Black Art: In the Absence of Light is an eye opening, albeit lightweight look at how one revolutionary gallery exhibition was able to change the history of visual arts. Sam Pollard’s documentary explores various visual arts from a thoughtful, candid, and careful perspective, but Black Art: In the Absence of Light doesn’t have enough time and space to fully represent a broader range of history and influence. Skewing more contemporary than one might expect, Black Art: In the Absence of Light is an example of a good movie that could’ve been a great one, or possibly an idea better suited to a series.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light is built around Two Centuries of Black American Art, a travelling exhibition curated and created by artist and historial David Driskell (who sadly passed away from COVID-19 last spring, but appears here in a major capacity). It first debuted as part of the American 1976 bicentennial celebration in Los Angeles, where it was an immediate success. At the time, it was one of a minuscule number of exhibitions that showcased works by black artists; certainly the most notable outside of the ill received Harlem on My Mind exhibit at The Met in NYC from 1968, which showed how different an exhibition of POC art could come across when curated by white people at the time. Driskell’s exhibition would travel from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Dallas, and Brooklyn, continuing to make a major impact. Without Driskell’s exhibition, many of the artists selected for it would never be seen by as large of a public audience.
Pollard (Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children) spends a lot of Black Art: In the Absence of Light getting to know Driskell, who remained a passionate artist and advocate for black culture until the end. Driskell is such a charismatic, warm, and intelligent person that Pollard could’ve built an entire documentary solely around his contributions to the visual arts, both as a creator of collages and as an educator and curator. But just as Driskell intended to place a spotlight on black artists from a number of varied disciplines, Pollard’s film attempts to do the same.
Artists who were showcased in Driskell’s landmark exhibition – like Kerry James Marshall and activist Faith Ringgold – talk to Pollard about how revolutionary such a show was for the time, and how much it meant to them to participate in it. Black Art: In the Absence of Light revolves around an exhibition that has tremendous staying power today, with the book that spawned from it continuing to inspire contemporary artists who were either too young to attend or who hadn’t been born yet. The exhibition offered the unequivocal ownership and interpretation of black stories and art for the artists contained within it, something that can still be seen in the rise of black collectors and curators (like Kasseem Dean, a.k.a. record producer Swiss Beatz, who gives an exceptional interview here) who try to make sure that black culture remains visible for black audiences. Despite the fact that black representation in galleries and museums currently stands at just over 1% of what’s on display (with overall POC representation hovering around 15%), the likes of Driskell and Dean keep proving that there is an audience starved to seem themselves portrayed in the visual arts.
This is where Black Art: In the Absence of Light excels greatest; in showing that the demand and fight to be represented remains at an all time high. Where it falters, however, is in an overall lack of focus and a more contemporary slant. While Pollard does a great job of showcasing contemporary and modern artists from the late 1960s until the modern era, Black Art: In the Absence of Light largely ignores the first hundred years of the two centuries Driskell exhibited. It might be a choice to focus on such a time period because interview subjects are still available to speak to their experiences, but there’s a distinct sense that the artists who might have been the most obscure when the exhibition was created are destined to remain that way. The only subject in Pollard’s film that bridges that generational gap the best arrives in the final stages of Black Art: In the Absence of Light, when multidisciplinary artist Theaster Gates effortlessly ties things together all on his own.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light looks and moves in ways similar to a PBS documentary; something that’s ambitious in scope, but not necessarily style. Pollard’s interviews are outstanding, and the subjects are well selected, but the documentary as a whole has a scattered feeling to it; one that skews a lot more modern than viewers could be expecting from a look at an exhibition that covered two centuries. There’s also not a lot about the exhibition itself in comparison to the individual artist profiles, which is a small complaint when one remembers that it’s the artists that matter most in the first place. It’s a film that picks and chooses where it wants to take its discourse, and while the content is fine, the assembly feels hurried, right up to its strangely abrupt ending.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light might be dismissed by some as a dry exercise, but the stories contained within it are vital and worth preserving. It’s also a single volume documentary that would be better suited to a longform series. There’s so much more to explore and discuss within Black Art: In the Absence of Light that it left me wanting a lot more than the film could provide. I always love when a film makes me want to learn more about its subjects, and it’s probably a good sign that I didn’t want Pollard’s documentary to end as soon as it does. But it’s also the sort of work that demands a follow-up.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light premieres on Crave and HBO in Canada and HBO Max in the U.S. on Tuesday, February 9, 2021 at 9:00 pm EST/PST.
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Jury names winners in Art Exposed – Kamloops This Week
The jurors of Kamloops regional art exhibit Art Exposed have made their selections.
On Friday, three jurors made their picks for the Kamloops Art Council’s Art Exposed show in a variety of categories, including 2D, 3D split by emerging artists and established artists, and youth.
Jurors this year included Kamloops-based artists Bill Frymire, Robin Hodgson and Debra Gow.
In the 2D emerging artist category, Carmen Teixeria-Derksen of Canoe took first place with Hope.
