The Black Activist Exhibit You Need to See

FLARE sat down with curator Julie Crooks to talk about iconic female black activists, representations of black beauty in the media and the importance of photography in spreading these messages

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Launching today, a new series of exhibits at Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) explores black activism and the continuing struggle for justice for people of colour. RIC and Black Artists’ Networks Dialogue (BAND) have worked together to present Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest, which will run until April 9.

FLARE sat down with curator Julie Crooks to talk about one of her exhibits within the display: From the Collection: Sister(s) in the Struggle: Angela Davis and Kathleen CleaverHer work features photographs of Davis and Cleaver, two prominent female black activists in the United States between 1966-1982.

Julie Crooks exhibit at Ryerson Image Centre for the Black Artists' Networks Dialogue

From the Collection: Sister(s) in the Struggle, Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver (installation view), 2017 © James Morley, Ryerson Image Centre

Tell us about the inspiration behind your work.
“These are photographs that are pulled from the Black Star Collection here at Ryerson. I was particularly interested in pulling photographs of women from the civil rights era, the later civil rights era and particularly the Black Panthers, who were involved with the Black Power movement. I decided on narrowing it down to Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver because they had a kind of iconic status in terms of the struggle, and I also wanted to humanize their representation. There were a range of images I could choose from and I chose to pick images that offered a different way of looking at these two women.”

How did you get involved with Ryerson?
“Ryerson reached out to me through BAND. We’ve been working with Ryerson since 2014. They knew they were doing this broader exhibition on black oppression and anti-black racism and violence and asked if we would be involved and if I would be involved in doing this particular exhibition.”

What’s your opinion on artistic collaborations like this one?
“I would say that it’s always happened, but I think more and more, instead of working in individual silos, there is this kind of cross-fertilization and collaboration, which is really important. When organizations work together, it’s one of the best ways of diversifying your audience, and I think that’s really important for BAND—especially if we want to engage communities of colour and open up access to arts and cultural events that are representative of their experiences. It’s really important to have these organizations constantly working together, because then there are wide swaths of communities that have access to these projects and events.”

How did you select these photos?
“I think that I wanted to highlight two women that had these kind of cult statuses… They’re icons, in some ways they’re style icons… and that’s a fact that I acknowledge… But I also wanted to pay homage to the many thousands of other black women that did not have that kind of recognition and who did a lot of the grunt work alongside Cleaver and Davis. I think that these images, perhaps, give an entrée to the kinds of work that was being done by these women, that is represented through these two iconic black women.”

George L. Walker III, Untitled [Angela Davis], Nashville, Tennessee, November 1972, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre

George L. Walker III, Untitled [Angela Davis], Nashville, Tennessee, November 1972, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre

How do you think Davis and Cleaver both achieved such an iconic status?
“I think they were photographed excessively and their images were ubiquitous. They were in newspapers, they were in journals, they were on posters and their representations, or likenesses, were all over the place and that created this kind of cult presence… Angela Davis is featured in a Life Magazine article as a fugitive, as a criminal, even before a trial. So in the court of public opinion, through photographs, she is represented as this criminal. At times the photographs could be detrimental to one’s image, especially someone like Angela Davis, but I think they also fed into this kind of iconic status. I think she was an icon, but she was also kind of an iconoclast.

Both women really tried to shatter stereotypes and the kinds of generalized ideas of who they were, and, in a larger sense, who black women were. They really tried to support the idea that we are multiple people, not a homogenous entity; and they really tried to break those kinds of barriers, so I think that’s where the iconic status comes from.”

Style played a large role in the Black Power movement. What is your opinion on the image of black beauty that Davis and Cleaver represented?
“That’s why I wanted to highlight these photographs because the Black Power statement was, ‘black is beautiful’ and that was kind of a relentless message: that we are beautiful, despite hundreds of years of representation that told us otherwise. The afro, the black leather jacket, the incredible styling was also part of that personality, but I didn’t want it to be limited to that, and I don’t think that either Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver would want to be limited to that kind of simplified construction. I think they were much larger than that, but it’s also very much a part of their representation and the way that we remember them, absolutely.”

There have been numerous documentaries made on this subject, but what do you think photographs provide that video footage cannot?
“Photographs basically freeze a moment in time and they allow us to recall a historical moment, and so all of the photographs on the wall that are taken from the collection are part of various moments of Davis’s and Cleaver’s history in the struggle. I think it allows contemporary viewers and generations that have no idea, except for this surface idea of who they were, entrée into a moment. We’ve kind of come to a time—because of the particular and problematic political climate in the U.S.—where the past is actually now, and I think that’s what the photographs allow us to experience. That, actually, not too long ago, we were dealing with the same kinds of issues around race, anti-black racism and oppression.”

Jeffrey Blankfort, Untitled [Kathleen Cleaver], Oakland, California, 1968, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre

Jeffrey Blankfort, Untitled [Kathleen Cleaver], Oakland, California, 1968, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre

Who are you hoping to reach with this exhibit?
“I hope it reaches everyone. This is a show that has universal significance and should be seen by everyone because, as I said, it’s generational. If you don’t know anything about these histories, then you do need to know and educate yourself because I think these are the histories that help to shape your understanding of what people of colour, particularly black people, have been fighting against, challenging and resisting. It is really important to inform yourself, so that when you see Black Lives Matter protest march, you can understand some of these histories of protest, because it’s not a history that just started. It’s very deeply entrenched within African-American history and Canadian history, so I say, as I say with all shows, everyone should be coming.”

Crooks has also co-curated a second exhibit for Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest that will be showcased at the BAND Gallery at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel. The exhibit: No Justice, No Peace: From Ferguson to Toronto, will run from February 2-26 and will display recent photos from the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and Canada.

Related:
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6 Cool Canadian Artists You Need to Know Now
These Canadian Women Are Dominating the Art Scene
Meet Indo-Canadian Art Star, Babbu the Painter
Photographer Ellen von Unwerth Dissects Her Work and Style

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