Ku Klux Klan banners hang at York University

Artist Deanna Bowen says work is meant to be provocative


Inside Deanna Bowen's exhibition (M.S.)

Three Ku Klux Klan banners prominently displayed in the vitrines overlooking York University’s Accolade East colonnade are causing people who pass by everyday to literally trip over themselves.

These pieces are part of a daring art exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University entitled Invisible Empires, which presents a collection of archival material that shows how the violent white supremacist organization had a role in 20th century Canadian history—not just American history as many Canadians likely believe.

Hanging such banners on campus seemed likely to cause an uproar among people of colour, and some were indeed initially upset. However, it seems to have sparked a conversation.

“They’re not put up to be harmful,” says Deanna Bowen, the black Toronto artist behind the exhibit. The banners are “meant to get you inside to hear more about this history.”

Bowen says the premise of Invisible Empires is to reflect on how her ancestors’ belongings were burnt to the ground in Alberta after migrating from Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma to escape lynchings and Jim Crow laws. “Most people build on this idea of Canada being a haven for blacks—the whole Underground Railroad and all of that history, which is real,” says Bowen, “but there are also these other histories about black treatment in Canada that don’t get brought forward.”

The banners outside are reproduced from a 1925 KKK mail order catalogue. Inside the exhibition are KKK archival materials in visual, audio, film and even textile forms, which are presented without any context so viewers can assign their own meanings and thoughts to what’s in front of them.

The walls are hung with pages from a 1911 petition against the immigration of blacks in Western Canada and framed newspaper clippings from 1964 that document the integration of American school systems. The Ku Klux Klan of Canada Oath and Allegiance and Oath of Secrecy documents can be viewed. There are also two mannequins dressed in recreated KKK robes.

A reenactment of an interview between Calvin Craig, “grand dragon” of the Georgia Realm of the United Klans of America and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, his fellow Klansman George Sligh, and civil rights activist Reverend James Bevel that aired on Oct. 24, 1965 on CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days, is played on a television. On opening night, January 16th, it was reenacted live.

Alexandria Williams, president of the York United Black Students’ Association, says when she initially heard about a KKK exhibition, she was angry that such material was allowed on campus.

“But that was before I knew the context,” she adds. “When I went in and I actually started reading about [Bowen], and looking at why she created this installation specifically on the KKK, it started to make me more interested.” She understands why an examination of the Klan was necessary.

Williams says experiencing Invisible Empires made her realize that the KKK’s time wasn’t so long ago and that society needs to be aware that racism is still happening today. “We have to continue to talk about racism that happens on campus, off campus, in Canada, anywhere,” she says.

Sam Ahmed, a fourth-year biomedical science major, said Bowen’s collection of KKK material is touchy for anyone who has experienced racism, but worth seeing. “Looking at all those petition forms it was sad to see how much one race tried preventing another from living in the same area.”

Bowen says she’d be disappointed if people weren’t upset. “It is meant to start a conversation.”

Admission to Invisible Empires is free. It runs until March 17 at the Art Gallery of York University.


Ku Klux Klan banners hang at York University

  1. I am a 22 year old female black student at York and I saw these and all I could think was how some ‘artist’ wants’ to desperately attract attention to them self. I wasn’t shocked at all and was more offended that the installation was meant to do nothing but exploit a time in history that was horrible.

    While the history of the Ku Klax Klan wasn’t long ago and I think it’s important to recognize history out of respect for those who lived in this horrible period in history, we could do this in other more respectable and pro-active ways.

    How is society able to progress when we keep having these irresponsible people pushing the same old way thinking in our faces. If all races need to integrate, regurgitating the past isn’t the way to do this. Many of the outspoken of today are young angry people who have no intention of fixing any problems and hanging on to facilitate even more hatred.

    I can’t help feel that the platform of most university professors today is teaching us what to think as opposed to letting us form our own opinons. I can’t help feeling that the ‘artist’ has no real opinion other than to stand on a platform that just doesnt work any longer.

    • JJ I can see where you are coming from. As somebody who does anti-racism work in this country, it’s a bit shocking to see this imagery used.

      Unfortunately in Canada, many people believe we do not have a racist past (or present, for that matter). An exhibit like this is useful in making sure people are aware that this type of racism had a place in Canada, and to some extent, had it’s hand in government just like the USA.

      I’m not sure I agree with publicly showing the imagery of such a hateful organization, but it is a story that needs to be told. As a privileged white male, I see racism every day from others around, and I’m offended when I’m not even the target of such hatred.

      As mentioned prior, racism in this country still exists. Maybe not under the banner of the KKK, but neo-nazi groups in this country are numerous, and racism is still very strong. This exhibit will hopefully open some eyes, but sadly I’m not sure it will have the intended impact that the artist hopes.

  2. Blood libel posters and a week dedicated to the destruction of Israel while students call for an antifada all whilst presenting distorted and/or untrue propoganda has opened the door wide for other forms of hate. It is one thing to have an exhibit that displays the history of the KKK in Canada and a completely different thing all together when symbols of hatred are displayed with no context to slap us all in the face. Shame on York, shame on the artist, and shame on the students who promote this garbage.

    • The only person who needs to feel shame is you for posting such vitriolic nonsense. Did you even read the story? Better angrily pound out a response, try not to break your keyboard.

  3. I saw this posters today and was really outraged considering York is such a diverse school. While it did make me question why it was up there and search for the reason (i have now found out why) – how many people would actually do that? how many people are going to ask a person they see when they pass it why its up there and strike up a convo about it.

    It looks like intense propaganda to people passing by it and if there are extremists/ racists at York they could definitely get all hot and bothered by it. Maybe they should have put a picture of Martin luther king Jr between them to really celebrate milestones