Khdeja McCall, One Day soon, 1989

Khadejha McCall
One Day Soon , 1989

Khadejha McCall
Strong Black Woman, 1989

Alice Ming Wai Jim


Cet article analyse l'arrivée des femmes artistes noires sur la scène artistique canadienne dans les années 80 en examinant l'exposition-jalon, Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter. Elle montrait les travaux de onze femmes artistes faisant partie de la diaspora africaine du Canada. Présentée d'abord à A Space Gallery de Toronto en janvier 1989 et se déplaçant, la même année, à travers le Canada, vers quatre autres galleries gérées par des artistes, cette exposition créait deux precedents: d'abord elle se donnait comme un exemple significatif de travail anti-raciste et, ensuite, elle écrivait un chapitre important du développement culturel de l'histoire canadienne de l'art. En effect, elle était la première exposition canadienne à être vouée entièrement au travail de femmes artistes noires et, aussi, la première être entièrement organisée par des femmes conservateurs toutes d'origine africaine. […]

[…] Organized by the Diasporic African Women's Art Collective (DAWA), Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter set two precedents, each of which mark it as a significant example of anti-racist work in the arts as well as an important cultural development in Canadian art history: it was the first exhibition in Canada to devote itself entirely to the work of Black women artists and it was the first of this kind to be coordinated by Black women curators. […]

[W]ith the participation of eleven artists from Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Montreal and Edmonton, [Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter] began its tour with an inaugural exhibition at Toronto's A Space Gallery on January 28, 1989, and travelled to Houseworks Gallery and Café in Ottawa, XChanges Gallery in Victoria, Galerie Articule in Montreal, and Eye Level Gallery in Halifax where it closed on September 23, 1989.1 […]

"When I Breathe There is a Space"2

The system of representation in Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter with its satellite sub-texts can be likened to a "mattering map" where each body of work marked a site of resistance and a juncture point in which issues of significance to African-Canadians were raised.3 Dzian Lacharité serene, almost spiritual, yet monumental Right Time, Right Place, for example, can be seen especially to provide or stake out this precise point of reflection: it makes reference to the historicity (when) and location (where) of Black women through its title (a dialectic drawn from that of the exhibition's perhaps?) and its aesthetic exploration of temporal and spatial realities. The re-created traditional dwelling made of bamboo branches, light immaterial fabric for its ceiling, and a brown cloth door invited viewers to walk barefoot on the cool bed of sand inside the structure in order to experience the feeling of presence embodied by terms like refuge, shelter and "home."

In particular, Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter focused on the mneumoic experiences of the diasporic female subject in its attempt to map out a terrain for Black women's art in Canada. Constituting the link between the many different individual pieces, the act of remembering further historicized the exhibition as a site of resistance. As Elena Featherston writes, "for women of color re/membering ourselves is a daily act of courage, a ritual of survival... Re/membering is a form of resistance; it is a life-affirming and self-defining act."4

bell hooks elaborates further on the usefulness of memory for Black people in the following:

Thinking again about space and location, I heard the statement "our struggle is also a struggle of memory against forgetting"; a politicization of memory that distinguishes nostalgia, that longing for something to be as once it was, a kind of useless act, from that remembering that serves to illuminate the present.5

In other words, memory "can be a practice which `transforms history from judgement on the past in the name of a present truth to a «counter-memory» that combats out current modes of truth and justice."6 For the diasporic subject, the subversive potential for a counter-memory to transform history is of particular relevance in light of how hegemonic discourses have represented the diaspora and its experiences of exile, slavery, and migration solely in terms of Otherness.

The two works by Winsom and Suli Williams exhibited in Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter can be said to embody such counter-memories. Winsom's textile installation Kukubuka (Swahili for "memories") placed the act of remembering as central to the exhibition site. This creative text - reconstructed from the artist's memories - documented how her "people were taken from Africa in chains across the ocean to be slaves in Jamaica."7 Silhouetted images of Black women washing clothes by the sea were visible through a thin grey-white fabric meant to suggest an ephemeral layer of mist. Beneath this lantern-like set-up of cloth, chains were strewn menacingly over the papier-maché reconstruction of the African continent on the floor to represent the threat of slavery.

