Black Curators Forum Toronto

A Black Curator is Never Just a Curator

The first Black Curators Forum took place in Toronto, Canada, towards the end of 2019. Initiated by Dominique Fontaine, Gaëtane Verna, Julie Crooks, and Pamela Edmonds, the event gathered around 20 Black curators, writers, academics and art workers from across North America to discuss how Black curators work with an ethos of extra care. Writer Kelsey Adams looks into the challenges and aspirations discussed in the forum.

We broke bread in the centre of The Power Plant, flanked by American artist Rashid Johnson’s series Anxious Audience. Although it was a sociable communion of old friends and new faces, Verna’s opening remarks lingered throughout the dinner: “Each time I acknowledge the land that our gallery stands on, I think about erasure—of people and of stories. I think about those who have the privilege of writing history and about the people they choose, sometimes violently, to ignore. I think about the many trailblazers who paved the way for us to be here tonight whose stories are largely untold.”

Her words foreshadowed a weekend of re-mapping history, building intergenerational networks and systems of survival. The forum’s imperative was to write the contributions of Black curators back into the narrative of the Canadian art canon. Some of the trailblazers included Andrea Fatona, Betty Julian, James Oscar, Geneviève Wallen, Mark Campbell, Cheryl Blackman, Eunice Bélidor and Liz Ikiriko.

Since the dissolution of Canadian Black Artists in Action in the 1990s, there’s been no national organization to connect Black artists and curators. There are many impeding forces that make it so a Black curator is never just a curator: straight-up anti-Black racism to the burden of emotional labour, being pigeonholed, being expected to represent an entire community, getting called on for one month of the year (you know which one), needing a higher level of post-graduate education to even be considered, having to tiptoe around white supremacist authority.

But the forum didn’t dwell on these issues—it held space for grievances but it was really about finding solutions.

“We were all very aware that we had limited time, that this was quite rare as an occasion. And so we made sure the conversation revolved around next steps,” says Josephine Denis, a curator and advocate based in Montreal.

On Saturday, October 26, over the course of seven hours spent in the lower concourse of the AGO, those steps started to take shape. American curator Courtney J. Martin, director of the Yale Center for British Art, gave an insightful talk to open the day. During the roundtable discussion, a few points resurfaced often: the creation of a national vision or directive for Black art in Canada, and the need for more scholarship about historical and contemporary Black Canadian art to connect to a wider art history. The conversation also touched on developing a countrywide network of curators to influence social, political and institutional practices related to Black art.

Black curators bear and immense responsibility—to the work that was done before them, to the Black and non-Black artists they work with and to leaving the industry better than they found it for the next generation—in a way that is not expected or required of their white colleagues. Black curators and arts workers often take on this additional work without a second thought; it seems embedded in the very essence of their practices.

As a Black writer, I feel a responsibility to tell stories with care, to oppose misrepresentation and to write Black artists’ work into the Canadian art canon. I approach writing and criticism about Black art with trepidation for the same reason, for fear of risking further marginalization. Perhaps I’m being too precious. Not all criticism of Black art needs to be celebratory or fawning—that hinders constructive discourse—but it definitely needs to be rooted in an ethos of care.

I’ve started considering how the work of different Black curators and thinkers informs and builds upon itself. Work done by Black Wimmin Artists in 2019 was directly influenced by the work done by Diasporic African Women’s Art in 1989. In 2014, Andrea Fatona spearheaded the conference “The State of Blackness” at OCAD University, which led to the creation of a database of artworks, essays, oral history recounts and research produced by and about Black Canadian artists, critics and curators. The first book of Black Canadian art history, Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance, was published in 2018, edited by Charmain Nelson. Much of this history is oral, so having texts that can document it is integral.

At the Black Curators Forum, many participants vowed to work collaboratively to start more scholarship in this vein. During discussions, Pamela Edmonds likened being a Black curator to working as an archivist.