There are a million reasons to see 143, an art show on Black love that's taking over Union Station
On now in Toronto, the exhibition is a meditation on love as seen as through the eyes of eight Black artists
Black Light is a weekly 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.
Some 300,000 people visit Toronto's Union Station in a single day, almost double the entire population of Prince Edward Island. They're there to catch trains and buses — but also to get manicures, buy clothes, eat at restaurants. And until the end of March, they can also see an art show about love.
The exhibition 143 (I Love You) is a meditation on love as seen as through the eyes of eight Black artists: Yannick Anton, Ishmil Waterman, Nathalia "Amillionminds" Allen, Soteeoh, Wade Hudson, Brianna Roye, Gillian Mapp and Alexis Eke. Curated by Wan Lucas, the name of the exhibit is a nod to '90s slang, an era of pagers and Musiq Soulchild. (Each digit corresponds to the number of letters in each word of the phrase "I Love You." It's a text code my husband and I still use today.)
The exhibit attempts to explore Black love in a myriad of ways, from a woman gazing down at the baby in her arms to a couple locked into their own private world as they stand atop snowy stairs. Comprised primarily of photographs, the exhibit struck me as an invitation to witness moments of intimacy between Black people captured by Black photographers who clearly recognize the power of the lens.
When I asked Hudson why photography was his medium of choice, he clearly articulated the immeasurable potential of the medium. "Images are powerful," he said over email. "They don't need to be described or explained to send powerful messages to [the] viewers. [Photography] speaks volumes to the audience, in that they are able to pull similarities, differences and meaningful aspects from it to connect with personally."
The most photographed American man in the 19th century also recognized the power of image-making. Long before cell phone cameras made selfies the norm, abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass sat for more than 150 portraits. He knew that images of a free Black man who was always poised, dignified and immaculately coiffed was its own form of activism. It's something the researcher Sarah Lewis called "representational justice." Alongside his activism, speeches and writing, Douglass's portraits offered white America a new perspective on Blackness and became a possible beacon of affirmation, recognition and pride for African Americans.
Mapp, another one of the photographers featured in 143, told me her mother always understood the power of images. "One of my earliest memories of my mother is with a camera in her hands," Mapp told me over email. "She photographed and filmed everyone throughout my childhood because she understands the importance of documenting. The example she set taught me the importance of recording history the way I see it."
In the show, there is a large portrait of Mapp and her mother, who holds Gillian in a tender embrace. Their hair is voluminous and bountiful as they stare directly into the camera. "I chose to photograph my mother and I to share our story, to carry on documenting our family like she did, and to show how her love is fundamental to who I am today."
As powerful as the lens is, its imperfections are deep and historically rooted. In Sarah Lewis's essay "The Racial Bias Built Into Photography" she documents how the very technology behind photography was created assuming light skin as the norm. She uses the Shirley card as an example, a practice where "lab technicians would use the image of a white woman with brown hair named Shirley as the measuring stick against which they calibrated the colours. It has translated into the colour-balancing of digital technology."
Black photographers and filmmakers have consistently worked to find new ways to light and capture skin tones that were never considered worthy of documentation. For Roye, it became a process of trial and error, and she found little help from outside institutions. "In my learning of photography, I found it difficult finding information on how to properly light darker skin since the industry is so white, down to the film and digital sensors in camera being made to only read lighter skin. Even when I eventually went to school, all of my photography teachers were white and only photographed non-Black people and couldn't really provide that knowledge. Since I mostly shoot film, I personally like to use natural light, because what you see is usually what you get. In addition to that I like to use a reflector for an extra pop, or a continuous LED light. I like to shoot when the light is warm and bright because warm (yellow, orange light) looks so good on Black skin."
One of the most striking images in the exhibit is by Roye. In it, two women with their eyes closed — cheek to cheek, chest to chest — as light from a window casts a warm glow around their bodies. Roye told me: "As a Black queer woman, I'm trying to be and capture the representation that I didn't see growing up."
Although 143 includes a variety of studio and location shots, many of them express not only the connection and tenderness between people, but also the joy experienced in these relationships. After I saw the exhibit for the first time, I was reminded of a short silent film from 1898, Something Good - Negro Kiss. It was the first American film to ever feature two Black people kissing. It stars Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, two African-American performers who embrace and kiss at a time when public intimacy in general was frowned upon, and to see it between Black people was unthinkable. Recently added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, a version of the film went viral a couple of years ago when a Twitter user added music to the footage: Nicholas Britell's (astonishingly beautiful) score from the film If Beale Street Could Talk.
I watched it on loop for almost an hour. Each time Suttle kisses Brown and then turns to the camera with an ear-to-ear grin, I smile. Their final kiss, held as their bodies swing, almost always brings tears to my eyes. There is an unabashed joy captured in those 30 seconds that feels so rare and sacred more than a century later. Shot by William Selig, Something Good was sold and marketed as a comedy, made for white audiences to laugh at Black people — but I think the sincere pleasure and genuine sense of joy expressed in the performances of those two actors transcended the intentions of the filmmaker.
Photographer Waterman told me that due to various histories of oppression and struggle, the act of loving is something that is inherently powerful for Black folks. "Black love is the most enduring form of love. No other love has had war waged on it for centuries and still remains powerful, beautiful and thriving. For too long the public has been fed an illusion that Black love is scarce, or that when it does exist it's toxic and struggle-prone. This is not the case whatsoever. The public needs to see Black love so that their hearts can recognize Black people as worthy of their love."
An exhibit filled with Black folks loving each other — housed in one of the busiest buildings in the country — is a remarkable feat that has deeply moved the photographers. "I've spent many days travelling through Union Station to get to class and in my early days of freelancing," Allen told me by email. "Union Station was a place where I even made mini photography projects out of boredom during wait times for the next train back to the east. So it's come full circle now that I have creations living in the Union space for 50+ days."
In a recent TV interview, the curator noted that February was the perfect time to launch the exhibit, it being the month of Family Day, Valentine's Day and Black History Month. However, it also speaks to an inherent and consistent limitation that numerous Black artists face as they welcome — and dread — their busiest time of the year. Roye expressed her gratitude for the opportunity, but also told me, "I find myself going back and forth with the fact that year-round myself (and other Black queer artists) don't get the recognition we deserve, and face the risk of burnout during February since that's when we get the bulk of our opportunities to showcase our work, which is super detrimental and anti-Black."
Although most of the artists are uncertain about where their work will live for the rest of the year, Waterman sees this as a moment to fuel his ongoing creativity. "My work lives vibrantly in my heart, so even if it does not occupy a public space, I carry it with me and use its imprint on the public as fuel to create with more love and power."
143 (I Love You). To March 28 at Union Station, Toronto. www.torontounion.ca