Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice at Libby Leshgold Gallery, Vancouver
By Ogheneofegor Obuwoma
Historically, Black femmes and the art-making practices that reflect their lived experience have been excluded from the cultural lexicon of the arts. Not only is there a need to see their legacy in the arts, but we also should understand how they think about their practice as intertwined with the larger history and realities of being Black, and more specifically, being Black and a woman, in Canada. Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice, at the Libby Leshgold Gallery in partnership with Artspeak and The Black Arts Centre, addresses these questions of visibility. The works on display incorporate care, decolonial practices, and spirituality as ways of honoring Black Afro-diasporic existence.
The exhibition is a tribute to the landmark 1989 exhibition by the DAWA collective at Toronto’s A Space gallery titled Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter. Co-curators Andrea Fatona and Nya Lewis build on the earlier exhibition’s legacy of taking up space and intentionally revising the narrative of what is and can be Canadian art; in the process, they reject a hegemonic, all-encompassing definition of the “Canadian experience”. What we experience in the gallery is, born out of resistance, a call to examine the ways Black bodies and experiences are necessary for understanding a diasporic history and envisioning futures still in the making.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is posed the question, “How do we record a lineage of Black Feminist and Decolonial Work?” These words remind us how the work of Black femmes reverberate across time, and how the legacy of Black feminist scholars and artists creates an archive of resistance and reimagination that provides a more accurate account of Black history in Canada. In a tiny corner of the gallery space is a reading nook that welcomes visitors to learn about this lineage of Black Canadian femme cultural production. (The alt// archive will continue virtually at artspeak.ca.)
At the center of the space, Transition (2022), an installation by DZI.AN, shows two figures, the older one engaging in hair care of the younger, enclosed within a fabric tent that invites viewers to enter. Hair care is often crucial in creating important relationships between Black women. It felt familiar to witness this. The scene also speaks to the intergenerational and communal relationships and knowledge sharing that is a part of hair care for Black women. Barbara Prézeau Stephenson’s Braids (2020-2022), a video and three prints mounted on aluminum foil, also touches on themes that pertain to the care embodied through Black hair care practices. The video captures the performance of weaving braids, and the photos freeze this process in time. We are able to encounter the material realities tied to the performance of Black femmehood. The pack of hair extensions in the corner of the screen and the sense of claustrophobia from so many opened hair extensions feel like such significant parts of hair-making culture.
Winsom Winsom’s Resilience (2020) and Marie Booker’s Good Medicine (2022) deal with the practice of ritual from a spiritually-based approach that considers the varied ways of worship and entry to traditional practices across the Black Diaspora. The similar ways worship emerges in the diaspora is an entryway into conversations on the history of colonial violence, trans-Atlantic slavery, and the lineage-altering experience of the Middle Passage. The new languages and ways of worship that emerge act as an avenue for reshaping and accessing ancestral knowledge and histories. The materials used in both works are connected to nature, such as feathers and ivory tusks, and these are essential artifacts of African spirituality across the diaspora.
Thinking about the reproduction of Black images in mainstream culture and how Black existence is misrepresented within this act is addressed in Fear Factor (2022) by Buseje Bailey and in Chloe Onari’s untitled 1,2,3,4. These artists question harmful modes of representation by contemplating other ways of representation and actively participating in reimagining cultural representation. Onari’s work comprises four dolls made from hand-dyed wool, yarn, stuffings, and jewelry. The piece highlights acts of care and reimagination through traditional practices, and the act of reproducing Black bodies and being with dignity and techniques rooted in African art-making practices. In Fear Factor, Bailey describes accompanying an Indigenous friend to their reservation and finding a racist caricature doll of a Black man at their mother’s house. This caricature doll reflects the history of sexualization and dehumanization of Black men. She shares this experience from the lens of criticism of this object, but also respect, as covering the phallus in the video brings the necessary humanity to it. Through gestures of symbolized defiance, both artists consider alternative ways of engaging and refusing existing colonial belief systems imposed on the Black body and history.
Did you miss us?: Visitations emerging in 2022 (2022) by Clair Carew and Khadejha McCall’s Untitled examine relationships to ancestors, familial whispering, and invitations to look beyond the veil. In McCall’s work, this is not just an idea. It is etched in the fabric of the cloth in the long draped printed fabric that shows figurative images, cultural symbols, words, and shapes that are at once present and obscured from view. What is revealed is subject to who encounters it, and this gives a legibility more likely to be accessed by Black viewers. Consisting of an oil painting on canvas and accompanying poem titled Did you miss us, Carew’s work is a call to ancestors. It explores the catastrophic experience of the Middle Passage and Trans-Atlantic slave trade that severed many enslaved Africans from their cultural realities. The ancestors’ response in the poem, “Yes, we missed you, my love,” feels like a welcoming and an invitation to rebuild lost cultural knowledge and connections.
In a room to the left side of the gallery, Mosa McNeilly’s Bones/ Meditations on the Middle Passage Memory (2022) continues in the same conversation as Carew’s work. The piece features digital projection on a platform with an arrangement of stones and sounds that mimic the ocean. The stone assemblage shows the Sankofa Bird, an Akan symbol that can mean “to retrieve”. There is a strong symbolism behind this bird for descendants of enslaved people as a way of honoring and remembering the past and moving forward while connecting to their African roots. This part of the show is an experience of all senses, an opportunity to reflect, and a ritual of its own that holds the varied experiences of Blackness and meaning in the diaspora.
Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice is a show that is necessary, always, and reflects the realities of being, connecting communally, holding important histories, and giving space to current realities. It is, in short, a living will for Black people to see themselves in the cultural fabric of Canadian art history and presents a promise of more to come.
Ogheneofegor Obuwoma is a Nigerian filmmaker, storyteller, and artist with a BFA in film and communications from Simon Fraser University. Her work explores “the personal” in relationship to her larger community and the cultural experience of being Nigerian. She is interested in African futurism and the ways we access the spirit.