In second place was Jillian Beach of Kamloops with Circus of the Cosmos-II.
In the 2D established artist category, Edit Pal took first place with Wintertide, while second place went to Parm Armstrong for Pieces.
In 3D art, the winner of the emerging artist category was Mike Kehler of Kamloops for Guardian Muninn, with Jackie Jones’ Rocky Horror Game of Thrones or How it Should Have Ended winning second.
In the established artist category for 3D art, the winner was bronze sculptor Nathan Scott with The Window. Taking second place was Ed Jensen with Medicine Bird. Both artists live in Kamloops.
The youth category had one winner — Addysen Outerbridge won with Sutherland Falls.
Each first and second place winner will receive a $750 cash prize at the least, according to the KAC website.
‘I paint for healing’: Indigenous art in the time of COVID-19 – TVO
This story was published in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights.
Michel Dumont, 53, remembers getting a new job when he was 29 and partying so hard in celebration that he missed his first day of work. Alcohol abuse was not new to him — he says it’s connected to intergenerational trauma. His mother had attended the Indian Residential Day School in Nipigon, where she received an education in colonial values. “For my mom, school taught her not to value herself or culture. School beat the Ojibway out of her,” he says. “And my mom tried the same with me and my sister. And I have trauma resulting from that — the trauma from Indian Day School carried on.”
Dumont, a queer, Métis, two-spirit man living in Thunder Bay, coped by drinking until he couldn’t feel or remember the pain. But missing his first day of work was a turning point. He promised himself that his thirties wouldn’t be like his twenties, and he began working toward sobriety. He got a job at a transportation company serving people with disabilities — a job that involved lifting the people he was transporting. He focused on work as a distraction from alcohol but pushed himself too far. “No one told me with pain you should stop,” he says. Now, he has a degenerative disc disease and near-constant back pain.
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He has been connected to art since early childhood — his mother was his first teacher, and elementary teachers quickly recognized his talents. In grade school, his work was selected for a travelling exhibit. He even won the Queen’s Jubilee, a competitive art award from the local legion. He turned to art to cope with both his physical and emotional pain. “I learned that I’m only so young — I only have so much time left,” he says. “My pain-free hours, I could be creating work.”
He had his mother’s Indian Day School classroom picture made into ceramic tiles. From there, he smashed it into broken pieces and remade it into a mosaic to honour the students. The piece now hangs on the walls of the Definitely Superior Art Gallery in Thunder Bay.
Today, Dumont is not letting the COVID-19 pandemic — or his back pain — prevent him from showing his art digitally in Paris, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal; he held his first solo show in Winnipeg last summer. And he’s not alone. Artists from across Turtle Island are finding innovative ways of staying connected, honing their skills, and managing to make a living creating art.
Wanda Nanibush, an Anishinaabe curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, says the pandemic has reinforced the importance of Indigenous art. “I think it’s interesting that everyone is at home and everyone is isolated, and they immediately turn to art,” she says. “And I think that’s because art is a place we can get out of ourselves and beyond ourselves. Art has always been seen as part of healing. I wouldn’t say it can heal a pandemic — that’s impossible. That’s an actual physical thing. But it can heal some of the trauma of living through one.”
Giizis Soon Ikwe is an Anishinaabe woman from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, but calls Animikii-wiikwedong, Thunder Bay, home. Her English name is Leanna Marshall. She works as an Indigenous counsellor and is currently enrolled in the Winnipeg Holistic Expressive Arts Therapy Institute. The diploma program is taught through an Indigenized lens and honours Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy.
According to Marshall, the Western model of counselling is an uneven playing field, with a “client” who has a problem and an “expert” who can fix it. In this Indigenous art-therapy model, Marshall says, when a student enrolls, “there’s already that assumption that they are carrying that wisdom within themselves to help with what it is they are looking for. That wisdom comes from them, but it also comes from that ancestral knowledge that we all carry as Indigenous people of this land.”
Marshall says that there is a heaviness to Indigenous stories but that she feels a shift among nations due to the acknowledgement of trauma. These days, she notes, she’ll often hear friends, family, or clients say, “Okay, that happened: Now how do we fix it for us, our children, and future generations?”
“You see this resurgence of language, you see a resurgence of traditional knowledge, and you see a resurgence of people out on the land and doing things that haven’t been done for years because of the residential schools,” she says. “Because all these policies have kept Indigenous people quiet and ashamed of who we are, but people are becoming really proud.”
Lucille Atlookan, a 31-year-old from Eabametoong First Nation, was always encouraged by relatives to doodle and draw. Their uncle gave them their first paint set. However, they also struggled with health issues and trauma stemming from a sexual assault. As a teenager, they moved to Thunder Bay to access mental-health care. Now, they’re working on managing their physical health. “I got really sick because of lupus and chronic kidney disease,” says Atlookan. “I was close to kidney failure so I changed my diet drastically and went back to beading and painting. I’m not a painter, but I paint for healing.”
