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Black multiplicity

World-renowned curator Adrienne Edwards is set to give a keynote address on Black Abstraction at the next AGO Study Days.

Curator Adrienne Edward wearing black jacket and trousers standing against a light blue-gray wall with diagonal lines and shadows

Photo of Adrienne Edwards by Bryan Derballa

“Blackness in abstraction…shifts analysis away from the Black artist as subject and instead emphasizes blackness as material, method and mode, insisting on blackness as a multiplicity.” – Adrienne Edwards

When spoken about, analyzed or depicted, the Black experience has often been homogenized. However, in this time of heightened social responsibility, more people are becoming aware of the complex and diverse individual realities of people of African descent. Black artists who work in abstraction possess an important tool in this respect, creating art that forces viewers to acknowledge uniqueness—both in form and concept.

Exploring the importance of Black Abstraction by analyzing the groundbreaking work of Trinidadian-Canadian artist Denyse Thomasos (1964-2012) will be a feature during the upcoming AGO Study Days, typically held for a small group of curators, researchers, art scholars and students. The program will feature various presenters, and special for this session, a keynote address by Adrienne Edwards, whose presentation will be available for public viewing Wednesday, February 24 at 7pm. Making her first appearance at the AGO (virtually), the world-renowned Whitney Museum Curator of Performance will share insights about abstraction in Black art, which is her focus. 

Dismantle 2

Recently acquired, Denyse Thomasos. Dismantle #2, 1998. Acrylic on canvas, Overall: 160 × 183 × 4.1 cm. Gift of Richard and Donna Ivey, 2019. Courtesy of the Denyse Thomasos Estate and Olga Korper Gallery. 2019/2432

The AGO Collection is not without works that feature Black Abstraction, and with the recent unveiling of our new Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora department, more are on the way. Dismantle #2 (1998) (image above), by abstract painter Denyse Thomasos, is one of three in the AGO’s Contemporary Collection. Thomasos’s work, which is large in scale, often references architectural forms that directly relate to the historical and/or contemporary narrative of people of African descent. The grid-like, claustrophobic patchwork of Dismantle #2 (1998) is reminiscent of the bars or caging that may be found in a prison, or perhaps the lower caverns of a ship carrying human cargo during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

Julie Mehretu. Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations

Julie Mehretu. Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations, 2013. One of a suite of five etchings. Etching with aquatint, spitbite, soft ground, hardground, drypoint and engraving in black and coloured ink on paper, Sheet: 79 × 95 cm. Purchase, with funds from the Trier-Fodor Fund, 2019. © Julie Mehretu, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery 2019/2322.

Algorithyms / Apparitions / Translations (2013), a suite of five prints by Ethiopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu, was added to the AGO’s Prints and Drawings Collection in 2020. Mehretu’s semi-abstract paintings, prints and drawings serve as a surreal documentation of the human impact on landscapes. She uses a variety of layering techniques, various mixed media, and personally symbolic black line work to generate abstractions that are politicised accounts of landscapes—not only their contours, but the human history they represent. This conceptual approach holds a special significance when considering the historical erasure often faced by Black and Indigenous populations. 

While Adrienne Edwards’s keynote is a public talk, the rest of the Study Days sessions are invite-only. A recording of all sessions will be made available in the coming weeks. Please contact leah.schulli@ago.ca or chloe.wittes@ago.ca to access the recording. Works by Denyse Thomasos, Julie Mehretu and other Black artists practicing abstraction will be on view at the AGO upon reopening. 

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