Speaking Ourselves Into Being
by Andrea Fatona and Liz Ikiriko
In 2014, Andrea Fatona initiated The State of Blackness conference to congregate artists, curators, academics and students around the conditions of the production, presentation and dissemination of Black art in Canada. Using the conference as a catalyst to continue a public discourse and to create an archive of Black artistic production, The State of Blackness has continued in various forms. Fatona remains a guiding voice and devoted advocate for practising care through considered critique, while she supports her students and mentees in producing the in-depth scholarship and criticism that was significantly lacking in Canada.
Fatona heads the Criticism and Curatorial Practice program at OCAD University, with decades of scholarship on the contemporary art of the Black diaspora. When I joined the program in 2016, I was certain there was no other person I would want to study under. But, due to circumstances beyond our control, our work together was quite limited at the time. While notions of urgency can force all of us to move too quickly, and can limit the required depth of research and discourse, within marginalized communities this notion of urgency can be particularly challenging, as the time of the beacons of our communities is in constant demand.
This sense of urgency again came into play in the time carved out for our interview, and by addressing this, I hope to present this engagement as the unfolding of a longer discussion that needs continuation. In order to halt a cycle of erasure that is prevalent in Canada, intersections like this one must be seen as contributing to a rich pool of Black creative production that has existed long before us, across regions, and which will continue to develop into our varied futures.
Taking The State of Blackness as our starting point, five years after Fatona initiated it, we sat down to discuss the role of criticism, institutional archives and mentorship in preserving the feats of Black survival in our daily lives.
LIZ IKIRIKO: Andrea, you continued The State of Blackness as a database project, which completed its first stage in December 2017, after the conference in February 2014. How has this long-term project progressed through the years and where does the research stand now?
ANDREA FATONA: The State of Blackness conference project is really important to me, because at that time, in 2014, in both spaces of academia and in the art world, I found myself realizing that we were very absent from the conversation as Black cultural producers, and visually from who’s being presented within these spaces. The first phase of The State of Blackness database was a mapping project to see what was out there in terms of media arts. I collaborated with Vtape and a graduate of OCAD, Elisha Lim, to go through Vtape’s archive— both their tapes and discursive materials—to get a sense of what’s happened across the country, because Vtape is a national and international distributor, and to set up a centralized space for access to both media arts and visual arts, as well as curatorial work. In my PhD research, I found that a Black arts movement—and I’m going to keep calling it that—began to flourish, in which a number of curatorial projects took place that were quite interesting and different for their times, yet they haven’t been fully written about, and they haven’t been fully documented. I’m interested in revisiting those moments as a way to understand the kinds of practices that have brought us to the now and what we’re doing—not only in terms of artistic production, but [also to examine] how Black artistic production has actually influenced the development of [current] Black curatorial practice.
LI: What were those specific time periods during which you saw a shift?
AF: I would say that by the mid-’90s there was a real proliferation of artworks— media artworks, visual artworks—and I attribute that to an increase in funding [brought about by] different shifts in policies, specifically the [Canadian] Multiculturalism Act and how it brought to the fore the lack of funding of artists of colour and Indigenous artists. There was a lot of fomentation and push from the community to open up funding to those artists that ultimately enabled a number of works to be produced. But, like I said at that time— and I think even now—our works aren’t being critically engaged enough; there’s very little critical writing from mainstream publishing venues.
LI: I’m thinking about similarities now with Canada’s 150th anniversary, in terms of surges of funding, and how it enabled this artistic insurgence. I’m curious how that continues—what are the legacies that come from that? Especially if there isn’t writing around it, because it wasn’t supported past that moment.
AF: There are legacies that follow from these kinds of insurgencies—and I think we see it today as well—but I don’t think they end up serving the potential or the possibilities of what we think should happen. And so I’ll rephrase that: I have to say that erasure continues today, even though in a way there are these blips in time where the work [we are doing] is visible. I can give some examples. I just did an exhibition of Winsom’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and there hasn’t been much written about it. I think it requires a deep drilling down in the creation of critical discursive materials that will stand and that will circulate, to allow these works to actually reside within the discussion around Canadian art and Black Canadian art. Without the critical engagement with the work, when the work doesn’t quite find its place in the archives, it seems to come and go. The rest of the art world doesn’t seem to understand that there’s a range of Black art production and curation in Canada, and tends to default [to] the one internationally known name. But it hit me as well that, in Canada, we don’t even know, as Black artists and cultural producers, who we all are. And so, there’s an erasure in this space called Canada that just continues to reproduce itself elsewhere, and this notion of producing a singularity around Blackness and who produces [it] continues to persist. Usually one person rises to the top and that person becomes the representative of who’s here.