Similarly, memories of Black women's experiences of slavery also formed the resonant tone of Suli William's Happy Birthday Daisy, through her hands. This textile installation, a homage to the artist's grandmother Daisy, was comprised of a delicate octagonal tent made of muslin, ten feet high, held up by thin wooden rods. Visible only from the interior of the structure were celebratory paintings of a mother and daughter, oversized hands, and dancing figures. Unfortunately, because of its delicate nature, Happy Birthday Daisy did not survive the tour and was only shown in the inaugural exhibition at A Space Gallery.8 However, the preliminary drawing for William's piece was used to illustrate the exhibition poster used for the A Space venue as well as the documentation released by Houseworks Gallery and Café for the venue in Ottawa.

Interestingly, the textual reconstruction in this essay of "transitory creations" that no longer "exist" save in photographic records and in the memories of their creators and audiences further highlights the importance of memory as a way to preserve histories or, as in the case of Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter, the details of a significant event in art history.

Other issues raised by the works in the DAWA exhibition included preconceptions of art produced by the African diaspora and different aspects of identity politics surrounding Black women. For example, the art of Chloë Onari and Barbara Prézeau seems to represent what is often perceived to be typical of art by people of African descent, that is, commodified art objects which cater to a tourist audience and paintings and designs in the so-called "primitive" style. Regardless, both artists continue to create work in their medium of expression in styles that demonstrate a persistent personal interest in exploring their cultural background and artistic self-expression. While Chloë Onari, who calls herself a "surface design artist in textiles," explored the uses of colour, materials and media in her piece entitled Betha De Kool Sony "Me No Pinko Me Red," a mixed-media floor installation consisting of fabrics and handmade dolls, Barbara Prézeau explored, through traditional ritual symbols from Haitian culture, how the people of Haiti combined Christian icons with their ancient beliefs.9 Alongside her several bright, rough-surface paintings on thick hand-made paper, Prézeau's Vêvê consisted of religious imagery drawn in a cross formation on the gallery floor using different kinds of grain flour. Illuminated with candles, the images represented "the protector of the woods, the god of agriculture, the cycles of life, the two snakes of androgyny and, at the centre, a heart with a knife in it."10

Another recurring theme explored in many of the works was the issue of identity politics, especially as it concerned Black women. Notions of representation and subjectivity were examined, challenged, re-envisioned and/or re-affirmed through various methods of re-/presentation. The works by Claire Carew and Kim McNeilly, for example, can be said to have dealt with the articulation of Black women's identity in a very open and direct manner. Claire Carew's Here I Stand, a "tribute to [the artist's] Aboriginal, African, and European ancestors," was a political affirmation of the artist's diasporic female presence amongst other Others. Depicting images of several women of colour, the painting also bore textual graffiti which read, "Work like a mule" and "I had no alternative," sad but strong statements referring to the struggles of women of colour in society. Similarly, Father of Africa, Mother of the Jews, Black Woman by Kim McNeilly continues this reclamation of Black women's identity in an exploration of the artist's Canadian/African/Jewish heritage as vibrant with custom and tradition. This mixed-media installation was comprised of a menorah holding seven lit candles and "three long box constructions overlaid with magazine clippings, maps, fabric designs, and family photos."11 The menorah, strategically placed on an horizontal box, suggested a sacred altar space within the installation.

By contrast, the works of Grace Channer, Khadejha McCall and Buseje Bailey can all be said to have dealt specifically with images of Black women in society: how they view themselves, how they are viewed, and how they want to be viewed. […] Grace Channer's Ba Thari (a South African phrase meaning "women from whom generations come") is a mixed-media floor sculpture made of twigs, branches, shredded cloth, and a piece of driftwood. Unlike the prevailing stereotypical prototypes of Black women - ritualized fertility goddesses, versions of the mammy figure - Channer's representation of the Black female subject evoked an empowered female subject capable of action. In a letter to this author, the artist explains how Ba Thari "represented the women who ensured generations of culture and history to have survived through the adverse oppressions beset on women's lives." For Channer, "the resilience of Black women was echoed by that of the driftwood which had passed through many eras... and touched many shores [but] still survived to tell its stories."

Ba Thari also addressed the self-images Black women. According to African American artist Adrian Piper,

When cultural racism succeeds in making its victims suppress, denigrate, or reject these means of cultural self-affirmation [the solace people find in entertainment, self-expression, intimacy, mutual support, and cultural solidarity], it makes its victims hate themselves.12

In order to address this self-hate, Ba Thari suggested through the shredded pieces of cloth - one of which read "Sometimes we just hate ourselves" - being expunged from the figure's stomach, the need for Black women to continue refuting and casting off the stereotypes imposed on them by both white and Black society.

