Co-curated by artist Zun Lee, What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life features more than 500 Polaroids; Curators join poet and essayist Dawn Lundy Martin for free talk happening Sept. 9
TORONTO — This fall, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) presents the first exhibition devoted to Fade Resistance, a recently acquired collection of more than 4,000 found Polaroids and instant images dating from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Collected by Toronto artist and educator Zun Lee, these lost, discarded or abandoned images of birthdays, graduations and family reunions contain powerful glimpses of African American life and community. Opening August 27, 2022 and featuring more than 500 photographs from that collection, What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life, is co-curated by Lee and the AGO’s Curator of Photography, Sophie Hackett.
Very little is known about any of the individual images in the Fade Resistance Collection – neither where or by whom they were taken, who they depict, nor how they came to be lost, but seen together they stand as a powerful testament to Black life and tragedy and hope. Their acquisition by the AGO in 2018 was the impetus for a round table conversation in 2019 entitled Ways of Caring, that saw Lee bring together critics and artists including Deanna Bowen, Stefano Harney, Fred Moten and Michele Pearson Clarke, to discuss how best to activate and interact with these images. In this exhibition, visitors are encouraged to consider how these images might have come to be lost, and what it means for them to be seen, at the AGO, now.
“For me, the power of these images is not just in what they represent, but in the many conversations they enable. They offer a rare glimpse into the richness of everyday Black life. They are also heartbreaking, as their loss reflects the ongoing social conditions that deem Black lives and culture disposable. And while I am conflicted about their institutional ownership, sustaining debate about the care and preservation of these images, and of Black visual culture, is vital,” says Lee. “Polaroids are sociable - in their act of creation people came together, touched them and shared stories and I believe this exhibition can inspire a similar experience. There is something recognizable in all these images. That spark of recognition is what leads us to these conversations, with openness and humility.”
Organized poetically, the selected images range in format and depict a variety of everyday experiences, from intimate family gatherings, to holidays, birthdays, street parties, pets, BBQ’s and special occasions. The images are displayed at eye level, on magnet boards inside Edmond G. Odette Family Gallery and as a silent slide show in the adjacent Robert & Cheryl McEwen Gallery. The exhibition acknowledges the tactile quality of Polaroids, with paper reproductions available for visitors to touch, discuss and keep.
A leader in the acquisition and preservation of vernacular photography, since 2010, the AGO has acquired numerous collections showcasing historically underrepresented photographers, makers and subjects, including the Casa Susanna Collection, a selection of photographic albums related to the First World War, the renowned Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs as well as the Fade Resistance Collection.
“Beyond captivating us visually, the Fade Resistance Collection presents yet another opportunity to think anew about the role of family photographs in a public art museum - as vehicles for reflection, as evidence of harm, as seeds for study and as an index of loss,” says Sophie Hackett, AGO Curator of Photography. “The questions these images provoke are numerous and occasionally uncomfortable, and we encourage visitors to spend time with them: What role do family photos play in forming community? How do we honour unknown makers? Can seeing private pictures in a public place have a broader social purpose?”
Visitors are invited to share their memories and stories by recording a message on the exhibition’s toll free 1-800-Fade-Resistance talk back line. These voice memos will be archived alongside the collection for posterity.
What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life will be accompanied by a hardcover publication, co-published by the AGO and Delmonico Books/D.A.P., with texts by Lee and Hackett, as well as by poet and essayist Dawn Lundy Martin, and cultural theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. Copies of the catalogue will be available in shopAGO in time for opening and are $40.
To celebrate the opening of the exhibition and launch the publication, on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. in Ballie Court, the public is invited to a free talk featuring poet and essayist Dawn Lundy Martin, alongside co-curators Lee and Hackett. A book signing will follow. For more details, visit ago.ca/events/what-matters-most.
On Nov. 5 at 2 p.m., the AGO welcomes community archivist Evelyn Auchinvole for a free talk inside the exhibition with Hamilton-based novelist Sheila Murray, about photography, community and legacy. Stay tuned to ago.ca/events for details.
On view through Jan 8, 2023, What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life is free for AGO Members, Annual Pass holders, all Indigenous Peoples and visitors aged 25 and under. For more details on how to book your tickets to or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit ago.ca.
@AGOToronto | #SeeAGO
What Matters Most is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Lead Support: David W. Binet
Generous Support: Martha LA McCain
Contemporary programming at the AGO generously supported by the Canada Council of the Arts.
ABOUT THE FADE RESISTANCE COLLECTION AT THE AGO
In 2018, thanks to a generous gift by Martha LA McCain, the AGO acquired Fade Resistance, a collection chiefly of found Polaroids documenting African American family life from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Assembled by Toronto artist and art educator Zun Lee, this Collection began with Lee’s discovery of a set of Polaroids on the streets of Detroit in 2012. These vivid images chronicle milestones such as weddings, birthdays and graduations as well as personal slice-of-life moments, offering contemporary views long ignored or erased by mainstream culture.
ABOUT THE AGO
Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists and European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. In 2019, the AGO launched a bold new initiative designed to make the museum even more welcoming and accessible with the introduction of free admission for anyone 25 years and under and a $35 annual pass. Visit AGO.ca to learn more.
The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors and private-sector partners.
For hi-res images and other press inquiries, please contact:
Wendy So; Communications Officer
Andrea-Jo Wilson; Manager, Public Relations