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Uncovering Caribbean history

In 2019, a group of donors united to acquire a large collection of historical photographs of the Caribbean for the AGO. With Fragments of Epic Memory poised for its September 1 opening, select photographs from the Montgomery Collection will also make their AGO debut. Julie Crooks, the exhibition’s curator, describes the selection process.

Coconut Palms, Kingston Harbour

J.W. Cleary, Coconut Palms, Kingston Harbour, ca 1895, 17.53 cm x 23.11 cm. Gelatin Silver print. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. Purchase, with funds from Dr. Liza & Dr. Frederick Murrell, Bruce Croxon & Debra Thier, Wes Hall & Kingsdale Advisors, Cindy & Shon Barnett, Donette Chin-Loy Chang, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, Martin Doc McKinney, Francilla Charles, Ray & Georgina Williams, Thaine & Bianca Carter, Charmaine Crooks, Nathaniel Crooks, Andrew Garrett & Dr. Belinda Longe, Neil L. Le Grand, Michael Lewis, Dr. Kenneth Montague & Sarah Aranha, Lenny & Julia Mortimore, and The Ferrotype Collective, 2019.

The time has finally come: Fragments of Epic Memory opens this week! This major exhibition is unveiled to the public today, so we’re reflecting on how the AGO’s Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs came to be. Acquired by the AGO in 2019, this collection focuses on the period in the Caribbean from 1840 to 1940, with over 3,500 prints, postcards, daguerreotypes, lantern slides, albums and stereographs. The acquisition was driven by a unique community effort, thanks to 30 generous donors predominantly from Toronto’s Black and Caribbean communities. This trove of Caribbean history serves as a visual archive of everyday life in the region, documenting scenes of burgeoning labour on and off former plantations, with lush landscapes and studio portraits included. The Black and brown subjects and European and American photographers are largely unknown. Making their debut in Fragments is a selection of 200 historical photographs from the Montgomery Collection. We asked Julie Crooks, Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora and the exhibition’s curator, to share how she selected just over 200 photographs from the collection of 3,500. 

It began in summer 2020. “It was a multi-layered process,” Crooks recounted. “The AGO hosted the Montgomery Study Days, during which a group of scholars, artists, art historians and curators whose interests were centred on photography histories in the Caribbean came together. It was extremely useful in parsing the larger themes of the exhibition before moving on to selecting the photographs.” Crooks, with research assistant Camilla Collins Araiza, started loosely defining categories within the Montgomery Collection. For example, images of landscapes and seascapes were one, and the history of Indian indentured labour was another. Katharine Whitman, AGO Conservator, Photography, also helped guide the selection by determining which photographs could be exhibited safely.  

And what of aesthetic considerations? The Caribbean exists as much more than a tropical tourist destination with picturesque palm trees and beaches. For example, Martinique Woman, a studio photograph from circa 1890, depicts a woman in attire ascribed to the French Caribbean. The subject’s hair, clothing and accessories signify a melding of African, European and Indian influences, reflecting the complex histories of the Caribbean. 

The photographs will be displayed in custom-designed table cases throughout the exhibition, positioned in dialogue with modern and contemporary works by artists of Caribbean descent. 

Montgomery Martinique

Unknown, Martinique Woman, c.1890. Albumen print, 15 x 11cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. Purchase, with funds from Dr. Liza & Dr. Frederick Murrell, Bruce Croxon & Debra Thier, Wes Hall & Kingsdale Advisors, Cindy & Shon Barnett, Donette Chin-Loy Chang, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, Martin Doc McKinney, Francilla Charles, Ray & Georgina Williams, Thaine & Bianca Carter, Charmaine Crooks, Nathaniel Crooks, Andrew Garrett & Dr. Belinda Longe, Neil L. Le Grand, Michael Lewis, Dr. Kenneth Montague & Sarah Aranha, Lenny & Julia Mortimore, and The Ferrotype Collective, 2019.

The following story was originally shared on AGOinsider in June 2019, when the formation of the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs was first announced.

Spanning 100 years of history and featuring more than 3,500 photographs from the wider Caribbean region including Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs has arrived at the AGO and is now part of our Collection.

This incredible visual record is one of the largest and most significant of its kind and includes compelling images ranging from the 1840s to the 1940s, including prints, postcards, albums, stereographs and more. Studio portraits, landscapes and tourist views all bring to life the changing economies, environments and communities that emerged following the abolition of slavery. 

Made possible in part by the generous contributions of a group of 30 donors, the majority of whom are from Toronto’s Black and Caribbean communities, select works will go on view in Fragments of Epic Memory. The AGO’s Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora department is excited to delve deeper into the Montgomery Collection and continue the research process as it prepares for the highly anticipated exhibition.

“We know little about the photographers who took these images, and there is much to be learned about the complicated histories captured in them,” says Crooks. “A visual record of transport and migration, racialized communities, economics, geography and colonialism, they are as compelling to look at as they are to study, and we can’t wait to get started. This is the largest known collection outside of the Caribbean, and positions the AGO as a leader in Caribbean photographic research.”

The AGO’s Michael and Sonja Koerner Director, and CEO, Stephan Jost is also excited. “What we collect is what we study. What curators study is what we show. And what the AGO shows then becomes culturally important,” he says.

Book your ticket in advance to experience Fragments of Epic Memory in person beginning on Wednesday, September 1. Stay tuned for programming and events for all ages that coincide with this momentous exhibition

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