Vernissage Provides a Space for Black Feminist Art
The 12th Montreal International Black Film Festival Kicks Off With a Feminist Art Show
Desta can’t be older than five or six-years-old. She’s sitting crossed-legged, staring intently at the globe placed in front of her. The intrigue on her face is visible.
Except that Desta isn’t really sitting there. Only her image is present, plastered onto wooden planks, as part of an exhibit by multimedia artist Shauna Strauss.
Strauss is one of ten artists with works on display at Espace Mushagalusa in their ongoing exhibit Black Fem’ Art, presented in collaboration with the 12th edition of the Montreal International Black Film Festival.
The exhibit, which opened with a vernissage on Friday, is a space for the artists to express themselves. Placing the focus on young, Black female artists, the vern facilitated a conversation about art and social issues that are normally seen in a different, often less positive light. It offered a means of communication between the creators, the public and their communities.
This visibility enables and encourages discussion that might otherwise not take place about the importance of artistic diversity in Montreal.
Strauss’s work, entitled, “The World is in Her Hands,” depicts young Desta, a Montreal child of Caribbean descent. Her image is a black and white photo-transfer, set onto planks of found wood. One of the panels features an engraved Tanzanian pattern.
“I’m applying art-making methods from Tanzania: wood burning, woodcarving—that’s what we do,” explained the Tanzanian-born artist. “[That’s] how we make art back home.”
Being from the African diaspora, Strauss explained, inspired much of her work, including the aforementioned piece.
“Being a daughter of the diaspora,” said Strauss, “I’m really interested in sharing the stories and the voices of people from the diaspora.”
In that piece in particular, Strauss said, Desta “kind of represents the world.” The young girl’s name, Strauss elaborated while pointing at the letters painted onto the wood, means happiness in Amharic, a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia. The child’s mother is from St. Vincent, Strauss continued. Yet, here they are in Montreal.
“It kind of just represents how the diaspora works,” Strauss said.
It’s that celebration of culture, of history and of contemporary tradition, that resonated throughout the unassuming Ontario St. E. gallery on Friday night. The 2600 square foot space was filled with guests taking it all in—some chatting with the artists, others taking photos of the work or vibing out to the DJ.
The vibrant atmosphere mirrored the artwork hanging on the walls. Keithy Antoine, a predominantly digital artist with Haitian origins, brought vivid colours and pop-art style to the gallery space. Her work MANANAS depicts two women in traditional African dress holding pineapples. The use of bright blues, purples and yellows in her contemporary digital illustration contrasted the customary appearance of the women in the frame. This contrast could very well be seen as the theme for the evening.
Espace Mushagalusa, full of traditional African masks, sculptures and jewelry, transformed into a safe space for conversations focusing on what it means to be Black, and specifically a Black woman, in 2016.
“It’s really important to recognize the intersectionality of race and womanhood, if you will, because it’s like a double minority status,” explained Strauss.
“I think it’s important to recognize that reality and I think as a community—as a broader community, as many communities—I think it’s important for us to come together to uplift women, Black women.”
“I think it’s important to recognize that reality and I think as a community—as a broader community, as many communities—I think it’s important for us to come together to uplift women, Black women.” —Shauna Strauss, multimedia artist
Spoken word artist, Shanice Yarde, an equity educational advisor who works at McGill University’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, echoed the sentiment.
“Art is a really great way to bring people together, to engage in a conversation about really hard and traumatic and violent topics,” said Yarde. “I think it’s also really important for Black people and marginalized people to have spaces where they can get together to heal and to get support and get services.”
Yarde, who performs under the name Shanice Nicole, delivered three pieces of poetry at the vernissage. Like her performance that night, Yarde says her venture into the art of the spoken word started with pain and anger. She said it was the murder of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, in 2012, that encouraged her to explore creative writing as a form of release.
“I think it was really this moment of realization that the world was not what I thought it was—and then the process of carrying a lot of that [weight]. I was in trauma in different ways,” said Yarde. “I’ve been really working through [the trauma] and seeing how my mental health is connected to it.”
As she moved through her performance, a sense of easing tension and release could be felt throughout the audience, with her final piece expressing love for the “Black girls like me,” addressing the important topic of representation.
“I think another piece is that when we face intense oppression, we’re hyper-visible but also invisible,” explained Yarde. “It’s really important that we’re always declaring to the world that we’re here, that we exist, that we matter. That’s why it’s so important to gather and to take up space.”
And Black Fem’ Art became that space.
The conversations that took place throughout the evening, whether verbal or through the art, touched on the pain that has followed the community for generations but then moved to beauty that is often hidden beneath it. The exhibit demonstrated that it’s about sharing a different type of story.
“For me, it’s really about telling the truth and making sure that the truth that we’re telling are ones of voices that deserve to be in the spotlight, deserve to be centered, especially when historically and currently, they’re silenced,” said Yarde. “It’s really important for me to use the power that I have to enable that.”