Dawit Petros’ Sign presents a formal portrait of a young Black man that directly riffs on Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait at 28, painted in the year 1500. The subject dons a hooded parka—alluding to both hip-hop culture and the Canadian landscape—as he gazes at the viewer. He wears a cross around his neck, referencing Dürer’s Christ-like posture, and holds his hand in a mimicked gesture. Petros works against Western art historical narratives and pushes viewers to critically re-think and re-examine cultural presumptions of race and identity within visual culture.
From the collector: As one of the artist’s first collectors, it has been fascinating to witness the evolution of Petros’ artistic practice. Though he has shifted towards conceptual and installation work, he retains his unique approach on representation.
Periodically, photographers take over the Maclean’s Instagram account. Here’s the story behind Position As Desired: Exploring African Canadian Identity, a collection curated by Kenneth Montague.
My parents emigrated from Jamaica to Canada in the 1950s, arriving well before the great explosion of Caribbean and African immigrants of the subsequent “Pierre Trudeau” years. Born and raised in Windsor, in a neighbourhood where we were the only Black family, I felt like an island: the only external signifiers of my black identity came in the form of the visual culture that I mostly experienced on tv and at the movies—and across the border, at cultural institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts. There, as a ten-year-old, I first encountered Harlem Renaissance artist James VanDerZee’s bold and sophisticated images of his vibrant New York City neighbourhood, and later, African American masters like Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava. As a high school student, while working as a volunteer tour guide at the North American Black Historical Museum (now the Amherstburg Freedom Museum) I learned that we, too, have a rich cultural heritage—one that I certainly wasn’t being taught in my Canadian History class.
Years later, I began exploring contemporary art that spoke to me about my own experience. Issues around race, gender, memory, migration, community, and even personal style became important themes in my growing Wedge Collection. From the start, I recognized the importance of creating a space for emerging African Canadian artists—hence the name, and the mission: a deliberate attempt to “wedge” these artists into the mainstream of contemporary art.
Position As Desired: Exploring African Canadian Identity | Photographs from the Wedge Collection is the first major exhibition to examine the history, movement and experiences of Black Canadians through contemporary photography. This touring show was co-organized with the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto) where it first opened in 2010, before travelling to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (Halifax) in 2013. It is a collection of photographs, video works and memorabilia from my personal archive—ranging from rare vintage portraits of the first African immigrants to Canada, to contemporary works by established artists. At the Art Gallery of Windsor, there is an expanded section of emerging artists and a specially commissioned video work by the In the Black Canada collective based on a series of interviews with members of Windsor’s black community.
There are many other stories to be told, and my hope is that this small, largely regional, and highly subjective selection of works from the Wedge Collection will promote further discussion concerning how each of us feels about our place in the Canadian landscape.
—Kenneth Montague, Curator