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Toronto’s culture is nothing without Black artists. But the predominantly white art world is part...

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

By Kelsey AdamsSpecial to the Star

Sat., June 27, 2020timer5 min. read

I can’t imagine Toronto without the contributions of Black artists. It would be a city without a soul, without a beating heart, lifeless without the films of Charles Officer, the art of Michèle Pearson Clarke, the music of dvsn or the sculptures of Esmaa Mohamoud. But it isn’t easy for Black poets, musicians, filmmakers, artists and playwrights to stitch themselves permanently into the city’s cultural tapestry — systemic barriers work tirelessly to keep them marginalized.

Whiteness permeates every aspect of professional life in this city. A 2017 study found that even though visible minorities make up more than half of Toronto’s population, they only make up 3.3 per cent of corporate boards and 9.2 per cent of the private sector’s senior management. Essentially, if you want to succeed or simply wade your way through the bureaucratic waters, you anticipate having to contend with the white powers that be. It’s an inescapable and stifling endeavour.

And that is especially true for Black artists. Despite their numerous cultural contributions to the city, there is a glaring disparity between the amount of Black artists who receive solo exhibitions, media coverage and sustainable careers, compared to their white counterparts. There is a lack of institutional support to foster their careers. If the doors don’t open for you, how can you be expected to get in? That’s a question that Black artists and curators have been grappling with long before this moment where anti-Black racism and systemic racism are trending in mainstream news. Major art institutions in Canada are rooted in colonialism, so naturally they still continue to insidiously uplift white hegemony.

Canadian Art Magazine recently reported that across the four main Canadian galleries, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, 96 per cent of senior executives are white. These numbers specifically reflect the state of the art world, but are indicative of an endemic issue. When those determining policies and setting budgets don’t look like you, don’t reflect your lived experience and, by consequence of that difference, don’t work to platform your work, you get a sense that the institutions aren’t built with you in mind.

And yet, there are spaces where Black art gets the agency to thrive, where it flourishes despite underrepresentation, limited access, and minimal acknowledgment within mainstream cultural institutions. That’s largely thanks to Black-owned and Black-run arts organizations, non-profits, collectives and galleries, who play a crucial role — in this moment of civil unrest and always — in platforming and centring the work of Black artists.

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