The Stories Between
By Sarah Stacke.
One of the first images a visitor sees when entering Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection is a black and white portrait of Dr. Kenneth Montague, made by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. Standing against a vertically striped backdrop, the tightly checkered pattern of his shirt hovering above the loosely checkered floor, Montague raises his fists in a playful, yet commanding gesture, seeming to say, “Here I Am.”
Becoming, a recent exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, explores themes of black identity from the late 19th century to the present. The exhibition features 110 photographic portraits by more than 60 Canadian, American, English, African and Caribbean artists and is culled from the private collection of Montague, a Toronto-based dentist, collector and founder of Wedge Curatorial Projects. Becoming – title, theme and content – is inspired by a critical concept expressed in Cultural Identity and Diaspora, a seminal text by cultural theorist Stuart Hall: “Cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past…identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”[i]
The fluidity of identity and its ability to reside in the past, present and future is a principal component of Becoming’s curatorial statement. Hall’s words act as a provocative welcome and highlight the relationships that are formed between the photographic subjects and the viewer while navigating the artists’ explorations of black life. The pieces seldom rely on the conflict and stereotypes through which black communities are so often seen, and instead provide a fresh investigation of black representation built on strength, style, friendship, family and love.
Montague’s desire to select images from his private collection that simultaneously speak to the shared experiences of black culture and to his personal journey as a Canadian of Jamaican descent can occasionally feel perplexing. Becoming leaves one trying to maintain a balance between reading the exhibition as a collection that expresses complex notions of black identity or as a collection that articulates one man’s quest to identify with his history through imagery. Becoming might also be read as an exhibition composed of seductive images by prominent artists, causing one to question whether or not bringing together 110 powerful images covering many eras equals a more powerful, singular whole. Nevertheless, Montague manages to express his influences and affections for the images in a way that allows one to connect with Montague’s own cultural identity, if not a view of multiple cultural identities.
At its heart, Becoming is the result of Montague’s quest to answer the personal and profound question: “Who am I?” Montague (b. 1963) was raised by Jamaican parents who settled in Windsor, Canada in 1957. Windsor is a medium-sized city curiously located South of Detroit, Michigan and is famed as a destination for thousands traveling the Underground Railroad. Childhood summers in Jamaica connected Montague to his roots; family excursions across the narrow river separating Windsor from the United States introduced him to the vibrant African American culture of Detroit; dental conventions in Paris put him in touch with Europe’s African diaspora; and predominantly white Canada was, and remains, home. Montague’s desire to understand and connect with these converging histories created equal affinities for Aerosmith, Rush and Peter Tosh, and is what propelled him to begin collecting art in the early 1990s.
The dynamism of Becoming is grounded in its confluence of documentary and conceptual works, made by artists from around the world. Montague and the Nasher Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Trevor Schoonmaker, have created a space in which lived and imagined narratives – many concerning society’s centuries-old dance with black culture – are communicated by the imagery. The portraits are bound together by shared histories and an exploration of black identity, yet are intent on celebrating difference and individuality. “It’s about finding that thread that unites, and at the same time emphasizing the many ways in which we can be black,” exclaims Montague.[ii] His hope is that all who view Becoming will relate to, and engage with, a number of the works, either through experience, memory or imagination.
The portraits in Becoming are organized into six narrative groups: Early Works, Social Awareness, The Gaze/How you see me, American Stories: U.S. and Canada, Diasporic Journeys: England and the Caribbean, and New Thinking. Although these groupings are not based on chronology, the earliest pieces tend to represent a time when subjects had little control over the way they were depicted, while Mid-Century works offer a collaboration between artist and sitter, and many of the most recent portraits are conceptual and performative. Some aim to subvert ideas of black identity, while others turn the tables completely, making the artist the subject of his or her own photographs.
Sugar Cane Cutting (Jamaica) 1891, by an unknown photographer, is the first image in “Early Works,” made as the Americas and the Caribbean emerged from the veil of slavery. The image captures a crew of 12 men and women amidst a field of recently cut sugar cane, their backs against rows of uncut stalks that reach above their heads. A bearded master who leans on a closed umbrella the way the others might lean on a machete, is pictured among the workers. His left hand is wrapped around the joint of a willfully broken stalk, its 90-degree angle divulging the brutal work enforced by the master, which is epitomized in the bent-over figure of a single female worker in the foreground.
