Towards an African Canadian Art History
Art, Memory, and Resistance

Charmaine A. Nelson  , (Ed.)

Captus Press, ISBN 978-1-55322-365-8 (2018)
400 pages, 700 g, 7 X 10, $64.75 (US$51.80)

Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance, is the first book to consolidate the field of African Canadian Art History. Despite the centuries-long presence of Africans in Canada, black Canadian artistic and cultural production has been summarily neglected. Canadian participation in transatlantic slavery resulted in a repository of images of black subjects that are often stereotypical and parallel those of other Western nations, and Canada’s artistic investments in colonial ideals of blackness have yet to be fully examined or challenged.

Drawing from the established fields of “African American Art History”, “Race and Representation”, and the “Visual Culture of Slavery”, Charmaine A. Nelson and her colleagues — a group of established and up-and-coming artists, scholars, and cultural critics — argue for an African Canadian Art History that can simultaneously examine the artistic contributions of black Canadian artists within their unique historical contexts, critique the colonial representation of black subjects by white artists, and contest the customary racial homogeneity of Canadian Art History.

The book examines art, artists, and visual and material culture from the eighteenth century to the present. Posing a conscious challenge to the boundaries of traditional art historical understandings of artistic value and worth, this groundbreaking book explores “high,” “low,” and popular art across various media, including caricature, conceptual art, dolls, dress, advertisements, genre studies, landscapes, and portraiture. Towards an African Canadian Art History points us in a new direction — encouraging movement towards artistic, scholarly, and art historical futures that are more inclusive, while calling for the acknowledgement of black artists and subjects in their unique Canadian-ness as well as their shared African and Black Diasporic histories.

For an insightful review of the significance of Towards An African Canadian Art History and its impact on the perception of race in Canadian art, history and culture, click here.


Table of Contents   top

Introduction: Towards an African Canadian Art History

Part 1 Memory, Nostalgia, and Spectacle

Chapter 1            “Just Imported and To Be Sold”: Creolization and the Slave–Master Relationship in Eighteenth-Century Nova Scotia

Aditi Ohri


Chapter 2           Exerting and Cultivating Selves: Nineteenth-Century Photography and the Black Subject in Southern Ontario

Julie Crooks


Chapter 3            “History Could be Taught by Means of Dolls ...”: Race, Doll-Play, and the History of Black Female Slavery in Canada

 Alexandra Kelebay


Chapter 4           “Come One, Come All”: Blackface Minstrelsy as a Canadian Tradition and Early Form of Popular Culture

Cheryl Thompson


Part 2 Resistance and Cultural Preservation

Chapter 5            “The Canadian Inhabitants are Remarkably Fond of Dancing”: Reading the African Musicians in George Heriot’s Minuets of the Canadians (1807)

Charmaine A. Nelson


Chapter 6            The Likeness of Fugitivity: Transatlantic Considerations of a Canadian Photograph

Emilie Boone


Chapter 7             Invisible Empires

Deanna Bowen


Chapter 8            Spiritual Baptist Ritual Garments in Church and in Community

Carol B. Duncan


Part 3 Institutional Practice

Chapter 9            From Portrait of a Negro Slave to Portrait of a Haitian Woman: The Racial Politics of Renaming Art in Canadian Museum Practice

Charmaine A. Nelson


Chapter 10          Cricket in Montreal: Visualizing Race, Masculinity, and Community in Nineteenth- and Twentieth Century Canada

Mercelie Dionne-Petit


Chapter 11          Visualities of “Difference”: De-Constructing Gendered “Third World” Subjects in Representations of Canadian International Aid

Christiana Abraham


Part 4 Historiography

Chapter 12          Authoring Belonging: Early African Canadian Fine Artists George H. McCarthy (1860–1906) and Edith H. McDonald (c.1880–1954)

Adrienne R. Johnson


Chapter 13          Beyond Parochialism: Telling Tales about Black Activism and Conceptual Art