Atlookan moved to Thunder Bay at 15 years old and now calls the city home. They became involved with the Definitely Superior Art Gallery and created the Neechee Studio — a space designed for young Indigenous people to learn traditional skills that was originally hosted in the gallery (it’s now operating virtually). Through Neechee, they realized they wanted to be a better role model to other young people new to the city. For Atlookan, that meant getting an education. “I took the Native Access Program [at Lakehead University] and found my passion. It was always art, but I found I wanted to be an arts educator,” they say. Today, Atlookan is working toward concurrent honours bachelor degrees in fine art and education.
Atlookan is also learning how to run the studio’s arts programming. “For a long time, [Neechee Studio] wasn’t exactly run by Indigenous youth. I didn’t know how to run it — I was really shy and modest about it,” they say. “But I started to grow. I was mentored by Indigenous artists in Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation, like Jean Marshall, Helen Pelletier, Rihkee Strapp, and Cree Stevens.” They also count non-Indigenous artist Lora Northway as a mentor.
Atlookan says their line of family portraits helped them see the strength and wisdom in their family. They want to use art to help youth see their inherent traditional knowledge.
Dumont is now focusing on a line of cellophane art called Queer CosPlay. Essentially, he takes coloured cellophane and creates a shape — a wig, an Elvis outfit, a COVID-19 virus — and adds multiple layers until he’s reached a desired colour and design. He enjoys the medium because it doesn’t bother his sensitivity to smell. He also still works with tiled mosaic, which he first used 20 years ago. “I found these sample boards on Simpson Street, behind a ceramic-bathroom-tile store, and these sample boards were just lying in the alley, with these beautiful colours,” he says. “I took them home on the bus; that’s what started me off at that first show.”
He’s now part of a mentorship program with the Arts AccessAbility Network of Manitoba.
He says art helps him manage his anxiety and helps him express his creative side. He learned to focus his energy on creating while he is pain-free, usually first thing in the morning. The act of creating, he says, relaxes and soothes his mind — it reminds him of his grandparents knitting in front of the television, which grounds him as he does the same, only with mosaics or cellophane: “I’m still doing that, working while I watch television.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Michel Dumont’s first name. TVO.org regrets the error.
This Magazine → The art of looking past labels – This Magazine
From an early age, Hanan Hazime remembers being immersed in the arts. As a young child, she loved painting, dressing up in costumes, and creating elaborate stories. Now, at the age of 30, Hazime is a multidisciplinary artist whose work ranges from politically charged paintings to nature poetry. As a Lebanese-Canadian, non-neurotypical, and invisibly disabled, Shia Muslim woman, Hazime has had many personal encounters with gendered Islamophobia, racism, and ableism in her life. Her artwork often grapples with these issues and allows others to share and better understand a small part of her lived experiences.
“I wanted to dispel stigmas about Muslim women, about Arab women, about disabled or mad folk, because those are all my identities … My art is trying to show that first of all we exist, and that we matter. And that we can take up space and I think that’s very important to have that representation,” Hazime says.
In university, Hazime focused on raising awareness about a variety of human rights issues through demonstrations, protests, and organized change. However, she found that artwork seemed to be more effective in evoking the viewer’s emotions and raising awareness about social issues.
“Art is the way that I do my activism … I found that people have connected to me more through art, because art affects your soul and your heart and that’s where the change needs to happen,” she says.
While Hazime’s political paintings are important for her self-expression and educating others, Hazime explains that some of her non-political artwork is often rejected by exhibits and collectors as she becomes tokenized for her identity.
She recalls a specific incident where she had written a story about a woman who suspects a mermaid is living in her bathtub. The story was a magical tale exploring women’s sexuality and was rejected by literary publications as it didn’t explore any “-isms” or modes of oppression.
“They are always searching in my story for those ‘-isms’ because they’re automatically assuming that whatever I create is always going to be about these political issues that I’m facing. I can never exist as a human. I always have to exist as this political symbol,” she says.
Building on her passion for writing, Hazime is aiming to have her first novel published this spring. Growing up, Hazime had a difficult time seeing herself represented in mainstream media. She would read two books a day and never saw similar characters reflected in these novels.
“The younger generation, when they look up and they see a Muslim woman creating art, they’re going to think ‘I can create art too. I can write a novel. I can write poetry. I matter. My voice matters,’” she says.
The plot of her novel-in-progress, Unmoored, centres around a Lebanese-Canadian teenager named Zaynab who struggles with mental illness while navigating high school culture. The book is very loosely based on Hazime’s own experiences growing up in a working-class family and not having access to therapy, which she hopes portrays the realities of mental illness for the less privileged.
“It’s basically a book that I would have loved when I was 16. I’m writing it for my past self,” she says.
While Hazime’s work often touches on serious issues dealing with her identity, she explains that she is able to move beyond society’s focus on “-isms” and see people for who they truly are.
“I’m looking beyond race, gender, ability, and class and all those social constructs…. The skin that I’m in is just a shell that I’m in temporarily in this world,” she says.
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