In contrast to Channer's approach, Khadejha McCall used elaborately screen-printed and batiked textiles to depict different perceptions of Black women. Strong Black Woman, depicting a Black "super mom," challenged the male role in the commercial world while the visual dynamics in One Day Soon interrogated the historical and current status of Black women in North American society. Mother Williams explored Black women's role as spiritual healer and nurturer. Also focusing on the Black female subject was Buseje Bailey's mixed-media work on panel board entitled The Black Box which addressed the image of Black motherhood through her tribute to Black female family members and Black women's history.

Representations of Black Women

Channer's Ba Thari, Bailey's Black Box, and McCall's Strong Black Woman are three examples of how representation and resistance worked together in Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter. From abolitionist politics to contemporary Black feminist theory, the Black female body has been an important site of resistance for people of African descent. "Slavery made control of the Black body a central issue in the relationship between whites and blacks."13 According to Diane Roberts, "representations of whites and blacks fuel a war over the body: the black body, the white body, the female body. The body is defined and circumscribed according to gender, race, and class."14 Through their different artistic explorations of the image of the Black women, the works by Channer, Bailey, and McCall challenge racial and gender stereotypes of women of African descent that have been constructed by colonial and neo-colonial discourses and re-/define the parameters of representation for the Black female body. In doing so, they re-affirm, at the same time, the presence of Black female subjects in contemporary society as multifarious, complex, and always changing. […]

Together, the many personal and collective memories and spaces of articulation brought forward in Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter were able to convey a sense of history being shared, yet at the same time, in their instability and changeability, they also served to voice the individualism of each of the artists whose mneumonic traces were being exposed. As such, the exhibition, read as a mattering map in which each body of work is taken to represent a site of resistance through memory, can be seen not only to have addressed the historicity and location of Black women in Canada but also to have supported a politicisation of memory which promoted a deeper understanding of the Black female diasporic subject. […]

Alice Ming Wai Jim is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at McGill University. She is currently researching media art in Hong Kong.


This is an abridged version of "An Analysis and Documentation of the 1989 Exhibition Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter" which first appeared in Revue d'art canadienne/Canadian Art Review (RACAR) XXIII:1-2, 1996; pub.1998, pp. 71-83.
1. Interestingly, although the exhibition was lauded as representing Black artists across Canada, the artists who participated in Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter noticeably represented a limited segment of the Black Canadian community; except for Barbara Prézeau and Dzian LaCharité who are French-speaking and Ottawa- and Montreal-based, respectively, and Suli Williams from Edmonton who was the only representative from the Prairie provinces, the others are anglophone and were living in or near the Toronto area at the time of the exhibition.
.2. This sub-title comes from Buseje Bailey's feeling that if there isn't a space, you just have to make it yourself. Susan Douglas, "When I Breathe There is a Space: An Interview with Buseje Bailey," Canadian Woman Studies, XI, 1 (1989), 40-42.
3.The idea of "mattering maps" is drawn from Lawrence Grossberg, "Is There a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom," The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis (New York, 1993) 50-65. Grossberg discusses mattering maps as a construction that one forms in order to politically locate oneself in a space.
4. Elena Featherston, Skin Deep: Women Writing on Color, Culture and Identity (Freedom, 1995), preface.
5. bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Toronto, 1990), 147.
6. Jonathan Arac, quoted in bel hooks, "Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination," Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler (New York, 1992), 343.
7. In discussing the various works, I have drawn freely from conversations with the artists and from their artist statements. I am grateful to them for discussing their work with me but it does not necessarily follow, of course, that they would agree with all aspects of my account. The artists' statements are cited only when needed for clarification.
8. Foluké Olubayo's air-dried clay work of a pyramidal structure decorated with sets of hands and symbols suggesting rebirth suffered similar misfortune.
9. Susan Crean, "Women's Bodies, Women's Selves: Reclaiming An Artistic Identity," Canadian Art, VI, 2 (Summer 1989), 22.
10. Crean, "Women's Bodies, Women's Selves," 22.
11. Crean, "Women's Bodies, Women's Selves," 22.
12. Adrian Piper, quoted in Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York, 1990), 7.
13. Michael D. Harris, "Ritual Bodies)Sexual Bodies: The Role and Presentation of the Body in African-American Art," Third Text, XII (Autumn 1990), 92.
14. Diane Roberts, The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region (New York, 1994), 2.

Home page | Collection | Dissertation
Bibliography | Credits

  Comments and suggestions