Arts·Black Light

Why Black artists need to forge our own paths — not try to fix broken institutions

"Our collective protests have created a chasm, one we can fill with Black art, new ideas, and our full selves," writes Black Lives Matter — Canada co-founder Rodney Diverlus.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Rodney Diverlus says we can fill the space created by protests with Black art

Black Lives Matter Canada co-founder Rodney Diverlus holds up a megaphone, wearing a black t-shirt that reads ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER.
Rodney Diverlus. (Robin Pueyo)

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. While Amanda is away on maternity leave, a different writer will be featured in a guest edition of the column each month. This month's edition is a point-of-view essay by movement artist and Black Lives Matter — Canada co-founder Rodney Diverlus.

It has been nearly eight months since the historic resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and as the dust begins to settle from that transformative summer, and after much labour from Black communities, we, Black arts workers, have a rare opportunity to forge a new path forward.

Black arts workers are burnt out from months — generations, really — of naming and protesting anti-Black racism, now compounded by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and this bleak economic reality for the arts and culture sector. In 2020, countless Black artists and art-related professionals in Canada have publicly and courageously named anti-Black racism within the white-dominated institutions in which they work. Despite the risk, they — with the scarcest of resources — are the boldest in calling for a more just and equitable cultural sector.

Our collective protests have created a chasm, one we can fill with Black art, new ideas, and our full selves. This year is an opportunity to break out of this cycle we know too well: protest, recognition, empty promises and repeat. Let us respond with a broad proliferation of Black arts practices, institutions, and practitioners.

In 2014, I co-founded Black Lives Matter in Canada, first with Black Lives Matter — Toronto and subsequently Black Lives Matter — Canada. As a Black and queer artist, it was important to me to centre Black art in our resistance, utilizing art as a shared language for revolution — a vision for a collective liberated future.

When we began Black Lives Matter in Canada, the movement was often dismissed as being "too extreme" and "radical," but six years of groundwork led to the events of this past summer: a breaking point. Since then, Black artists across all disciplines have been speaking more boldly and urgently, sharing their personal experiences with the longstanding existence of anti-Black racism within Canadian arts industries and institutions.

Black Lives Matter protesters holding up signs as they march, wearing masks.
Protesters march during an anti-racism demonstration (not organized by Black Lives Matter — Canada) on June 6, 2020 in Toronto. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

In theatre, Black artists who have worked within the Stratford Festival, Shaw Theatre, National Theatre School, and other theatre institutions shared their stories through #inthedressingroom. Visit the hashtag and read for yourself the egregious indignities experienced by these artists, with frighteningly common accounts of tokenism, erasure, microaggressions, and the realities of attempting to "make it" within institutions that lag in modernity — and relevance to Black communities. Meanwhile, Phillip Akin, renowned Black director and former Artistic Director of Obsidian Theatre, spoke of the legacy of anti-Black racism in the theatre.

In dance, we watched Nicholas Rose, now-former National Ballet of Canada dancer, release a scathing viral video that called out his then-employer for, among many things, a lack of commitment to their Black artists and staff. "You guys are utilizing our artistry, our choreography, and our energy, but you guys cannot even take a second to suspend your own company's pride to look into the psychology of how a Black artist's mind works," he said while standing defiantly in front of the company's studios. Since then, a handful of independent Black dance artists have shared similar videos and posts detailing their personal experiences in dance institutions across the country, ranging from racist casting practices to financial exploitation.

In visual arts, artist Syrus Marcus Ware's feature in Canadian Art included the experiences of Black artist scholars, practitioners, and curators who spoke of threads of anti-Black racism in Canada's galleries and museums such as the Art Gallery of Ontario. We read a public letter from the Black Curators Forum to Contemporary Art Institutions and Organizations across This Land Called Canada which stated, blankly, "A history of anti-Black cultural and institutional policy continues to shape this country's funding frameworks, academic art departments, public galleries, museums, artist-run centres, and contemporary art narratives."

