Image courtesy of AGO.
The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs is the centrepiece of Fragments of Epic Memory. This unprecedented group of images vividly documents a hundred years of Caribbean culture (1840 – 1940); it was acquired through a collective fundraising initiative led by members of Toronto’s Black and Caribbean communities. The impact of their efforts recently came full circle when the AGO proudly welcomed two groups of local Caribbean seniors for guided tours of Fragments of Epic Memory.
Led by Dr. Julie Crooks, AGO Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, members of the Guyanese Seniors Association as well as the Our Lady of Good Counsel Caribbean Catholic Church seniors club visited the exhibition in late September. We spoke with three members of the Our Lady of Good Counsel Caribbean Catholic Church seniors club to get a more in-depth understanding of their experience viewing the exhibition.
AGOinsider: Can you describe how it felt to see all the historical photographs of the Caribbean in the exhibition? What did it make you think about?
Aliene Gibbons: Firstly, I was astonished by the large number of photographs in the collection and above all, their preserved quality. I was honoured that this exhibition represented me and the familiarity of the life I grew up knowing. The inclusiveness of my Caribbean roots caused me to reflect on the stories that will emerge from this experience and the impact on the wider community. A reminder that the region is far more than sun, sand and the tropical paradises that are so often portrayed. I am hopeful that this dialog will continue as we too are seeking our truths and reconciliation in our own experiences.
What came to mind was the caption "What is not captured is lost" as I reflected on the exhibition. The photos and the other artworks worked together very well and brought up for me some beautiful, fond and proud moments of life in the Caribbean as I knew it. Depicted in its natural beauty, simple lifestyle, and a glance at family members and communities working together were overwhelming reminders of what I sometimes truly miss – a longing to be on home soil.
Agatha Paul: Fragments of Epic Memory was an awe-inspiring experience! Knowing the extent to which Black history has been denied, suppressed or not adequately explored, it is a step in the right direction as the AGO endeavours to disseminate historical information. The complex expressions of the works on display captured the creativity of a group of artists of African heritage who have created varied works over time, and have come together to present epic scenes of our ancestors’ lives. This brings to mind Maya Angelou’s book of poetry, And Still I Rise.
Carla Thomas: I felt proud to visit this exhibition. For the people of the Caribbean, the region is so much more than the sun, sand and sea depicted in tourist brochures. In the current Canadian context of solidarity with racialized communities, exhibitions such as Fragments of Epic Memory challenge the audience to move beyond the superficial to engage, to a degree, with the history and culture of the Caribbean in its complexity.
The artwork and photographs made me think about the importance of memory for individuals and for a nation. It is the foundation of identity and self-understanding. For this reason, I appreciated the smallest and oldest photographs carefully preserved, as well as the short film of life during the colonial era. At a time when social media schools us to be fleeting in how we relate with images and ideas, there was something beautiful and stable about these historical photographs. They invited us into the memory of our past with its shadows and light.
As a Guyanese national, I was thrilled to encounter the work of at least three artists from my homeland – Aubrey Williams, Frank Bowling and Suchitra Mattai, whose piece included a portion of her mother’s sari. The diversity of their pieces reflected the multicultural heritage of Guyana. Even though I have never met these artists, I feel connected to them because of our memory of ‘home’ and its history.
AGOinsider: Did you have a favourite artwork or photograph from the exhibition? Can you describe what it was and why it was special to you?
Aliene Gibbons: I loved several of the artworks; however, my top pick would be the artwork in the second room that showed an older black woman with a head full of very long grey hair from her crown falling and resting on her shoulders. She could be anybody’s grandma. Her features were very familiar yet distinct with some wrinkles and indication of her years. This matriarchal pose brought with it an air of beauty, sophistication, power, strength, fulfilment, knowledge and wisdom – all qualities that appear to be that younger individual who is less prominent in the photo and appears to be gazing.
Agatha Paul: There were many favourites: the photographs depicting the daily lives of slaves reminded me of my parents; my father sweating in the cane fields, or my mother walking to ‘town’ carrying fruits and vegetables to the market in a huge basket on her head. My father nor my mother were slaves – neither were their parents – but many traditions were handed to myself and my siblings and neatly woven into the fabric of our daily lives growing up in the Caribbean.
My favourite though, was Three Kings Weep by Ebony G. Patterson. The kings – royalty, enshrined in luxuries, yet with tears. My interpretation leads me to think that despite the lavish outer trappings, the internal pain remains within all who had to endure and continue to endure struggles, regardless of status. The creativity and genius of that piece left me speechless as I try to fully unravel the thinking behind Patterson’s work.
Carla Thomas: One of my favourite pieces was the very large painting by Frank Bowling. The bold colours – shades of yellow and crimson – captured both the sorrow and joy of the Caribbean experience. These colours told the story of the blood shed and lives lost over centuries of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. When I looked closely, I could indeed see shadowed faces that represented the souls of those whose lives had been taken from them and I felt very sad.
However, this painting also spoke to me of the resilience that defines Caribbean people today. There is a certain strength in Bowling’s painting and it comes from the faith, hope and love that animates the Caribbean spirit. The sheer scale of the work brings to mind for me the magnitude of the contribution that Caribbean artists, academics, athletes, writers and researchers have made to the global community, relative to the size of the region. This is not always recognized and acknowledged. The Caribbean story is one of profound suffering and loss, but this is not our only story. Bowling’s painting evokes for me the particular courage and tenacity that keeps Caribbean people moving forward in the long journey of crafting new stories. In my view, this is how we honour our ancestors best.
Don’t miss Fragments of Epic Memory, on view now at the AGO until February 2022.