New Brunswick

First Black N.B. artist to get show at Beaverbrook says photography has opened many doors

A glimpse at a photographer making history in the province this year.

Exhibit by Gary Weekes, featuring images of Fredericton Boxing Club athletes, to open in April

Gary Weekes is a commercial and fine arts photographer in Fredericton who is scheduled to have a show at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in April. (Submitted by Gary Weekes)

A Fredericton photographer is expected to make history this spring when his work is shown at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

Gary Weekes is slated to have an exhibit at New Brunswick's only officially designated provincial art gallery starting April 2, titled Larry Fink vs Gary Weekes: The Boxing Portfolios.

When it opens, Weekes will become the first Black artist from New Brunswick to have an exhibit at the Beaverbrook.

It will be exciting to set that precedent, Weekes said, but he noted it won't be the first time photography has opened doors for him as a Black man.

"The camera has made a lot of the world an open place for me," he said.

"I would be allowed to sit at the table in a very expensive restaurant and at the same time sit at the table with the homeless, and be accepted in both."

That has given him both "a certain sense of power" and "a very strange way of looking at the world," he said.

Boxers spar in the Fredericton Boxing Club. Weekes says this is one of the shots that will be in the Beaverbrook exhibit. (Gary Weekes)

Weekes does many different kinds of photography, from commercial portraits to still life, figurative and abstract fine art.

The spring exhibit will feature black-and-white images of athletes from the Fredericton Boxing Club, taken by Weekes as well as by American photographer Larry Fink.

A few of his images can currently be seen at Fredericton's Gallery on Queen, as part of an exhibit for Black History Month called DiasporArt: Self Actualization.

Gallery owner Nadia Khoury noted Weekes had a solo show there last year.

This month, the gallery is also showing works by seven other members of the New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance, she said. They include Rhonda Simmons, Daniel Leek, Clyde A. Wray, Sydona Chandon, Reon Hart, Aleya Michaud and Angel Terry.

And on Feb. 11, the gallery plans to host a virtual launch party for a book called AfriCANthology: Perspectives of Black Canadian Poets, by Greg Frankson.

It features a cover photo by Weekes and work by local spoken word poet Thandiwe McCarthy.

An image by Weekes is featured on the cover of a book being launched this month. (Greg Frankson/Facebook)

Weekes has been living in the Fredericton area for the past 14 years, but his roots as an artist go back to London, England.

Growing up, he said, he was interested in making art, but he was more interested in learning how to survive in an environment where racism was rampant.

It was common to see the letters N.F., for National Front, on clothing, walls and doors in his predominantly white, lower-middle-class neighbourhood, Weekes said.

The far-right National Front party supports white-only citizenship in the United Kingdom and opposes immigration by people of colour.

Weekes said he saw the support for them and thought, "Gee, this is strange."

But London was also where he got his first glimpse of successful photographers.

He got a job as an assistant to Kofi Allen and Franklyn Rodgers, whom he described as excellent role models, while he was learning his craft.

Later, he moved to the United States, where he lived in the Bronx area of New York City and took in more "strange" sights.

Apartments had bars on the windows. On the subway train from downtown Manhattan, all the white people got off before it got to Harlem. The street corners in Black neighbourhoods had no garbage cans.

The inequality and different experiences of these places have fed his creativity, giving him "head space" and opportunities to look around, Weekes said.

American artists Weekes admires include Gordon Parks, whose creative work ran the gamut from photo documentaries to fashion, movies and music. Weekes said Parks was able to excel in white-dominated fields, and "sowed the seed" for artists like himself.

The painter Charles White was another. 

He "could paint and document any nationality," said Weekes, describing White's work as "beautiful, graphic images," "very stylized," and "afrocentric."

But while Weekes said there is no "Black way" to be an artist – noting any way of expressing one's self is valid – he has noticed a distinct trend in photography now that more Black people are taking pictures.

The proliferation of camera phones has given Black people more opportunities to show the world "how they are" in everyday life – "moments of joy, of love, of hate and anger" – without having "someone from the outside go to those neighbourhoods and tell our stories for us."

Snapshot cameras may have been available since 1900, Weekes said, but in the places he has lived, most people couldn't afford to buy them or get film developed.

You didn't see many pictures of Black families growing up, celebrating at home, or just being themselves, he said.

Now, he said, digital photography has levelled the playing field and ushered in a new era in photographic history.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from Hillary LeBlanc, special to Information Morning Moncton