On February 23rd, to celebrate Black History Month, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG) held the event “The Art of Black Lives Matter.” It attracted some 60 or so guests, and the RMG invited talks by Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO), the Durham Black Artists Collective (DBAC) and performances by students of the Durham Black Educators Network. The speakers and performers presented art as a tool for activism, celebration and the normalization of black life in their own homes and beyond.
The gallery reached out to BLMTO and DBAC, in part because of Black History Month, but also because “there’s a bigger global movement around activism that is relevant to art. BLMTO has a prevalent art based element to their practice and we’re excited to hear more about it’s impact from people with first-hand experience. We believe art is a catalyst for social change and are curious about exploring how art can serve a broader purpose in lives”. When asked what the RMG hoped to achieve through this event, the RMG responded: “We hope to recognize the diverse ways that art makes meaning for people and to recognize the important contributions of black artists and acknowledge that they are an important part of the Durham Region and Toronto.” Altruistic, honest and admirable goals from the gallery resulted in equally altruistic, honest and admirable responses from the participants and audience.
Alex, of BLMTO, explained that they “always intrinsically include art in their work as it allows them to communicate across groups, to transcend time, the media and the flesh. Art also ensures a recording for history from their perspective and a proof of black existence.” They showed photos and talked about the use of art in their major actions this past year to date. Specifically they mentioned the cultural, political and educational impact of their use of art. For instance, during “Black City,” their 15 day protest in front the Toronto police station, in which they requested the release of the SIU reports for the death of Andrew Loku at police hands, a mini arts festival developed; members and supporters put up posters, banners and gave performances to show solidarity and help deliver messages of the black experience and remembrance of the black victims of police violence. These artistic political acts brought both black and black ally communities together in non-violent protest through cultural and communal expression. It brought back historical culture too, as people arrived with paintings used in protest from the “Yonge Street Riots” of the 1990’s, a 60 day protest at Toronto Police Headquarters for Albert Moses, Raymond Lawrence and other victims of police violence at that time. This historical element draws a prescient, artistic line in time educating the black and other communities of a history few people learn about or are aware of. During that same protest BLMTO used an art installation to successfully invite the Premier to respond to their requests. The tent with wine and cheese they set up at her house got her attention in a way that public requests and letters failed to do. Sadly BLMTO noted how even their non-violent artistic expression becomes criminalized by the media and powers that be, as the media quickly suggested it was a bomb. Luckily Premier Kathleen Wynn responded positively and publicly to the artistic invitation. BLMTO also set up a Freedom School this past summer as a means to educate youth about black art, history and culture as well as teach skills and give the opportunity for them to imagine their reality and their future. All of their activist work includes art, all of it includes a celebration of black culture and life and all of it provides an education to anyone willing to learn. The room buzzed at the end of their talk with validation, pride and hope.
DBAC artists gave a talk about their work, some of which is on display in the gallery. Their use of art in activism focused on supporting and promoting black artists, black culture and black youth. Georgia Fullerton highlighted the youth in the room and spoke directly to them with encouragement to follow their own creative process. She pointed out the effectiveness of art as therapy, an especially taboo subject in the black community (which BLMTO also endeavours to de-stigmatize). Robert Small, on the other hand, noted the challenge of normalizing the black experience even in a black home. He reminisced about trying to draw a black comic book character when he was young and struggling to achieve this as he had really mostly practiced and seen white drawings (like superman, wolverine and spiderman). He championed a revolution of the mind first by reflecting black art and culture at home to empower black youth and society. He encourages black artists to document black history, as they will naturally reflect what they see in themselves, and so the images will reflect their realities. Small’s other activist art tool was to subvert negative daily images with positive daily life.
Lastly the Durham Black Educators Network (DBEN) invited student performers to present their work live in a celebration of the black experience. A young poet recited a coming of age piece about realizing how he could act black through his parents guidance, instead of copying the dominant white culture floating through life. Two young dancers infused extra energy in the room with their “Twins” dance, choreographed by the award winning, high school duo.
The event achieved the goals set by the RMG and beyond by not only recognizing the contributions of black artists and activists and providing an opportunity for young artists and established to show their work but also by creating a space where protest, history, culture, and art by and for black people felt normalized. The continued work of BMLTO, DBAC, DBEN and the RMG will continue to normalize the black experience at least within the gallery, and certainly will encourage and fight for that normalization outside those walls as well.
By Christine Platt