“Diasporic Journeys: England and the Caribbean” is where the viewer might expect to find the most direct influence of Montague’s heritage, both Jamaican and as a citizen of Canada. Nonetheless, the images in this section do not give the impression of carrying more personal weight for Montague than images from the United States, Africa and beyond. Nearly every piece in Becoming is accompanied by a text panel of Montague’s words, imparting his personal voice upon the images, and by extension the exhibition as a whole. At times, the texts assign overly conclusive meaning to the portraits, but they also express how he feels the images embody “being” and “becoming.” The text alongside eleven vintage photographs from Nassau, Bahamas states, “This is a real 1970s family photo album full of Kodak Instamatic shots…the images are in dialogue with many of the works in this exhibition. Becoming is a celebration of great photographers and their work, but is also about the little stories in between that we tell amongst ourselves. I can imagine the people dressed up for studio portraits are the same people in this photo album…these photographs are all about being and becoming.”[iii] The snapshots are spontaneously framed squares featuring vivacious, beautiful women, cast in white borders that pay no mind to heads, fingers or feet. Drinks are held high, cigarettes dangle, eyes close with laughter, shiny white platforms extend from the fluttering ends of white bell-bottoms and conversation flows. A fitting title for this small collection within a collection might be, Behind the Scenes of Becoming.
The work of Cecil Norman Ward, who was born in Canada and now lives in Jamaica, is included in “Diasporic Journeys,” as well as work by Vanley Burke, Wayne Salmon and Charlie Phillips, artists who were born in Jamaica and work in Canada or the UK. Notting Hill Couple, 1967, by Phillips pictures a young interracial couple, their gazes softly and confidently confronting the viewer. Simple wallpaper provides the backdrop, suggesting this elegant portrait was made inside their home. The young man’s arm curves around the back of his girlfriend and his hand rests comfortably and casually on her shoulder, a splendid contrast to her white sweater. Their heads touch at the temple, a tender gesture demonstrating their affection and partnership. Montague considers Notting Hill Couple a masterpiece because of its transcendent qualities. “I fell in love with this couple because of their love,” exclaims Montague. “We have a lot of conversations about race, identity and black identity at Wedge Curatorial Projects. But [in this image] it’s pretty clear that love triumphs all.”[iv]
A portrait titled Arusha, made in Africa by Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen, is included in “New Thinking,” the final section of the exhibition. Viewed alongside the earlier portraits in Becoming, the movement in black depiction can now be traced into the future. Sassen draws on her background as a fashion photographer and works with her subjects to construct stylized portraits that are playful, mysterious and above all theatrical. She often conceals her subject’s face in deep shadow, creating an unresolved tension between subject, photographer and viewer. Her unique aesthetic raises questions of representation and at the same time evokes elements of the mysticism that are a part of life in Africa. In Arusha, a woman wearing a thin black blouse decorated with pale flowers stands in front of lush green leaves, drenched in the warm sun. She is seen from the waist up and her arms hang at her sides. Her head is tilted toward her right shoulder and her gaze, only visible through her right eye confronts the viewer. With the exception of her eye and a portion of forehead, her entire face is obscured by shadow. This woman is in control of what she is willing to reveal, yet at the same time she seems to be inviting the viewer closer, tempting imagination. “Imagination,” as defined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “is forever seeking to incorporate new ideas and experiences, reaching a new, larger whole. Its end is understanding.” In other words, imagination can create a connection across great difference, a bridge between lives; it can behold new horizons.
Becoming’s greatest power is its ability to invite viewers to examine their own personal and shared histories that exist within and across cultural spaces – both the epic histories and the small in between. As David Deitcher observes, “One knows one’s past through pictures–through looking at and identifying with photographs that relate, however indirectly to one’s lived experience.”[v]
[i] Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222-37. Print.
[ii] Dr. Kenneth Montague, interview by author, October 2011.
[iii] Dr. Kenneth Montague, text panel, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
[iv] Dr. Kenneth Montague, text panel, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
[v] Deitcher, David. Alan B. Stone, Nostalgia, and the Senses of Place. http://www.daviddeitcher.com/ARTICLES/articles.html