The first art historian to be appointed to the Senate says the work of Canada’s Black artists is not sufficiently recognized or celebrated.
But now Sen. Patricia Bovey, former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and a National Gallery of Canada board member for many years, has set out to change that.
She has brought the first exhibition of works by Black artists to the Senate. Pieces by celebrated Black artists now hang in the foyer of the Senate, the second set of pictures in a series honouring their contribution to Canadian culture.
They comprise anacrylic work on paper by the late Trinidadian Canadian painter Denyse Thomasos, entitled Wyoming Saddle, as well as Light Laureate, a mixed-media piece by American-born Tim Whiten.
Bovey said the installation is designed to “bring the very significant accomplishments of Canada’s Black artists to the fore.”
“Their contributions are neither well enough known or adequately celebrated,” she said.
“I hope their visual voices will be seen and heard on the Hill and across the country and that presentations of their work will rise and herald the substance of their art and contributions to the fabric of Canadian expression.”
Bovey has introduced a private member’s bill to create a visual art laureate in Parliament. If approved by MPs and senators, the laureate would select art to hang in Parliament that reflects all communities in Canada, including Black and Indigenous artists.
Bovey put together an exhibition of Inuit art last year in the Senate. But her attention has turned to promoting Black art in Canada, which she says is rich and diverse.
Light Laureate is behind glass etched with a delicate floral motif. It includes maple wood, fragments of burnt paper and a mirror that reflects the image of anyone looking at the piece.
Bovey calls Wyoming Saddle by Thomasos a stellar piece of work. The painter, who was brought up in Toronto and later based in New York, died suddenly in 2012 at the age of 47.
Acclaimed internationally, she often employed an abstract rib cage motif to evoke themes of slavery and confinement.
Artworks last year included Stolen Identities, a work by Winnipeg painter Yisa Akinbolaji, depicting Louis Riel within a Métis dream catcher, and Who’s Who in Canada 1927, a mixed-media installation by British Columbia-based artist Chantal Gibson.
Gibson explored the omission of Black voices in Canadian historical texts, working black thread through a 1927 edition of Who’s Who in Canada.
Next to it, an e-reader played a recording of Gibson flipping through the reference book searching for entries of Black Canadian historical figures.
The Senate is not the only place where politicians are looking to highlight Black cultural history.
Diversity and Inclusion Minister Ahmed Hussen said Black people have been an important part of Canada’s history for hundreds of years, a fact that was sometimes overlooked.
In Nova Scotia alone, he found a depth of Black history going back centuries that was “not something I learned about until I became a member of Parliament,” Hussen said in an interview.
Nova Scotia has become home to Maroons who left Jamaica after fighting the British in 1796, communities of freed slaves, people fleeing slavery south of the border via the underground railroad and subsequent waves of Black immigrants.
Hussen said the government is helping to preserve a 165-year-old church built by former enslaved people in Ontario, including Harriet Tubman, a key figure on the underground railroad.
Some of the founders’ descendants still attend the chapel.
The Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines, Ont., was in a state of disrepair, raising safety concerns. Last year it was approved for a $100,000 grant through the federal Supporting Black Canadian Communities initiative.
“This is a piece of Canadian history that was falling apart,” Hussen said. “We were able to provide funding that will rejuvenate that structure.”
The stories of Black figures, including Mathieu da Costa and Viola Desmond, were integral to Canada’s past, but “we need to do more” to celebrate and teach Black history in Canada, he said.
The government had also approved a 2017 stamp commemorating da Costa, the first recorded free Black person to arrive in Canada.
Born in 1589, da Costa is believed to have arrived in Canada in the early 1600s.
He was employed as an interpreter between Indigenous Peoples and Europeans mapping North America. Some accounts say he assisted Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded Quebec City in 1608.
In 2018, Desmond became the first Canadian woman to appear alone on the face of a bank note — a $10 bill.
In 1946, Desmond challenged racial segregation by refusing to leave the whites-only area of a cinema in New Glasgow, N.S.
Hussen said stories such as hers were too little known. He didn’t learn about Desmond, “who preceded Rosa Parks by nine years,” until he went to law school.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.