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This Black History/Black Futures Month, explore art in our collections made by artists from the African Diaspora.  

David Zapparoli. On the Bus

David Zapparoli. On the Bus, 1986, c.1990. gelatin silver print, Overall: 38.1 × 50.8 cm (15 × 20 in.). Purchase, with funds from Ken Straiton, 2019. © David Ofori Zapparoli. 2019/2262

Despite the ongoing changes of the past year, art collections remain as important as ever. Set against the backdrop of this year’s Black History/Black Futures Month, we selected work from the AGO Collection to highlight artists from the African Diaspora across genres, media and eras. And while this may be only a small selection, this round-up allows us to trace the intergenerational lines between each art work and the artists who made them. 

Art allows for the ever-changing (re)definition of what it means to be Black, especially for those living in the Diaspora. Artists included here address the complexities rife within Black identities, while still mapping the broader historical, cultural and societal lineage of Blackness. With our commitment to reflect the diversity of Ontario, along with the establishment of the new Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora department, recognizing the contributions made by artists of Black African descent is integral to our present and future. Read on to learn more about the works we’ve selected. 

One of Toronto’s very own, photographer David Zapparoli has been capturing life in the city for more than 35 years. Known for his documentary-style series on Regent Park, his black-and-white photographs often give a glimpse into Toronto’s Black communities and everyday scenes in urban spaces. On the Bus (1986) (image above) is a serene image depicting two small children and an older woman (likely their grandmother) travelling on public transit. The sunlight filtering in from the window conjures up a dreamlike quality as it casts muted, shadowy tones. The AGO recently acquired several of Zapparoli’s photographs. He was also included among 65 other artists in Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989 at the AGO in 2016.

 

Denyse Thomasos. Maiden Flight

Denyse Thomasos. Maiden Flight, 2010. acrylic on canvas, Overall: 152.4 × 182.9 cm. Gift of Gabrielle Israelievitch in memory of her beloved husband Jacques, 2018. © Denyse Thomasos Estate and Olga Korper Gallery. 2018/5

Canadian-Trinidadian painter Denyse Thomasos explicitly references the horrors and generational trauma of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in her work. Her abstract paintings, while typified with frenzied gestural paint strokes, seek to recreate the claustrophobic conditions of slave ships making their passage across the Atlantic. In Maiden Flight (2010), we see layers upon layers of rectangular shapes, converging towards the centre of the canvas, as if to collapse in on one another.

 

Lorna Simpson. Tense

Lorna Simpson. Tense, 1991. 3 gelatin silver prints and 5 plastic plaques, Overall (overall installed dimensions): 165.1 x 312.4 cm. Each print: 124.5 x 99.1 cm. Gift of Alison and Alan Schwartz, 2000. © Lorna Simpson. 2000/1343.

Tense (1991) is one of two works by conceptual photographer and multimedia artist Lorna Simpson currently in the AGO Collection. Acquired in the late 1990s, Tense depicts three black-and-white photographs. At the centre, we see small plaques inscribed with text that refer to various verb tenses. Two photos show a woman with her back turned away from the viewer and the third shows the back of what appears to be a carved African mask. Purposely ambiguous and emblematic of Simpson’s body of work during this time period, Tense touches on the female experience. What’s more, it suggests that gaps in historical education have led to the present-day lack of understanding of Black culture. As recently as last month, Simpson collaborated with singer/entrepreneur Rihanna for a 12-page portfolio inside the January/February issue of Essence magazine (an American lifestyle publication catering to African-American women). 

 

A Seat Above the Table (Warren Moon), Esmaa Mohamoud

Esmaa Mohamoud. A Seat Above The Table (Warren Moon), 2018. found rattan peacock chair, rattan, paint, tape, plastic, adhesive, nails, Overall: 289.6 × 66 × 66 cm. Purchase, with funds from Michael & Diane Hasley and Liza Mauer & Andrew Scheiner, 2019.  © Esmaa Mohamoud, courtesy Georgia Scherman Projects.  2019/2264.

A Seat Above the Table (Warren Moon) (2018) by Toronto-based sculptor and installation artist Esmaa Mohamoud was acquired by the AGO in 2019. Measuring over nine feet tall, this towering sculpture conveys pressing issues such as systemic oppression, inequality and socio-economic precarity. In structure, Mohamoud refers to the Black Panther Party (with a found rattan peacock chair) and in the title, she refers to famed Black football player Warren Moon. Mohamoud describes the impetus behind her work in perfect alignment with the original sentiment behind Black History Month:

The reality is I, and many Black people alike, were never going to get a seat at the table, so needed to create a seat that acknowledged the achievements of so many underrepresented, talented, capable people. Above all else, this piece is about the sense of agency and giving recognition to important achievements that shape who we are as a culture.”

Mohamoud was included in the 2021 cohort for the prestigious Black Rock Senegal Artists-in-Residence program, founded by painter Kehinde Wiley.

Curious to learn more about what’s in our African art collection and the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs? Scroll through last year’s Black History Month self-guided tour. Read about Mickalene Thomas’ past AGO exhibition, Tim Whiten’s Metamorphosis, Ming Smith’s legendary photographs and much, much more in the AGOinsider archives.

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