While Black: A Q&A with Charles Campbell, Michelle Jacques and Denise Ryner

While Black: a forum for speculation on what the gallery can’t hold is a co-presentation with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown. Each of the ten artists in this iteration of While Black: a forum for speculation on what the gallery can’t hold has been asked to produce a document of their relationship to the art gallery and its systems of representation as Black artists working in Canada, including consideration of the project query ‘what the gallery can’t hold?’ Through multimodal and multimedia responses, these ten artists have offered questions, imperatives, proposals and insight into their own experiences within contemporary art institutions.

While Black was organized by Charles Campbell, Michelle Jacques and Denise Ryner, and in consultation with Pamela Edmonds, Alyssa Fearon, Dominique Fontaine, Sally Frater, Bushra Junaid, Crystal Mowry, Allison Yearwood, featuring artists: Lucie Chan (Vancouver, BC), Karma Clarke-Davis (Toronto, ON/Berlin, Germany), Kemi Craig (Victoria, BC), Spatial Esk (Toronto, ON), Stanley Février (Montréal, QC), Iyunade Judah (Winnipeg, MB), Anna Jane McIntyre (Montreal, QC), Chukwudubem Ukaigwe (Winnipeg, MB), Jan Wade (Vancouver, BC), Valérie D. Walker (Vancouver, BC).

Below, a Q&A with the While Black organizers. 

In many ways the structure for this project doesn’t follow traditional curatorial models, can you share a bit more about what While Black: a forum for speculation on what the gallery can’t hold is?

Rather than any focus on presentation, this project was originally intended to convene Black arts workers in a series of open forums for conversation and reflection on the systemic challenges that we face working within galleries and other institutions. While such challenges are common for many Black arts workers, we wanted this project to represent the varied levels of difficulty faced by Black creative communities across the country, with regards to visibility, BIPOC peer networking and access to mentorship. We expanded the conversation by working within the collective of curators to identify a number of artists to create propositional works of art in response. Modelling While Black on collective and trans-regional curatorial input and collaborative leadership allowed for regional inclusivity and a dialogical format that could represent and maintain BIPOC creative community as a third-space despite pandemic-related precautions around travel and gathering.

The first in-person public program for this project, Dominique Fontaine: Curating While Black, took place on July 17, 2021 at the Or Gallery, can you share a bit about what happened in that program and how it might have moved forward the intention and work of this project?
Our first forum at Or Gallery was an opportunity to test the project methodology. It included presentations of the artist’s responses to the inquiry “What can’t the gallery hold?”, a public talk by independent curator Dominique Fontaine and a closed forum for Black artists and curators. The artists’ responses brought in wide and varying perspectives from across the country. Dominique spoke of her practice of working in spaces as varied as museums, artist run spaces, biennials and city-wide festivals, and how making space for Black artists was connected to challenging systemic racism in the arts. These provided fodder for facilitated conversations with approximately twenty Black artists and curators in the region. We were able to have intimate conversations about our motivations, challenges and responsibilities, and the possibilities that appear when we worked together. The most exciting thing to emerge over the course of the day was the sense of solidarity among those present, even though we were coming from a wide range of experiences. Two things that are difficult to find in our institutions are Black solidarity and multiplicity. For a moment at least, the project became a container that held and encouraged these.

What are you most excited for moving forward in this project? What’s next for While Black?
The ideas and contributions from the other curators involved in the project have been rich, inspiring and unexpected and we’re excited to see how these take shape. The project allows for the presentations and forums to adapt and respond to the local Black community at each location and gives plenty of scope to curators for reinvention. Ideas have included delving into unacknowledged Black histories, developing alternate gallery models and taking the pulse on emergent Black communities. These ideas are just beginning to be fleshed out and over the next while we’re scheduling future regional forums. We’ve also accumulated a lot of material from the first forum and this needs to be archived and made available online. It is exciting to be building relationships, knowledge and capacity within the Black artistic community at this early stage of the initiative; we are also looking forward to ultimately sharing what we learn and build across the broader cultural sector.
Feature Image: Spatial Esk, Afro Space, digital print (no year given).
All artwork credits: Install shots from the first iteration of While Black at Or Gallery, Vancouver. Photos by: Dennis Ha.