Blackness in art symposium seeks 'positive visibility,' expanding a 1967 conversation

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Writer and art critic Jessica Lynne is a participant in the Bodies Borders Fields symposium. Image: Willa Koerner. Used with permission.

Image of symposium participant Jessica Lynne by Willa Koerner.

August 16, 1967. A notable date for certain art scholars. That's when a "simultaneous conversation" took place between seven individuals in Toronto and New York, dedicated to "Black" as a concept, a medium, as well as a sociopolitical form of expression. More than 40 years later, the conversation -- published in that year's October issue of artscanada -- is the jumping-off point for the Bodies Borders Fields public symposium in Toronto from November 22 to 24 at the Toronto Media Arts Centre. The symposium's focus is to delve into contemporary contexts and representations of Black and Blackness in all aspects of art with respect to Black social life and expression. There are roundtables, panels and a few workshops. All free. Registration is advised.

The 1967 conversation involved one African-American musician, Cecil Taylor, and six white participants that included Toronto architect and critic Harvey Cowan, Canadian artist Michael Snow and American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt.

"I think it's important to note that the one Black participant, Cecil Taylor, was an American jazz musician," emphasizes Denise Ryner, curator of Or Gallery in Vancouver. Ryner and Yaniya Lee, editor of Canadian Art magazine, collaborated to create the symposium. "This shows how ignorant artscanada [and] the mainstream Canadian art scene was of engagement in contemporary art by Black Canadians and Black artists in general."

Ryner is originally from North York (now part of Toronto) and studied design at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD):

"I liked creative work but I wasn't convinced I could develop an art career. How could I be an artist? I didn't have that kind of exposure to Canadian contemporary art and I wasn't exposed to Canadian artists of colour, either."

She graduated OCAD in 2002 and was then involved in small art, curatorial and music projects as well as working at art foundations and galleries in Canada and Ghana. She worked in design for a living. Then, in 2008, Ryner went on to study art history at the University of Toronto. She hasn't looked back. She's now director/curator at Vancouver's Or Gallery and completed an MA at the University of British Columbia in 2014. Ryner also spent two years in Berlin working as a research and curatorial fellow in the visual art department of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).

rabble.ca's June Chua spoke with Ryner about the vision for the symposium.

Why are you utilizing this particular conversation as the springboard for Bodies Borders Fields?

I discovered that this conversation has been in circulation for quite a bit over the years. Krys Verrall at York University wrote about it in her PhD and Rizvana Bradley at Yale uses it in her lectures. What is striking is the absolute absence of Black experience -- and Canadian Black experience actually -- in that conversation. So, it makes sense that we can try, in 2019, to continue it, to add to it, to make it alive. In Canada, we have these cycles where mainstream cultural gatekeepers pay attention to Black expression and cultural producers but then it dies down. Now, there's so much conversation about Blackness. It's popular but it's also flattening in that it's focused on checking the "diversity box." There are collectors, galleries and funds that are all focused on Black creators but we need to talk about the deeper structural problems and question whether this is true engagement, and if Black artists have equal weight given to their voices in the mainstream of Canadian art and beyond.

What about your experiences as a Black Canadian seeking to work in the art world -- what's been the prevailing challenge?

I recall applying for this Canada Council grant. It was called the "culturally diverse curator grant." The grant itself doesn't exist anymore. I was having conversations with the Canada Council officer about what that grant is intended for and was told that it's to bring POC perspectives to galleries. I mean it's helped a lot of curators of colour get in the door and to get their exhibitions mounted, but the grant implies that these curators of colour are somehow always in training and other to "regular" gallery staff, as well as expected to be "breaking barriers" as the focus of their practice. It also implies that galleries are static and that what belongs in a gallery is majority white and European-based with tokenized others. These type of grants continually posit POC artist and curators as oppositional forces and that's not right.

Your symposium's definition is about re-imagining the 1967 conversation but with "attention to Blackness and fugitivity." Explain that.

This isn't necessarily an escape. It's making a space for oneself that can't be defined or limited to set categories. It's imperceivable as a strategy of survival. The idea is to not be forced into a box based on who you are. So, this is about destabilizing a larger system and not being put into [some corner or to be trapped]. Existing in the world in a way that's not too visible and set.

Besides getting scholars, artists and students together, what do you hope the symposium will do?

It's not a big academic get-together and it's open to everyone. Anyone who has studied, has a deep interest in these issues is welcome. We're not answering a question or making conclusions. The idea is that it's all fluid and conversational, there's room for expansion and for people to meet and speak with each other in between the talks and workshops. A lot can happen in the hallways, in the pauses. We'll post documentation of the roundtables and we hope to maintain the website as a resource and archive for future conversations and other topics related to Black studies and ensure that there isn't another cycle of disappearance and erasure.

The Bodies Borders Fields events and archive are a version of positive visibility for art students and emerging practitioners of colour to build on, as opposed to the negative use of visibility as a tokenistic gesture of diversity for diversity's sake. I imagine my 20-year-old self being able to speak to the contributors we have and wouldn't that have been great? As I get older, I understand how important mentoring is. I'm quite aware of how we should be mentoring a new generation so they don't have to re-do the things I've done or those who have done so much work in this field before, like Andrea Fatona and Lillian Allen. They can go further, be confident enough to set higher goals. Having said that, I still feel I'm being mentored myself and learning!

To learn more and register, visit the symposium site.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image: Willa Koerner. Used with permission.

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