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Toronto art collector showcases Black community, identity and power

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Kenneth Montague is the founder of Wedge Curatorial Projects, a non-profit organization with a focus on Black identity in contemporary art. Aperture, an art book publisher, has recently published a volume dedicated to the photography in his collection, titled ‘As We Rise’.Ebti Nabag/The Globe and Mail

Toronto dentist and art collector Kenneth Montague grew up in Windsor, Ont., and his parents would sometimes take the family across the border to attend baseball games or visit the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was there he first saw a riveting image shot in 1932 by New York photographer James Van Der Zee showing a Black couple in raccoon coats posing beside their Cadillac roadster outside a row of brownstones. This statement about the wealth and pride of the Harlem Renaissance immediately grabbed the attention of a boy who was the only Black kid in his class: In Windsor, he and his parents, who had arrived in Canada before the wave of Caribbean immigration in the 1960s and 1970s, were a little Jamaican island in a white sea. This swank couple introduced him to a wider world, one where every month was Black History Month.

“I’m going across the river [to] Detroit and its rich Black American culture in the seventies,” Montague said in an interview.

“I’m seeing the movie Shaft, with my older brother. … And all these movements are happening that seemed extremely exciting and important to me, Black power movements … going with my mom to get her hair done at the House of Beauty in Detroit. Motown music playing … seeing a young Diana Ross come out of Motown records, I remember that as a little kid, with her little white gloves on. Wow, there’s another way to live here. It was opening my eyes up to the multitude of experiences of Black people.”

Years later, he sought out Van Der Zee’s widow and bought a print of the photograph. That was how he began collecting art.

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He has concentrated exclusively on Black artists, establishing the Wedge Gallery in Toronto in 1997 and then the non-profit Wedge Curatorial Projects, to show and support their work. Today, that Van Der Zee photograph is one of dozens included in As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic, an art book issued by Aperture, a non-profit U.S. photography publisher. The subtitle is a geographic reference to West Africa and the countries of the diaspora: the Caribbean, Canada and the United States. The main title is a phrase Montague’s father, Spurgeon, would use to describe the responsibility to lift your community with you.

Montague, whose mother, Ellen, was a hospital dietician and whose father was a teacher, had an artistic streak and played in a reggae band. “I was a good son who enjoyed getting a guitar for my birthday because I did so well on my math test. … I was going to be a doctor, dentist or lawyer, choose one,” he said.

Kenneth Montague said he cites an iconic image by British photographer Vanley Burke of a Birmingham boy in 1970 flying the Union Jack on his bike, as the inspiration for his work. Vanley Burke/Aperture

The same week that he got into the University of Toronto dental school, the band was offered a record contract. Montague has no regrets about going for the safer route. “It ended up being a great choice,” he said, describing how dentistry paid for his art habit and let him scout purchases during dental conventions. “I might have become a dissatisfied 50-year-old musician.”

As Montague began collecting, he started the Wedge Gallery, so named for the shape of his Richmond Street loft in the Queen West neighbourhood. For five years, it hosted salons and exhibitions devoted to a growing collection of work by Black photographers. Montague built the venture as a testament to Black identity and also liked the idea the gallery was wedging itself into the mainstream. He continues to connect to the work in that way, citing an iconic image by British photographer Vanley Burke of a Birmingham boy in 1970 flying the Union Jack on his bike, proclaiming his Britishness during the period that saw the rise of the anti-immigration National Front in the United Kingdom.

“It was a very provocative, courageous thing. … This young kid is saying, ‘Hey, I’m proudly British. I was born here and this is who I am.’” Montague relates directly: “I was a 10-year-old kid that had a bike and I remember having a Canadian flag on it. … I know it seems facile [but] it’s like the boy inside the man. … It happens now just as much: I’ll see new works by contemporary artists that I feel reflect my life, my family’s life and my community. It all springs from a very subjective and personal story. So, there is a cohesiveness to the collection: It’s not just random pictures of Black people.” (As We Rise divides its photographs into three categories: community, identity and power.)

Overwhelmed by numbers of visitors he couldn’t accommodate in the loft, Montague eventually shut the Wedge Gallery and kept the collection going as a non-profit foundation without a dedicated physical space. He has expanded his interests well beyond photography, collecting works by such African-American artists as designer Stephen Burks, painter Henry Taylor and multimedia artist Deanna Bowen, as well as the work of British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Montague also collects Canadian artists including Stan Douglas, Michèle Pearson Clarke, Kapwani Kiwanga and Sandra Brewster.

While a lot of art by African Americans is being snapped up these days, much of it is by white collectors in the United States.

“Aperture understands the specialness of the collection – a Black collector collecting Black artists in Canada,” Montague said. The publisher is also planning an exhibition of the photographs at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto and Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery later this year.

After serving for several years on the African acquisition committee at London’s Tate Modern gallery, Montague shifted that focus to Toronto. Since 2015, he has been advising the Art Gallery of Ontario on its acquisitions in the field, and was instrumental in its recent appointment of a curator for the art of global Africa and the diaspora.

“I want young kids to go to the Art Gallery of Ontario and have that experience I had of seeing this art and saying, ‘That is me – or that is who I want to be.’”

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