LI: It’s a systemic idea that there’s only room for one person to rise to the top—and it’s so hard to shake that. But removing that sense of competition—because there is always room for more—is something that I think is so necessary.
AF: That’s part of our work as folks trying to find other ways to speak ourselves into being, to make ourselves not just visible. Visibility comes with its own challenges. So how do we actually write ourselves, act ourselves, create ourselves into being? Part of that involves a particular refusal of the kinds of practices that try to create singularities and exemplars. I feel as if we need to actually unmask these practices as they present themselves to us. We need to point out and refuse the notion that only one designated Black person is able to speak on behalf of us all. We need to refuse the idea that our works can only be read and spoken about from perspectives that flatten who we are. I think this is what was being done back in the ’80s and the ’90s that created a huge fissure. People were participating. People were speaking really loudly about what they needed to refuse and what needed to shift, and deep political engagement occurred in tandem with artistic production and dissemination. However, we have not been able to sustain our own spaces; institutions and the stewards of contemporary art in this country continue to construct the spaces that then we have to contort ourselves to fit into. By creating our own spaces, we can address the diversity in our Blackness, to open up the possibilities to be seen and appreciated, but also to challenge one another. Conflict is okay—I believe we can find something new through the quarrels that we have with each other. I’m not sure new things can emerge without that friction, and it feels like we’ve been sidestepping that friction for years. There’s very little space for genuine critique, for disagreement, without being thrown off the island. To me, that’s a very sad state of where
we’ve come to.
LI: You’re wanting to move forward— not necessarily towards conflict for conflict’s sake but towards real discourse, which [involves] the removal of a singular voice, or singular vision of how things should go.
AF: I’ve been on this for a while: constant celebration seems to be the only space that we can allow ourselves. But I feel like the other side of creation—which involves feedback and critique—has fallen away in a huge way. It’s perhaps too that a number of the venues that those critiques took place in are no longer around, like FUSE magazine, which had a particular inflection around art intersecting with politics. The venues have changed and that actually circumscribes the critique that takes place. I also think that we need to produce more writers, more critics, and we also need to imagine and come up with something that pushes—_really_ pushes—against the boundaries and borders of what we’ve come to know as art criticism. I don’t totally know what that looks like, but I know that it’s possible. And I know that it probably has much more potential for positioning Black cultural production.
LI: Have you read Jessica Lynne? She’s written about the role of the Black feminist in art criticism.1 For her, her role as an art critic is to care for the work, while identifying ways that the work can be supported by true critique.
AF: Exactly. It is about caring about the work, caring about interpreting it and its context, as a way to allow people to see the work’s possibilities, but also to allow people to understand the limitations of the work in the context of its presentation. What’s important for me is also making sure that as we write our opinions, we are really aware of the genealogies that have come before—the histories of the kinds of discussion about particular works and their [historical] contexts—so that we ourselves can push the conversations further. I feel that’s what’s missing sometimes: a deep care for the histories of the discourses that have brought the work to where it is now.
LI: So, we’re not reinventing the wheel every generation—which is so painful. That’s something that has come up a lot lately… It feels right now like things are changing, but that there’s this disconnect between generations before, which [indicates] that there are ways that writing and art are produced in what is considered a void, without references to what’s come before.
AF: I blame that on institutions, and the [nature of the] discourse around the work. Yes, there’s a current moment of proliferation of Black art all over the place—at the Royal Ontario Museum, the AGO— but it doesn’t seem to me that institutions are also making sure that when this work is done that there is actually structural change and policy change within those institutions, to allow for our work to actually have longevity and to reside in some critical context. If there’s no writing as there would be for other kinds of exhibitions, and if there’s no conversation from folks in the field who come from these communities, I think we’re always going to end up with a void in the historical record of what happened, and the impact of what happened then gets lost.
