Black artists go topless to call for more representation at Winnipeg Art Gallery

A group of black art students from the University of Manitoba took their shirts off and staged a provocative performance to call out the Winnipeg Art Gallery for a lack of representation.

'I totally agree,' says WAG's CEO after performance draws attention to lack of black art

A risqué performance by a group of black artists at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as they stripped to their waists, calling out the gallery for a lack of black artists in its collection. 2:43

The Winnipeg Art Gallery is looking at ways to increase its representation of black artists, after a group of art students from the University of Manitoba took their shirts off and staged a provocative performance to call attention to the issue.

The artist who organized the performance on Feb. 22 said it wasn't a protest, it was a statement.

"I'm a painter, I'm a performer and I'm an artist," said Chukwudubem Ukaigwe, a second-year art student from Nigeria.

"I think we needed to get past the protest and make it a performance art, so it's not forgotten like every other protest," he said.

Ukaigwe said the group, which included two women, was able to get past security while carrying a saxophone and made their way into the main section of the art gallery surrounded by European renaissance paintings.

Video of the performance shows the students walking around slowly while humming and removing their shirts.

"We used ideas from art and performance to make a statement that's going to last and have a lot of impact," Ukaigwe said.

After almost 20 minutes he said security showed up and told them to stop and threatened to call police.

Chukwudubem Ukaigwe is a second-year art student at the University of Manitoba who would like to see more representation in the Winnipeg arts community. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Ukaigwe is calling for more inclusion when it comes to work featuring black people's faces, and art made by black artists.

He came up with the idea after visiting several art galleries in Ontario last summer, and said he was shocked at the lack of black figures he saw in the paintings.

"I was just going from gallery to gallery and looking at paintings and it struck me to the point where I couldn't find any black figures in, like, Renaissance paintings and like all the older paintings and newer paintings, there's no black figures," he said. 

He said when he came back to Winnipeg he also noticed a lack of black art and programs at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

"I looked at the catalogue at the WAG and it shocked me, " he said. "Are they not making any effort at all?"

"When I started doing research I noticed it wasn't just black figures. It was like Asians, there's no presence of Asians in a lot of art galleries," said Ukaige.

He adds there is a need for more art in the gallery from non-white artists.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery said it is listening.

"I totally agree," said Stephen Borys, the gallery's director and CEO.

"It means the WAG is an active, accessible place and forum for dialogue, and it's a chance to work with them." 

Borys said he believes there is room for more representation of black artists, and is open to learning more on what the students want to see.

'No harm was done but we learned something'

Borys said he thought the performance was respectful even though the students were topless, but he said security did have to intervene for safety reasons.

"When visitors are coming in the building with objects and backpacks and boxes we do have to check them for security purposes."

He said the students were eventually asked to leave by security but they invited the students back to have a meaningful discussion.

"No harm was done but we learned something," Borys said. 

The Winnipeg Art Gallery has one of the largest indigenous collection of its kind in the world with plans to build a new Inuit art centre.

Construction on the $65-million Inuit Art Gallery is expected to be finished by the spring of 2020.

But there are very few collections of African art.

"I would say historically and to this date the WAG's collection focuses first on Winnipeg, Manitoba and Canadian art, and sometimes international collection," Borys said, adding that the gallery is planning to work with Filipino artists in the future as well.

He said including more black artists in their collection is a work in progress.

"African American and African Canadian art are certainly areas we'd be interested in."

Chukwudubem Ukaigwe, a black artist from Nigeria, created this painting at the University of Manitoba. He recently organized a performance which involved students stripping to their waists, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, to call for more black representation in the arts community. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A meeting was scheduled to take place Thursday evening between officials from the WAG and the art students to hear more about their concerns.

Ukaigwe said he looks forward to having regular meetings with the WAG.

"We're not just talking about the art community, we're looking at inclusion in terms of government, inclusion when it comes to public spaces, open spaces, inclusion when it comes to art."

He believes there is room in the community for more diverse art, and adds it's important for the younger generation. 

"What you see really impacts on how you think or how you see yourself in the future, I feel like young kids who grow up and go to the gallery and don't see themselves in figures or as artists, they don't see themselves as accepted."

Borys said the Winnipeg Art Gallery will continue to consult with various groups on how to change the collections of art that reflect the people who live in the community.

"We also want to reflect what's out there, and art making is changing with every decade."

Art students go topless to draw attention to what they say is a lack of representation of black artists at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. 1:15