Similar calls were made for accountability from every stratum of arts and culture, including the Black employees at the CBC, the publisher of this column. Each of these public grievances were felt deeply by Black art-makers in this country, who shared sordid experiences of indignities by the very institutions who desperately seek them out. Indeed, based on my time working within white arts institutions, not one of these examples shocked me — not one.

Stack of copies of the book Until We Are Free.
Until We Are Free: Reflections of Black Lives Matter in Canada is an essay collection edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware. (Syrus Marcus Ware)

In response to this unprecedented show of Black artistic solidarity, the majority of arts organizations in this country reacted in similar ways: release hastily worded, often out-of-touch statements and commit to the creation of (insert equity plan here) in a non-specified future, much of which still remains to be seen.

There is a great deal of skepticism amongst Black artistic communities about the change that many of these statements profess to be committed to, fuelled in part by most of the institutions' basic failure to adequately identify the very harm they commit to ending. Ware writes, "These statements fail to 'explain why they haven't taken the horrors' seriously; rather, they paint the institution as already doing the work. Meanwhile, the history of erasure and the shutting out of Black artists from mainstream — and yes, even from lefty art spaces — persists and cannot be separated in this moment of renewed support for 'all Black lives.'" How can one apologize for harm and commit to being better when they cannot even name the harm itself?

Black art-makers, we have done enough to educate and to teach. Much of the past year has been about identifying what is not working for us — but now, in 2021 and beyond, we have an opportunity as Black art makers and arts-related professionals to set out a collective vision for Black arts in Canada.- Rodney Diverlus

The legacy of anti-Black racism persists in our museums, galleries, sets, recording studios, theatres, opera, and ballet institutions; in our "classical" companies and contemporary arts spaces; in digital and new media spaces; in commercial and non-commercial spaces; in every milieu. These examples are not outliers, but the standard. These institutions, in many ways, are functioning precisely as they were created to. Weaved into the foundations of arts institutions in this country is an innate othering of the Black experience. Indeed, there has never been a time in which these institutions have included our full personhood. What we are asking for is something that has never been seen before. The task at hand will require much imagination and sacrifice by those who have historically guarded the gates of these institutions.

Black art-makers, we have done enough to educate and to teach. Much of the past year has been about identifying what is not working for us — but now, in 2021 and beyond, we have an opportunity as Black art makers and arts-related professionals to set out a collective vision for Black arts in Canada; to identify solutions made for us, by us. We have an opportunity to decentre traditionally white arts institutions and whiteness as the standard. We have an opportunity to carve out a new era of "contemporary art" that properly reflects contemporary society and those who inhabit it.

And there is no time more apt than now to imagine new possibilities. We begin this year with the arts and cultural sector in the midst of the metamorphosis of our lifetimes. Thousands of artists remain without work, practices are being adapted and morphed, and storied institutions are closing their doors or teetering on the brink of collapse. As we enter new and uncharted territories, rather than expending all our energies, talents, fixing the bricks of the fortresses that spent so long keeping us out, let us build our own.

Laila El Mugammar speaks of a burgeoning cultural renaissance led by Black and Indigenous artists in Canada. Last year, Black Lives Matter — Canada launched an offshoot project, Wildseed Centre for Art & Activism, an artist-run space that centres the Black artist; meanwhile, Toronto's Nia Centre is expanding into a multipurpose centre that will include studios, galleries, a 150-seat theatre, and workshop spaces. Globally, Black Artists created @thedanceunion, which began as a podcast and has grown into a platform, mutual aid fund, and advocacy body. Many artists, now without the stable contracts from institutions of time past, are creating their own work and building their own businesses and ecosystems. There is so much possibility yet to be discovered within our communities.

Last year reminded us of the power of mutual aid and collective care. We now have an opportunity to imagine new or reimagined artistic spaces — ones that shift away from a singular model of production to one of community-building, of provision of care, of advocacy, and of fostering Black stories, experiences, and talent. Black artists, arts organizations, art-makers: in 2021 let us begin to dream of what comes next. What does that future look like? Feel like?

In 2021, I wish for us unlimited freedom. We, literally, have nothing to lose.


Rodney Diverlus is a movement artist, performance-maker, artivist, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter — Canada, and a director of Wildseed Centre for Art & Activism.

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