to laugh, to drink, to gossip with her — is to be reminded that the everyday acts of quiet resistance, queer kinship and Black joy that make up a collective life will be meaningful for those who come after us, even if they are only seen and heard belatedly by the careful listeners among us.
– Gabrielle Moser, with deep gratitude to Tina M. Campt
In the Making takes you on an immersive journey inside the lives and work of Canada's leading artists. Stream the whole season now on CBC Gem, or watch it on CBC-TV Friday nights at 8:30 p.m. (9 p.m. NT).