Arts·Black Light

On the eve of its final season, Amanda Parris reflects on five years of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists

It's the show that launched her entire career, but it's time to say goodbye. Season 6 premieres tonight on CBC.

It's the show that launched her entire career, but it's time to say goodbye

Flashback to 2015! (Remember 2015?) Amanda Parris appears in first season of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists. (CBC Arts)

Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

It's Friday, Oct. 16. Tonight, the final season of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists premieres. And so later tonight, I will be ugly crying.

I have been the host since Season 1, Episode 1. Over six seasons we have travelled the country and shared the stories of painters and puppeteers, dancers and designers, actors and animators, playwrights and poets, curators and comedians, filmmakers and photographers ... you get the picture. So much of our television content here in Canada is dominated by cultural works from south of the border and across the pond. I like to think of our show as the home for the creators and dreamers of Canada. And it has been a privilege and honour to introduce those innovators to all of you.

It's fascinating to reflect on the impact hosting this series has had on my relationship to Canada. I've never been big on the idea of nationalism. But hosting a show that allowed me to get an inside look into the imagination of so many creatives across the country has filled me with more patriotic pride than any political debate, sports game or historical monument. Witnessing the ways that artists consistently transform this landscape, challenge its history and redefine its possibilities has been incredibly moving and inspiring. 

CBC Arts: Exhibitionists was conceived partly in response to a glaring absence of national arts coverage on Canadian television. It makes sense when you think about TV as a profit-driven enterprise — arts coverage is rarely going to produce a ratings bonanza like the NBA or Stanley Cup playoffs. But that doesn't mean it's not important. 

Thankfully, CBC recognized it has a responsibility to celebrate the arts as our public broadcaster. And the creators of the show came up with an innovative production process that enabled us to not only spotlight talent but develop it. Each episode features documentaries pitched and produced by filmmakers from within the building but also commissioned by freelancers from across the country. As well as showcasing artists, we've also been able to help develop careers. CBC Arts: Exhibitionists has helped more than 100 emerging filmmakers tell their stories. It's a work process that requires a degree of investment, training and patience that few productions would ever consider. 

I was one of the individuals that CBC Arts took a chance on. If it wasn't for this series, there would be no Black Light column or Marvin's Room radio show. I wouldn't have been invited to interview celebrities at TIFF or cultural leaders live on stage. I wouldn't have judged films on Short Film Face Off or shared a Canadian Screen Award with the team on The Filmmakers. I wouldn't have had the chance to wear designer dresses on red carpets either. CBC Arts: Exhibitionists was the launchpad for the entire career I have right now. 

My hosting experience prior to this was limited to a few live community arts events and some indirect training as an educator. (FYI, educators are the unsung performers of our time!) When I was hired, I didn't know what a boom mic was and would look blankly at the director when he talked about slating. Luckily, the team was patient. They hooked me up with performance coaches who helped me to develop a toolbox of skills I still use today. I worked hard and was supported with resources and patience.

As a result, I steadily grew in confidence. I went from struggling to walk and talk in front of the camera to writing my own scripts, producing documentary shorts and handling long-form interviews with very little prep. In the midst of it all, I was consistently encouraged to retain my authentic voice, to utilize my experiences and perspectives and to bring as many parts of myself as I could to the work. 

CBC Arts: Exhibitionists hasn't just been my job — it's been my site of education, the place that gave me the space to grow with minimal pressure and panic. Opportunities like this are rare, especially for Black women in Canadian television. Looking back, I realize now that my experience has been a master class in how to develop diverse talent for success. I am forever grateful to Jennifer Dettman, Grazyna Krupa, Carolynne Hew and Romeo Candido, the executives and senior producers who decided from the start that I was worth the investment.

The philosophy driving CBC Arts: Exhibitionists extended to the culture of our entire CBC Arts department and filtered into the content we produced. Without much effort we have created one of the most diverse shows in Canada, if not the most. Once we decided not to limit our spotlight to the traditional household names, the world opened up to us in exciting and provocative ways. We sought stories about tattoo artists and drag kings. We met a teen hoop dancer who's breathing new life into tradition and a grandma who makes collage art to express her faith. After five years of doing this work, I see an art world that is so vast and full of possibilities. It is inspiring to behold. And even though our TV show is ending, our work here at CBC Arts continues.

It feels strange to be saying goodbye this way. I haven't physically seen the team behind the show since March. There will be no cake in the office or drinks after work. We won't be celebrating over a specially curated karaoke session, Bob Ross paint party or games night the way we have in the past. Over the years, so many other folks across the corporation have expressed envy over the camaraderie, connection and creativity of the CBC Arts team. 

Before we go, we still have six episodes to share. Created during one of the most challenging periods of our modern history, we decided to take this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine our work and our purpose. 

Artists across this country are struggling right now. Their livelihoods have been fundamentally disrupted and dangerously jeopardized and there is no clear end in sight. In the midst of it all, many industries are also dealing with a long overdue cultural reckoning that is challenging the status quo and asking critical questions about the kind of industry we want when this is all over. 

In Season 6, we speak to the moment and explore how the global pandemic and civil uprising has impacted six different artistic worlds: film, architecture, fashion, dance, street art and theatre. It has been an ambitious and challenging production process as we plan and produce virtually while also grappling with new and ever-changing safety measures. But I'm very proud of what we have created. It premieres tonight at 11:30 p.m. on CBC Television and CBC Gem. I hope that you enjoy it. 

Until we meet again, peace.

Watch CBC Arts: Exhibitionists Season 6 tonight at 11:30 p.m. on CBC Television or stream it anytime on CBC Gem.


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 and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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