In 1989, amid fevered debates about multiculturalism and national identity, a group of Black women artists came together to organize an exhibition featuring artistic practices that the Canadian art establishment had largely ignored. The historic exhibition by the Diasporic African Women’s Art (DAWA) collective, Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter, was presented at A Space Gallery in Toronto, and declared the group as both active contributors to and critics of the contemporary arts landscape. The exhibition, which addressed the marginalization and erasure of Black women artists in Canada, was the first to be initiated by and exclusively feature Black women. The groundbreaking show also signaled that any notion of a so-called diverse nation would involve dealing, albeit trepidatiously, with their inconvenient presence. That the women who participated in the exhibition found the courage and wherewithal to take matters related to their visibility into their own hands is testament to their collective strength, care, resilience, resistance, and generosity, which have reverberated throughout Black Canadian artistic production ever since.
Move forward thirty-four years to the group exhibition Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice, curated by Andrea Fatona and presented once again at A Space Gallery. The resonant show commemorated the artists who participated in Black Wimmin, two of whom recently passed away. The show, according to the introductory text by Fatona, “attests to and affirms the artists’ sustained practice of producing art that articulates the heterogeneity of perspectives and forms that constitute Black Canadian women’s art today.” It brought together mostly new works by ten DAWA artists, including paintings, photography, text, installation, video, augmented reality, and sculpture. These works elucidate the diverse ways that Black women artists have continued to practice sense-making within environments that constrain and elide them. Accordingly, themes of intergenerational dialogue, knowledge sharing, spirituality, perception, healing, care, and remembrance pervade the works, effectively showing how these artists live and practice within a continuity that we might call “persistence as ongoingness.” Through their artistic labor, these artists enact a model of Black feminist resistance that has impacted the arts ecosystem in ways both urgently necessary and still unfolding.
The works on display invited us to see how the artists—through diasporic and spiritual-based practices—weave ideas of the past, present, and future into a tapestry of experiences. Untitled (2000), by the late artist Khadeja McCall, whose fibers and textiles integrate photographic etching and African spiritual motifs, is a colorful, layered silkscreen on canvas that hung from a gallery wall and draped onto the floor. The collage of overlapping images shows advertisements for spiritual work alongside references to African codes, ontologies, and abstracted images of a woman. Together, they all point to the maintenance of spiritual practices that bind the secular and spiritual worlds.
In multidisciplinary artist Grace Channer’s augmented-reality, deep-map installation Temple (2022), we saw how martial arts practiced among Black women, historically and today, creates important physical and spiritual spaces for collective well-being. The installation demonstrated how technologies have impeded our ability to see and perceive Black women’s presences across time and geographies. When visitors peered into digital screens and periscopic structures mounted onto a gallery wall, they saw images of Black women practicing martial arts as a form of resistance. These are women warriors engaged in various forms of struggle against oppression and colonization, emphasizing connections between past and present-day struggles.
Such struggles extend into the natural world, as shown by Winsom Winsom’s painting Resilience (2022), a portrait of two elephants on a large, red, flag-shaped canvas. Near the top of the painting, the artist, whose artistic practice grapples with interpretations of existence through Afrocentric systems, used wire to affix to a wood box an elephant tusk and a ring that belonged to an enslaved ancestor. These objects suggest themes of survival, decolonization, and, most centrally, elemental connections between human and nonhuman species, all of whom are perpetually threatened. Similarly, multiple species come together in Marie Booker’s multimedia installation Good Medicine (2022). Booker draped a large, red, square-shaped ceremonial garment over a rod and adorned it with black-and-white bird feathers and shells, while medicines taken from fields were presented on an adjacent plinth. In this way, Booker, who used raffia and plants taken from her surroundings to make the dyes for the garments, grounds this powerful work in her environment.
Mosa McNeilly’s installation Bones / Meditations on the Middle Passage Memory (2022), defends the memory of those who perished during the crossing of the Atlantic. This defense is enacted through remembrance and a desire to bring the things of the past into relationship with our present. McNeilly incorporates the Adinkra Sankofa symbol, a mythical bird whose head looks back while it flies forward. The work consists of sculptural elements—found objects, slate presenting traces of text, bone, wood, and salt—laid out on the floor, beautifully illuminated by video projections of sea images, which evoke the crossing of Atlantic waters and the enduring legacies of slavery.
Beyond the main gallery, the often insidious quality of playthings was taken up in Buseje Bailey’s alluring, short video Fear Factor (2022). In the work, the artist recounts a road trip to an Indigenous reservation that concludes with an unexpected encounter with a doll that invokes racist tropes concerning Black men and their sexuality. Bailey, whose work often deals with how to resist and repurpose mass media, demonstrates how anti-Black racism attempts to surround and impede Black life, and how everyday encounters are loaded with history and trauma. In Chloe Onari’s Untitled 1–4 (all n.d.), we saw a series of dolls handwoven from naturally dyed fabrics, which feature cowrie shells and jewelry, their aesthetic beauty rooted in attentiveness and care. Onari’s work recalls the role Black women artists play in ensuring that future generations have artifacts that reflect their identities and experiences.
Continuing with the idea of everyday practice as ritual, Barbara Prézeau Stephenson’s video and photography installation Braids (2020–22) shows how the braiding of hair allows for personal and social connection among Black women. Braiding, which has African roots, provides space and time to both beautify and relate with one another. But Stephenson’s work also signals concern for the commercial aspects of braiding, particularly how Black hair itself has been commodified, resulting in an industry where Black women seldom own businesses or benefit from profits—a reminder of how Black artists and makers are exploited. Hair braiding and storytelling are also central to artist DZI..AN’s figurative sculptural installation Transition (2022), in which an older woman is shown braiding a younger Black woman’s hair. The sculpture was situated within screens that formed a tent-like structure. Hanging wire sculptures formed shadows that referenced chapters in a story, available in an accompanying handout, in which we learn of an old woman who travels with a young woman, sharing her wisdom and learning along the way.
The role of intergenerational connection, along with that of dreams and their ability to help us connect with histories and memories that affirm our identities, were taken up in Claire Carew’s autobiographical painting and poem Did you miss us?: Visitations emerging in 2022 (2022). The work portrays the artist as a young schoolgirl walking through an otherworldly landscape where African objects, iconography, symbols, and faces evoke conversations with the ancestors.
Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice celebrated artistic practices that have been sustained by Black women in the face of continued anti-Black racism in Canada. Through explorations of time, space, intergenerational dialogue, and spiritual belief, the exhibition showed the diverse ways that Black women artists have shaped their own paths while altering the art landscape. The key takeaway of the show is that, despite three decades of work, concerns for resistance, storytelling, sharing, and collective care have not abated. These concerns, expressed through intensely personal art, remain constant, out of necessity and out of love.