An artist’s journey home

Deanna Bowen, ON TRIAL The Long Doorway | Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

Interdisciplinary artist Deanna Bowen is in Vancouver to finish her multi-media exhibit called The Long Doorway, which is currently in post production at Vancouver’s Western Front Society. Based on a CBC program from 1956 and Bowen’s own research into her family history, the exhibit is set to challenge the way visitors see Canada and its race relations.

Co-commissioned by the Contemporary Art Gallery and Mercer Union in Toronto, The Long Doorway is a combination of a reimagined script from a 1956 CBC teledrama and the restaging of a 1964 ABC interview with the Ku Klux Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton.

The script, which was written by Canadian screenwriter Stanley Mann and starred Bowen’s own great uncle, is what Mercer Union describes as a rare dramatic work that deals with black/white race relations in Toronto and in Canada.

“[It’s] a greater thematic about black presence and media representation in Canada,” Bowen says. “All of it is rooted in my family genealogy and Canadian media history.”

Marrying many forms of media, including performances in film, dance and print, Bowen chose these tools because she feels they will help tell the story best. The footage the exhibit is based on is lost to history, but by working from the original script, Bowen has brought it back to life.

“With black archives, the archive barely exists or it hints at something that happened. A lot of the bigger story is omitted,” she says.

Bowen is also adding a dance performance to her exhibit. Working with Vancouver-based dancers and Toronto’s Seika Boye, she based the piece on an archival recording from the CBC’s Eleanor Collins’ variety show in 1955. Like all of Bowen’s work it has ties to her family.

Collins, known as ‘Vancouver’s first lady of jazz,’ comes from the same all-black community in Northern Alberta that Bowen’s family is from. With the help of Western Front, Bowen will piece these two separate projects into one solo show. The sets from Toronto will be brought to Vancouver and the original live performances will be integrated into the exhibit.

Family ties

Installation detail: Deanna Bowen, “On Trial The Long Doorway – newspaper prop,” Mercer Union, 2017.

Born in Oakland and raised in Vancouver, Bowen grew up with more than an interest in her family history. First it became her passion and then her career. With both her maternal and paternal families rooted in the Deep South of the United States, she was more than familiar with segregation. As her family fled the South and the Ku Klux Klan, they migrated through the Canadian prairies and settled throughout Canada.

Her family created four of the most Northern all-black communities in North America, which allowed them to be both free and self governed. She was able to trace her paternal side to a small all-black town, Nicodemus, Kansas. According to Bowen, the community produced some of the first black politicians in the United States, a fact thatshe feels much pride for.

“It was important for me to recognize how important both my grandfather and grandmother’s communities were within the greater Canadian historical narrative,” says Bowen.

Bowen hopes her exhibit will serve as evidence to history – the ways in which time has not changed and how much it has. Recognizing that there are all kinds of racialized histories that have not been brought forward into the mainstream, she hopes that her audience will come to realize how much work has to be done and decide to contribute by demanding more exhibits and education.

“I want people to be affected – inspired to make change, big or small,” says Bowen.

As her time in Vancouver nears its end, Bowen already has her eye on a new project. She is currently researching and developing new works based on her 2013 piece the 1911 Anti-Creek Negro Petition.

The Long Doorway will be fully open to the public next April at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery.

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