LI: That brings me to archives. You produced the documentary Hogan’s Alley with Cornelia Wyngaarden in 1994, which presented an interview with a Black queer woman living in Vancouver, her family history and the history of Black folks in the city. At a time when the importance of archives and addressing disregarded histories is prevalent, what’s the value of grassroots, personal storytelling that lives outside of the establishment?
AF: I think that the big “A” archive exists to overshadow the little “a” archive, which, for me, is the archive that I know and touch and feel, and most of us do through stories at your dining table, through photographs that you go through with your family. For me, as a Black person coming [from] transatlantic slave histories, I often see the little “a” archive stories get repressed, [which mirrors how] we have been socialized to repress our engagements with each other—the real us. For me, the little “a” archive, and recouping that archive, is about giving agency to the everyday. We live everyday lives that are quite robust, and quite involved in rejecting the hegemonic ways of the world. Those little “a” stories and storytelling bring that back to the fore. We live our lives as humans in a world that tries to tell us that we’re not human. And when you hear those stories, and for me when I speak to anyone in terms of Blackness, about the everydayness of life, our heroism and our ability to circumvent, to come up with ways that are outside of what’s expected of us—that becomes a motivation to continue. That’s why it’s important that we tell our own stories.
LI: Though you have been one of many public advocates for the acknowledgment of our varied stories to be told, you still remain one of the very few Black curators and professors working in contemporary art—both as a curator and as a professor—in Toronto and in Canada. But numerous articles recently have high-lighted this strain on marginalized professionals that become sole beacons of support to countless marginalized students or mentees, which I know is your experience because I happen to be one of those students that was vying for as much of your time as possible. What are your strategies of being able to support, and care for, an onslaught of people wanting your time? How do you manage that demand?
AF: That’s a huge question. In order for the work that I want to see out there, and that my communities want to see, we have to become credentialized. To make sure that we will continue to centre Blackness, I have to work very hard to make sure that folks who want to be credentialized become credentialized, because the space of academia, like the space of the art gallery, has its gate- keepers. They have particular notions of who belongs in these spaces, and what can be said in these spaces, and for me it’s important to open that up, to make sure that what Black folks need to say can become speakable within both of these sites. But what’s also been really important to me in the work I do, particularly since I came to OCAD, is to have a community of folks outside of the arts whom I am accountable to and who hold me accountable, so that I still grasp the material realities of life, so that I don’t go off into the rarefied space that both academia and the arts can take. A lot of my care—and really what matters is a particular type of deep care—and support comes from folks who are interested in supporting the arts, who understand the role of the arts in my life, and in their lives, but who don’t exist in the arts. Their perspectives give me balance, and hold me down to always make sure that I’m real in terms of my desire for things, meaning that I don’t end up being seduced by the notion of singularity either. They remind me that [this work is] not just for some of us—it’s for all of us—which means that I have to really work hard on trying to care from my heart and not trying to care from my head.
LI: Is your holistic and inquisitive approach something you developed through mentorship? And what’s the role of mentorship in your own practice now?
AF: I feel that I’m always a student; I’m always learning. I also feel that my experience of academia and learning within the context of an educational institution is very close to my present. I remember it. I remember it because I know how I felt responsible for my own education and knowledge acquisition. I sought out people to mentor me—one of my first mentors was Cornelia Wyngaarden; Rinaldo Walcott was my supervisor; and Monika Kin Gagnon brought me into artist-run culture as an administrator, and the list goes on and on and on. I wouldn’t be here without all of those folks, not to mention the folks in the Black community and in Vancouver who took me under their wing. So now in my own work, I try to replicate those practices of mentorship because, for me, mentorship is a way of sharing power. Mentorship is a way of allowing folks to become their best selves. I can actually provide a pathway for them, so they can flourish however they see fit. I’m not interested in people becoming like me; I’m more interested in facilitating people to get on their own path, through things like co-curating exhibitions with them, helping a recent graduate to get their first exhibition, being a reader for their writing before it goes out in public, working with people whose work I believe in. Because I don’t see education as having changed a hell of a lot from when I was there [as a student], I feel as if I have a very deep embodied memory of that experience, and I know these are the same things my students are grappling with. There’s a connection with that, and I will never ever lose that connection, because I think it’s important if we’re going to stay alive in these places. You need someone to be able to see you.