Krys Verrall


Chapter 14          Articulating Spaces of Representation: Contemporary Black Women Artists in Canada

Alice Ming Wai Jim


Chapter 15          Claiming Space: The Development of Black Canadian Cultural Activism of the 1980s and 1990s

Andrea Fatona



Instructor Resources   top

Related Resources   top

About the Author   top

Christiana Abraham is currently an Assistant Professor Communications Studies at Concordia University (Montreal). Since obtaining her PhD in Communication Studies from McGill University, Abraham’s teaching and research have focused on race ethnicity and the media, development communication, visualities, postcoloniality and global media issues. She holds extensive field experience in development communication and media in Canada and the Caribbean and has taught at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus (Trinidad and Tobago).

Emilie Boone As an Assistant Professor of Art History at CUNY New York City College of Technology, Emilie Boone specializes in the art of the African Diaspora with particular research interests in African American and Caribbean photography. During the 2018–2019 academic year, she will serve as the Chester Dale Fellow in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs. Her current book project on James Van Der Zee’s photographs considers the shifting values and uses of his photographs throughout the twentieth century. Her honours include a Smithsonian Fellowship at the National Portrait Gallery, a Fulbright Fellowship at McGill University and the Notman Photographic Archives, and a Terra Foundation Summer Residency. At CUNY, she leads courses on African American, Caribbean, and African art. Her appointment at CUNY followed a Mellon Post-Doctoral fellowship at the Williams College Museum of Art and the completion of her PhD in Northwestern University’s Department of Art History.

Deanna Bowen makes use of a repertoire of artistic gestures in order to define the Black body and trace its presence and movement in place and time. In recent years, her work has involved rigorous examination of her family lineage and their connections to the Black Prairie pioneers of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Creek Negroes and All-Black towns of Oklahoma, the extended Kentucky/Kansas Exoduster migrations, and the Ku Klux Klan. The artistic products of this research were presented at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Mercer Union, a centre for Contemporary Art, The Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery, the Royal Ontario Museum of Art, Toronto (2017), the Art Museum at the University of Toronto (2016), the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (2015), McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton (2014–2015), and the Art Gallery of York University, Toronto (2013). Her works and interventionist practice have garnered significant critical regard internationally. She has received several awards in support of her artistic practice including a Canada Council New Chapter Grant (2017), Ontario Arts Council Media Arts Grant (2017), John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2016), and the William H. Johnson Prize (2014). She was part of a contingent of invited Canadian presenters in the Creative Time Summit at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 and her writings and artworks have appeared in numerous publications including The Capilano Review, Canadian Art, Transition Magazine, The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, PUBLIC Journal, North: New African Canadian Writing — West Coast Line, and FRONT Magazine.

Julie Crooks received a PhD in the Department of History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, U.K. The title of her dissertation is Alphonso Lisk-Carew and Early Photography in Sierra Leone. Julie’s research focuses on vernacular photography in Sierra Leone, West Africa and the Black Diaspora. Julie has taught numerous courses in these fields at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), as well as Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU, Toronto), University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario), and York University (Toronto). From 2014 to 2016 she was a Rebanks Post-Doctoral Fellow at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) and has published articles in African Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and exhibition catalogue essays for Wedge Curatorial Projects. Julie has curated several photography-based shows for BAND (Black Artists Networks in Dialogue). Since 2013, she has been the co-curator for the ROM’s Of Africa project, a three-year multi-platform project aimed to support a sustained and long term promotion of the cultural and creative diversity of the African Diaspora through engagement with the museum’s collections and in dialogue with contemporary artists. In 2017, she was the curator of Free Black North at the AGO which invited viewers to explore tintype portraits of descendants of the black refugee communities who escaped enslavement in the Southern United States and came to Canada in the early to mid-nineteenth century. In 2018, she was the co-curator of the ROM exhibition, Here We are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art (2018). Julie is Assistant Curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Mercelie Dionne-Petit Holding an MA degree in Art History from the Department of Art History and Communication Studies of McGill University, Mercelie Dionne-Petit is an independent scholar specializing in the visual representation of black subjects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Canada, with an emphasis on gender and sports culture. Her MA thesis, entitled “Cricket in Montreal: Visualizing Race, Masculinity, and Community in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century,” explored the British game of cricket and the intersection of race, gender, and sports culture in visual imagery. Dionne-Petit chose to merge her interests in the visual arts and her professional skills in order to pursue a career in arts management and marketing in Montreal.

