‘For us, by us’: How a new Caribbean exhibition is changing the AGO

Through historical photos and contemporary art, ‘Fragments of Epic Memory’ reflects a community that’s long been underrepresented in galleries
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Oct 19, 2021
Visitor at the ‘Fragments of Epic Memory’ exhibition looks at Robert Charlotte’s Luci Collins and Son, 2014. (Archival pigment print © Robert Charlotte. Photo © AGO)

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Kenneth Montague was 10 years old when he first saw pictures from the Harlem Renaissance. A child of Jamaican immigrants in Windsor, he’d visited the Detroit Institute of Arts and been moved by the images of Black people in their Sunday best lounging in Harlem brownstones or sitting in Cadillacs. “It was definitely an eye-opener,” says Montague, who had before that seen mostly images that reflected negative stereotypes about people who looked like him. “For me, art and photography became this way forward to think about my own identity.” Since then, Montague, a Toronto-based dentist and art collector, says it’s been his personal mission to increase the amount of diverse artwork by and about people of colour in art institutions across Ontario. 

left: man in blazer standing in front of book case; right: woman in striped blazer and glasses
L-R: Kenneth Montague at home. (Wade Hudson); Julie Crooks, the AGO's curator of arts of global Africa and the diaspora. (Courtesy of the AGO)

So, in 2018, when Julie Crooks, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, called Montague to tell him that she had stumbled on a collection of more than 3,000 historical images from counLtries including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Barbados, Montague flew to New York to see them for himself. The collection included black and white pictures of plantations in Martinique, families picnicking in post-emancipation Jamaica, and the 1948 West Indies Cricket team. 

“The story of the Caribbean, the diaspora and its artists aren’t one story, but a range of histories, media, voices and lived experiences, and the Montgomery Collection offers us a similarly varied view of the Caribbean experience,” says Crooks. 

left: a woman in historical dress; right: a ship on the sea
L-R: Martinique Woman, c. 1890 (Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs); Port Royal, Jamaica, c. 1890. (Duperly Brothers. Gift of Patrick Montgomery, through the American Friends of the Art Gallery of Ontario Inc., 2019)

Crooks wanted the images for the AGO; Montague did, too. But Montague, who is also a trustee at the gallery, didn’t want to court an established donor to raise the necessary money. “We decided instead that we would petition people of means in the Black and Caribbean community to buy this one for ourselves,” he says. Crooks and Montague called friends and sent emails to personal networks. Word of the Montgomery collection quickly spread through Toronto’s Black and Caribbean community, and, after less than a year of fundraising, 27 donors had raised $300,000. The AGO acquired the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs from art collector Patrick Montgomery in 2019. 

The collection now forms part of the new exhibition Fragments of Epic Memory, titled after Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Lecture. The exhibit brings together 200 images from the collection and features paintings, sculpture, and video works by modern and contemporary Caribbean artists all attempting to answer the question, how do we see the Caribbean? 

“[It’s about] not being reduced only to this moment of emancipation and colonialism and all of that kind of fraught history,” says Crooks.

Visitors will see passport photographs of Haitian immigrants to Cuba in the 1950s and photographs of workers from India and China who migrated to the Caribbean under indentured contracts between the 1800s and early 1900s. 

two paintings of women
L-R: Notebook of No Return, 2017, by Kelly Sinnapah Mary. (Private Collection © Kelly Sinnapah Mary); Mazalee (crossed), by Natalie Wood. (Courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. The Wedge Collection, Toronto)

“For a contemporary Caribbean audience, these images are of great importance,” Lee L’Clerc, an instructor at the University of Toronto’s Caribbean studies program, tells TVO.org via email. “They demonstrate how notions of identity, whether through nation, gender, or race, can be understood as a set of cultural constructs that change with time, and Caribbean identity is a historically changing cultural identity.”

Displayed alongside these historical images are more contemporary works. For example, there’s Middle Passage (1970), a painting by Guyanese-born painter Sir Frank Bowling; Midnight Blue (2020), a patterned recreation of a woman dressed as Blue Devil, an iconic Trinidadian carnival character, by Paul Anthony Smith; and Afflicted Yard (2008), a two-minute video by Jamaican artist Peter Dean Rickards.

two works of art featuring human figures with explosions of colour
Two works by Firelei Baez. L-R: Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities): Waning, 2019-2020. (The Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection); Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities). (Private Collection, Toronto, Canada © Firelei Baez, Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York)

The exhibition is the first organized by the AGO’s Department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, which was established last October. “It's the first of its kind in Canada,” says Crooks, who heads it. “There's no other museum that has a department dedicated to these histories [and] these narratives.” The department is tasked with expanding the museum’s collections and its exhibitions and programs with an eye to Africa and the African diaspora. “Being in Toronto and having such a large demographic that makes up these communities, it makes sense [for the department to be] situated in an institution that is trying to think about how to kind of decolonize its collection,” Crooks says. 

a triptych with three different men
...three kings weep..., 2018, by Ebony G. Patterson. (Purchased, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020; © Ebony G. Patterson; Courtesy of the Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago)

While plans for the creation of the department preceded the racial reckoning of last year,  Crooks says working on the exhibition in the wake of George Floyd’s death reinforced the need for a department dedicated to spotlighting Black stories.  “It can't be just a kind of a fleeting moment,” says Crooks. “It has to be sustained. The community needs to see and have faith in what we're doing.” 

Since its September opening, the exhibition has evoked strong responses from both artists and community members, who say the collection has connected them with familiar stories about their history and helped them discover new ones. 

Sabrina Moella has been visiting the AGO since she moved to Toronto from Paris 16 years ago. “I am not Caribbean, but I am part of the African diaspora, and in some pictures, it was clear this could be my aunty, my uncle, my nephew, my niece,” says Moella, who is originally from Congo. “I loved the beauty of it, the nobility, the pride. It gave me a lot of pride seeing the care that was given to the curation, because, historically, museums have done us a lot of wrong.” 

“When I look at the photographs, I can see people who look like me,” says Natalie Wood, a Trinidad-born artist whose painting Mazalee, which depicts a 17th-century Maroon colony, is featured in the show. “I can see spaces in the Caribbean that I recognize, and it connects me to history that I often feel disconnected from.” 

two-piece artwork with man's head on left and starburst figure on right
Transformations No. 1, 2014, by Nadia Huggins. (Courtesy of Nadia Huggins, 2021 © Nadia Huggins)

Members of the Friends of Global Africa and the Diaspora, a committee created to support the work of the new department, have raised funds to continue to support acquisitions. It’s not just about one exhibit or one department, notes co-chair Liza Murrell, who acted as a lead donor for the Montgomery acquisition — it’s also about broadening the AGO’s reach within the community. According to Murrell, the committee is made up of 17 members ranging from graduate students to professionals, such as Murrell, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology. 

painting of women with superimposed pattern
Untitled, 7 Women, 2019, by Paul Anthony Smith. (The Hott Collection, New York. © Paul Anthony Smith. Image courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

“What this group says is that people in our community are very interested, willing, and excited [to contribute]. And museums and galleries have to think about approaching [them], but you can't approach people who aren't in the space,” Murrell says. “I was not a donor in the art world before, because nobody ever asked me. So how can I contribute if you've never approached me or welcomed me into that circle?"

“It became a real collective thing,” says Montague of the fundraising efforts. “For us, by us. That’s the great legacy of this Montgomery collection, that it not only reflected the history of the Caribbean community but in present day became a lightning rod for the community to bond over.”

The AGO’s Fragments of Epic Memory exhibition will be running until February 21, 2022.

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