It's no secret that Canada has a long history of systemic racism and injustice. However, much of that history has been buried deep, locked away in old filing cabinets in disused archives. Deanna Bowen's exhibit, A Harlem Nocturne, seeks to break open those cabinets and reveal that history to the world.
Deanna Bowen is an interdisciplinary artist based out of Toronto. Her work explores race, migration, historical writing and authorship. In creating A Harlem Nocturne, she spent three years combing through public and personal archives to uncover the truths of institutionalized racism that have been long forgotten or ignored.
A Harlem Nocturne takes its name from the nightclub that Bowen’s family owned and operated in Vancouver in the 1950s and 60s. It was the only Black-owned nightclub in Vancouver at the time and was subjected to repeated police raids and violence. The exhibit explores the institutionalized racism of the Canadian entertainment industry — and the country as a whole — through the stories of her family members, and others in the industry, from the 1940s through to the 1970s.
Kimberly Phillips, a curator at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, where A Harlem Nocturne was first exhibited, curated the exhibition for the McMaster Museum of Art. Phillips describes Bowen’s work as an effort to expose the past by transforming it into something that’s impossible to ignore or overlook.
“[Bowen] starts with the archival material itself, and so each [artwork] will find its own form, a new form in the world that’s very much through a process of extraction from the archive, a kind of translation, often an enlargement and kind of bringing it forward in a different form than you would’ve encountered it originally,” said Phillips.
One of the more literal ways that this is done is through the physical enlargement of a newspaper ad for the nightclub, Harlem Nocturne. The ad was originally the size of a postage stamp, but is now larger-than-life, taking up much of the gallery wall. By sizing up the ad, Bowen is calling attention to the club, inviting the audience to interact with the document and the history behind it that might have otherwise been overlooked.
“[T]here's no point in having these documents around unless you do something with them … the document existing in and of itself is not is not meaningful. It's like we have to take them up, and in order to take them up, we need to make them visible,” said Phillips.
Several of the pieces in the exhibit are hidden or obscured by black fabric, or are set up to be viewed at a distance. Phillips says that these varying levels of visibility reflect the difficulties that Bowen experienced while compiling her research.
“Deanna and I talked a little bit about how those registers of blackness does a number of things. One, which is speaking towards a kind of sense of opacity, or the kind of difficulty in … actually reaching some of this material, not because it doesn't exist or it's hard to find, but because of the blockages that [Bowen] experienced in the form of archivists and trauma, and other things that you know, different members of the community gatekeeping who gets to tell what story. But it's also a measure of protection as well of not over exposing bodies who have been subjected to discrimination and hyper visibility in certain ways,” said Phillips.
Each aspect of the show is intentional and purposeful, even choosing where to exhibit the show. When choosing where A Harlem Nocturne would be shown, both Phillips and Bowen emphasized the importance of working with other women curators. The McMaster Museum of Art’s Senior Curator is Pamela Edmonds, which is part of the reason why the show is being exhibited there.
“The word that I used to define all the people that we're working with is that they're all co-conspirators, feminist co-conspirators. And that's something that I think is super important. I liked the idea that we could generate something, a project that could span over many years and many institutions and all of it being done with women. It maybe speaks to an unspoken reality that more often than not, it is women doing this hard labour,” said Bowen.
A Harlem Nocturne blends the personal with the public. One of the pieces is a transcription of an interview between Bowen and her mother, and the exhibit itself is named after a building that was integral to her family. She says that A Harlem Nocturne is a homecoming for her, and in some ways a form of healing.
“[G]rowing up in Vancouver, my family was not always well regarded. And so if anything, I hope that people come away and feel the compassion and love that I have for these people, my family, especially for the hard edges that they have and the rough and tumble-ness of their story. These are beautiful people that have persevered over generations of resistance and discrimination and I hope that people really come to see and value their strength and importance,” said Bowen.
Bowen’s work also applies more broadly, underscoring the realities of life for Black Canadians and the injustices they continue to face today. She emphasizes the idea of perseverance in the face of adversity, and the refusal to be silenced.
“The project also helps to push against... Vancouver's old narrative about [how] 'they used to have a Black community and now it's gone.' This show for me is about affirming 'there used to be a Black community, and we're still here,' and really trying to undermine this notion of again, the demise of a Black community, locally, and then of course, nationally,” said Bowen.
Bowen hopes that viewers will leave the exhibit with new curiosity, and a desire to explore their own family history.
“I would encourage people to see themselves in what I'm doing. There's so much rich history in our own family histories. And I think it's important to emphasize that everybody's family story has some impact on the making of a nation … You know, it's about recognizing that the power to create our history and our personal and our national narrative really does kind of boil down to people like you and I,” said Bowen.
A Harlem Nocturne will be exhibiting for free at the McMaster Museum of Art from Jan.16 - May 9, 2020.