Carol B. Duncan Having been Visiting Associate Professor at the Harvard Divinity School and holder of a Women’s Studies in Religion Fellowship (2006–2007), Carol B. Duncan became Chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, where she is now Professor. Her research focuses on Caribbean religions in transnational contexts, the African Diaspora, religion and popular culture, and women’s and gender studies. She is a recipient of a 3M National Teaching Fellowship. She is the author of This Spot of Ground: Spiritual Baptists in Toronto, co-author of Black Church Studies: An Introduction, and contributing editor to The Encyclopedia of Caribbean Religions. She is co-editor of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions. Her latest publication is The Black Church Studies Reader, co-edited with Alton B. Pollard III. In addition to scholarly presentations, Professor Duncan is a public intellectual whose contributions as a lecturer, panellist, and commentator have appeared in a variety of media, including print media, television, documentary film, and radio.

Andrea Fatona is an Associate Professor and is currently the Director of the Criticism and Curatorial Practice Graduate Program at Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD). She is an independent curator and was formerly Curator of Contemporary Art at the Ottawa Art Gallery. She has worked as the Programme Director at Video In (Vancouver), Co-Director of Artspeak Gallery (Vancouver), and Artistic Director of Artspace Gallery (Peterborough). She is the primary investigator of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded State of Blackness: From Production and Presentation conference project. Fatona has also contributed to the development of pedagogical materials for the classroom and community organizations. She is a member of the editorial committees of Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies and C Magazine.

Alice Ming Wai Jim is Professor and Concordia University Research Chair in Ethnocultural Art Histories, Montreal, Canada. She is founding co-editor-in-chief of the international journal Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas and is on the College Art Association Board of Directors. Jim’s research on diasporic art in Canada and contemporary Asian art has generated new dialogues within and between the fields of ethnocultural and global art histories, critical race theory, media arts, and curatorial studies. Her publications include chapter contributions to Narratives Unfolding: National Art Histories in an Unfinished World (MQUP, 2017); Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (MQUP, 2017); Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century (MIT Press, 2015); Triennial City: Localising Asian Art (Asia Triennial Manchester, 2014), and Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada (MQUP, 2014). Recent exhibitions include Animate: Diyan Achjadi and Alisi Telengut (CUAG, Ottawa, 2017) and Yen-Chao Lin: DIY Haunt (Oboro, Montreal, 2017).

Adrienne R. Johnson An independent art historian and scholar, Adrienne Johnson holds an MA in Art History from Concordia University, Montreal (2015) and is currently a PhD student in Art History at McGill University, Montreal. A passionate and long-time contributor to Montreal’s indie art scene, Johnson’s current research is focused on African Canadian landscape painting from the late nineteenth century as it relates to the exploration of African Canadian presence, creative authorship, (mis)representation, and the formation of identity. In addition to contributing to the Canadian Women’s Art Historical Initiative (CWAHI), she is a co-founder of Ethnocultural Art Histories Research (EAHR), a student-driven research community based in Concordia University’s Art History Department. Launched in 2011 with Dr. Alice Ming Wai Jim, EAHR facilitates opportunities for exchange and creation in the examination of, and engagement with, issues of ethnic and cultural representation within the visual arts in Canada.

