Wayne Salmon’s Portraits of Black Belonging in Kensington Market

Wayne Salmon, "Break," 2000. Courtesy the artist and Bob Carnie Gallery.

In Kensington Market: Meditations on Home, photographer Wayne Salmon continues his decades-long rumination on the beauty of Black life within the wake of slavery. Through delicate, care-filled prints, he archives spaces that shape our memory and identity and presents histories of resistance against erasure. The work, which was presented at Bob Carnie Gallery as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, employs subtle blue hues and a technical prowess suited to its focus. Echoing through this photographic body is the continuity of market life, where Black representation may not have been captured in early photography but was in no way absent.

Salmon’s subject are the people he has encountered in and around the market, and through his unadorned approach, the photographs stand out against discernible trends of blur, obscurity, and other forms of opacity in Black art. These quiet images take their cue from an artistic argument of Roy DeCarava’s many years ago: that lovingly presenting Black people as they are, and where they happen to be, is more than enough.

Before DeCarava, Black people were mostly subjects in documentary photography, which portrayed Black life as a social problem for foreign consumption, an approach the Harlem-based photographer avoided at all costs. DeCarava wasn’t interested in depicting the people in his community as anything other than who they were and how they lived: poised, dignified, and possessed of an abundance of perseverance. As cultural critic and theorist Fred Moten points out, DeCarava “photographed [Black] people continually getting over the fact that they can’t get over, revealing their terribly beautiful inability to get over the fact that they do, which is given in looking back in mournful wonder, ahead in worn anticipation.” Within this contradiction of knowingly struggling for what may not be possible in our modern world, Black art somehow transcends all the social constraints that surround it.

Kensington Market, located in the heart of Toronto, is known for being a welcoming and vibrant space; people are invited to come as they are. Not so long ago, waves of Black immigrants from the Caribbean sought familiar foods, camaraderie, and bargains among its eclectic shops, thoroughfares, and cafes. First introduced to the market by his mother after arriving from Jamaica as a young boy, Salmon has spent most of his creative life photographing people who move through this memory space, as he calls it: a location reminiscent of the energy, pulse, and rhythms of marketplaces of the Caribbean.

Historically, markets center related ideas of trade, dialogue, and community. Salmon finds these concepts particularly important when thinking about and portraying Black people, who were once themselves considered commodities, and who continually grapple with the manifestations of racial capitalism. Pulling on the enduring ideas of marginality, and living as what Black feminists have referred to as “outsiders within,” Salmon’s photographs reveal ways in which people find power and purpose in their lives, despite forces that constantly threaten to extinguish such pursuits. They show what it means to work within one’s means: using photographic equipment known for its unpredictability and often compromised images, for instance. “Black life is often lived on the margins and under certain constraints,” writes Salmon in his artist statement. “The Holga plastic lens camera, with all its limitations, seemed ideal for dealing with ideas around legitimacy, making do, getting over, and belonging.”

Wayne Salmon, “Mother with Children,” 2001. Courtesy the artist and Bob Carnie Gallery.

The ten framed photographs in Kensington Market, presented in a small gallery space, function on several levels. There is their unmistakable focus on Black sociality and intimacy; the way both are expressed through various modes of collective experience. In Mother and Children, 2000, we see a woman carrying heavy parcels in the market, her face bent toward the ground. Her small children peer interestedly into store windows as they trail behind her. The image recalls a sense of cultural care and responsibility amid struggles to provide and persist in the face of scarcity. We are reminded that we somehow find a way to manage the day’s challenges, often moving through lives of uncertainty. In Three Friends, 2018, we see Black women looking out to the camera with easy smiles. They sit arm-to-arm on a narrow bench, wholly comfortable with themselves, with their bodies, with their friendships in the market. They are foregrounded against a setting where perhaps the complexity of their lives is not understood, but their presence is unmistakable. Through these photographs of Kensington, Salmon shows Black women as central subjects. Not only are women purveyors of Black tradition, but they form the bonds that hold communities together.

Wayne Salmon, “Iona Running Through,” 2011. Courtesy the artist and Bob Carnie Gallery.

In their powerful simplicity, Salmon’s images invite the viewer to listen to what visual art theorist Tina Campt calls their “quiet but resonant frequencies.” Present in the corners of photographs such as Break, 2001––where a young man at work looks contemplatively into the distance from one of the market’s alleyways—is the example and guidance of DeCarava’s black and white photography, made visible here through rich greyscale and shadows.

Cyanotype forms the foundation of Salmon’s images, on top of which he adds several layers of gum and color pigments. An early printing process made popular through its 19th-century use in the reproduction of technical drawings, cyanotypes begin to fade when exposed to light for prolonged periods of time. However, when returned to the dark and reconnected with the labor of the darkroom, the image regenerates and its intensity returns. This idea of “return,” enacted through ritual practices of moving back to sites of sustenance and care like Kensington, is tied to a form of remembering that brings us deeper into our cultural memory. Salmon’s images suggest that, through such efforts, we reconnect with ourselves and with our communities, and we emerge with a renewed sense of both. In using blue tones, Salmon asks us to think with and through tradition as we enter the photographs, and as we contemplate one of their central claims: Black people, though largely undocumented, were not absent.

Wayne Salmon, “Kensington Market: Meditations on Home” (installation view). Courtesy the artist and Bob Carnie Gallery.

The photographs’ faded textures conjure strong feelings of nostalgia. We see this in Ione Running Through, 2011, where a small child happily moves across a busy market scene that has the hazy look of suspended memory. Through over-exposure and push-processing, such prints reveal information within the shadows. One beautiful outcome of this is the accentuation of the film’s grain. In Two Dread, 2005, where young men look out to the camera, giving the viewer a sense of the contemplative and oftentimes reflective function of the market, the image seems to be made up of tiny fragments coming together or moving apart, reminding us of the nature of memory, which is never stable and always insisting on undoing itself. Such memories remain whole only through our determination to recall the presence of people who have touched our lives.

Salmon’s Kensington gives us a place where both setting and purpose draw participants into an ecology of experience. Here, the careful and delicate work of attending to an archive of memory and relation is elevated above all other concerns. These images help us to reconnect with the people and spaces that form who we are individually and collectively. They also pointedly embrace traditions and aesthetics that remain salient and steadfast at a time when artists are constantly in search of novel paths. Whether squeezing onto concrete steps, crowding a bench with friends, or moving through one of the market’s narrow lanes, the photographs show a people’s closeness rooted in kinship, perseverance, and cultural intimacy. In his remarkable dedication to rendering portraits of Black life, Salmon reminds us that we often find our people in the market, and in turn, find ourselves.

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