Curating, Criticism and Care, or, “Showing Up” as Praxis
by Joana Joachim
The singularity of an event geared specifically towards Black Canadian curators cannot be overstated. The inaugural Black Curators Forum, held October 25–27, 2019, in Toronto, was one of far-too-rare instances congregating Black arts professionals from across Canada, and aimed to foster networking, support, collaboration and mentorship among us. The three-day event included a reception and dinner at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, a day of workshops at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a private viewing of Denyse Thomasos’s paintings at the Olga Korper Gallery, a BIPOC-focused tour of Art Toronto and a talk by scholar Denise Ferreira da Silva. The workshops— which focused on the challenges of institutional access and equity, tools for career progression and strategies to consolidate alliances moving forward—served as a think-tank for peer-to-peer sharing and intergenerational mentorship, and were preceded by a keynote by Courtney J. Martin, senior curator at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. The forum’s organizers were Julie Crooks, associate curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario; Pamela Edmonds, senior curator at the McMaster Museum of Art; Dominique Fontaine, curator and founding director of aPOSteRIORi; and Gaëtane Verna, director of The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Their opening remarks asserted the need for more support of Black Canadian cultural workers, which set the tone for the conversations that soon followed.
Martin’s keynote presented thought-provoking reflections on her career as a Black female art historian and curator, arguing that curatorial work requires empathy. I understood this to mean two things: first, it is crucial for a curator to understand how an artwork comes to be—this is the first step towards knowing how it ought to be presented in the world. Second, as with art history, curating is about nurturing relationships, both with the artist and with the viewer. I propose to consider how these ideas might be extended to the role of the critic. Jessica Lynne explains: “I write to place care around the practices of [B]lack women artists. Their work. Their archives. Their fullness. Criticism is a way of showing up. It is a way of placing intellectual frameworks around the gestures and processes of artists.”1 Critics, then, just like curators, might be understood as caretakers or custodians of artistic output. This sentiment became central to conversations throughout the forum and, I would argue, is symptomatic of a continually growing investment in this type of discursive care among Black art professionals in Canada.
The forum’s three workshops cultivated open and honest exchange between peers, mentors and colleagues at different levels in their careers on the issues involved in their work within and outside of cultural institutions in relation to Black life in Canada. The day was focused on access and inclusion, and how those barriers may impact the future of Black curating in this country. Echoing Martin’s assertion of the need to foster mentorship and learning among younger curators, we engaged in a lively discussion around the types of training available (internships, graduate degrees, the “school of life,” etc.) and reflected on the paths that lay before the more emerging practitioners both within and outside the room. The stubbornly small number of Black curators, critics and art historians in permanent positions within Canadian institutions is a constant hindrance to the entry of emerging professionals into those institutions, since they are the very mentors and role models Martin identified as key to ushering in the next generation. Further, the proclivity of institutions to work with Black art professionals on a temporary and event-based basis lends itself to a perpetually superficial and transient engagement with Black Canadian art. This lack of continued and long-term engagement encumbers Black curators, art historians and critics wanting to sink into the deeper layers of the work to move beyond “representation” and “diversity.” These terms have come to be regularly mobilized as institutional sleight of hand—that is, in a duplicitous manner whereby they are presented without sincere efforts to implement lasting structural change or provide adequate support for the BIPOC workers tasked with “changing the face of the institution.” The perceived dearth of Black art professionals in Canada stems from both the lack of opportunities and the conspicuous absence of dedicated Black Canadian studies programs. Unless one is lucky enough to live and work in the vicinity of the far-too-few established Black arts professionals in Canada, like the organizers and more senior participants of the forum, one is hard-pressed to find guidance and strategies to navigate this country’s art institutions and systems as a Black person.
This systemic dearth can be traced all the way back to academia. Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson was the first and remains the only tenured (or tenure-track) Black art history professor at a Canadian university after nearly 20 years. With so few Black art mentors in the academy, emerging Black arts professionals must lucubrate, largely on their own, to piece together the Black Canadian art landscape, which goes back at least as far as the 18th century, but about which there is still a dire need for diligent and nuanced writing. Without the presence and support of Black scholars in academic and cultural spaces to mentor the next generation, how can this work advance? Following Martin’s keynote, one of the more established forum attendees remarked that much of the writing on Black Canadian art that does exist tends to be celebratory, often lacking deep analysis and critical reflections on the work itself. This writing, while empowering, misses the opportunity to engage in layered conversations about how the work functions within a broader art historical context, putting Black Canadian art at risk of being left untethered, and further subjected to a long-standing erasure from the country’s collective consciousness.
The notion of care, or of “showing up,” as articulated by Lynne, can be mobilized as praxis here. As caretakers of art, our work involves not only carving out spaces for Black artists to be visible, but also to challenge, push and pull at the artwork to see what more it may reveal. Critique and, indeed, conflict are generative sites for the creative épanouissement of Black Canadian artists, historians and curators, as is critical art writing that contextualizes Black art within Canadian and Black diasporic history. Art criticism needs to be thought of as a key component of developing a written history and articulating an aesthetic of Black curating and art in relation to dominant culture on this land. What might we learn, for example, from a comparative study placing the Harlem Renaissance in conversation with Black Canadian art during the 1920s? Or, how might we grow to understand some of the aesthetics of Black Canadian art by placing them in relation to those of Caribbean or Black British art? There is a growing hunger for lasting engagement with Black Canadian art, which, as noted by Andrea Fatona in an interview with Liz Ikiriko, “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.”2 Critical art writing is thus a means to ensure that the work being done by Black artists and arts professionals is not only documented and preserved for posterity, but also that it speaks to shared and disparate histories within Black Canadian communities over time.
The forum predictably and understandably aimed to cover expansive topics in a very short amount of time. To advance incrementally towards resolving the pressing issues that it brought to light, the combined efforts of systematic institutional change, Black curatorial work and critical writing are crucial. Echoing the theme of curatorial empathy, the issues of burnout, self- care and compassion were broached by a participant inviting us to consider how our roles as art caretakers might go beyond the objects of our study to encompass care for each other as Black individuals engaging in work that can be intellectually and emotionally draining. What might it mean to resist the burden of representation and the pressure to “do it all at once”? I see critical art writing as a means for slow, honest and nuanced conversations to take place, and as the method through which discourses around Black art in Canada can be diligently complicated, by addressing specific formal, aesthetic and thematic issues successively. It’s a site for increasingly analytical reflections around what curating and art history mean for Black Canadian contexts and how they inscribe themselves within broader Black diasporic art histories. Such sustained and critical engagement with Black art in Canada would prevent the need for singular events (like the Black Curators Forum), exhibitions or texts to encompass an unduly large swath of concerns. Cumulative and collective efforts might indeed make it possible to deepen our understanding of the kaleidoscopic Blackness that exists in Canada with greater care and at a tenable pace.