Alexandra Kelebay Byzantine art is Kelebay’s specialization, with a specific focus on cross-cultural exchange and interaction throughout the medieval Mediterranean. Her dissertation explores the active agency of portable objects in mediating diplomatic relationships and constructing images of imperium. Seeking to merge her interests in art history, anthropology, and visual and material culture studies, her research considers the ways in which visual and material objects are not mere passive reflections of, but active participants in, the production of social, cultural, ideological, and historical narratives. To this end, she has coordinated an exhibition on book culture of the medieval Mediterranean at McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library, as well as cocurated an exhibition on the visual and material history of the nurse’s uniform in Canada (c. 1890–present) at the McGill University Health Centre’s Glen site.

Charmaine A. Nelson Charmaine A. Nelson’s research and teaching interests include postcolonial and black feminist scholarship, Transatlantic Slavery Studies, and Black Diaspora Studies. She has made groundbreaking contributions to the fields of the Visual Culture of Slavery, Race and Representation, and Black Canadian Studies. Nelson has authored six books, including the edited book Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2010), and the single-authored books The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica (London: Routledge/Taylor Francis, 2016). Nelson’s passion for connecting with the lay public is demonstrated in her active media presence which includes work with The Montreal Gazette, The Toronto Star, CTV News, the BBC, and CBC Radio. She has also written for The Walrus and blogs for Huffington Post Canada. Nelson has held several prestigious fellowships and appointments, including a Caird Senior Research Fellowship, National Maritime Museum, UK (2007), a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair (2010), University of California-Santa Barbara, and a Visiting Professorship in the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2011). In 2016, she was named as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists and in 2017–18 she was the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies at Harvard University.

Aditi Ohri A recent graduate from the MA program in Art History at Concordia University (Montreal), Aditi Ohri is an artist, art historian, and diasporic subject of South Asian origin. Her academic research interests include decolonization, settler-colonialism, and cultural appropriation. Her MA thesis considers the historical relationship of the Canadian Guild of Crafts to Indigenous artisans, with a focus on the Guild’s treatment of Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) artists. In her artistic practice, she interrogates the intersections of diaspora, spirituality, and the consumer culture of late capitalism. Her writing has been published in the journals Synoptique, Planning Forum, Relations, and the online art magazine Art Asia Pacific. Her artwork has been featured in group exhibitions at Le Labo and Xspace in Tkaronto (Toronto).

Cheryl Thompson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Creative Industries, Faculty of Communication and Design, Ryerson University (Toronto). She held a Banting Post-Doctoral Fellowship (2016–18) at the University of Toronto and the University of Toronto Mississauga in the Department of English and Drama. Her project, “Visualizing Blackface Minstrelsy in Canada: Seeing Race, Negotiating Identities, 1890–1959,” aimed to elucidate the system of meaning in blackface minstrelsy’s theatrical playbills, portraits, photographs, illustrations, and visual ephemera. Her forthcoming book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, will be published with Wilfrid Laurier Press in 2019. It represents one of the first in-depth examinations of not only black beauty culture in Canada, but also the transnational, global flow of products, beauty imagery, and services. Thompson has published articles in the Journal of Canadian Studies, the Canadian Journal of History, and Feminist Media Studies.

Krys Verrall Since being awarded her PhD in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (2007), Krys Verrall has been a researcher, artist, and educator who now teaches at York University (Toronto) in the Department of Humanities. As artist/ researcher with Big Pond Small Fish Laboratory, she has produced collaborative librettos with students in Canada and Australia for the Dogs and Boats and Airplanes Experimental Choir. These works have been presented at performance and video festivals or as radio works in Buenos Aires, Montreal, and London, UK. Her most recent collaborative libretto, The Great Chorus, was performed by the Dogs and Boats and Airplanes Experimental Choir at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (2016). She is a research collaborator with Mammalian Diving Reflex, a Toronto-based youth theatre company (2009–present) and has presented her work on the arts and cultural movements in Australia, Canada, Denmark, the UK and USA. Her publications have appeared in Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies (Toronto), Canadian Journal of Communication Studies (Montreal), and Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures (Winnipeg).