Shining a light on Vancouver’s Black communities, past and present

East End Uprising at Massy Books. | Photo by Michel Kamanzi

BlackArt Gastown is committed to preserving and promoting the historical, cultural, societal and economic contributions made by Black settlers, immigrants and their descendants to Vancouver.

The non-profit organization is presenting the collaborative installation East End Uprising, a love letter to Vancouver’s Black communities past and present, from Oct. 1 to 15 in locations across downtown Vancouver.

East End Uprising

Vancouver’s Strathcona neighborhood, adjacent to Chinatown and affectionately referred to as the East End, was a historically Black neighborhood from the early 1900s up to the 1970s. Home to Black settlers from California, Oklahoma, and Alberta, it consisted of a church, businesses, and a population of approximately 800. Notable residents included Nora Hendrix, grandmother of Jimi Hendrix, a guitarist widely regarded as one of the most influential instrumentalists in the history of rock music.

Hendrix worked as a cook at the iconic Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, a landmark for Black food and culture which operated from 1950 to 1976. Part of what was known as Hogan’s Alley, it was a hub for Black music and cultural events in Vancouver. The restaurant was eventually destroyed to make way for the construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, causing the dismantlement of one of Canada’s only Black neighbourhoods.

In 2019, BlackArt Gastown is dedicated to creating artistic and informative installations about the presence of Black history in Vancouver, while imagining the future of Black communities in the city. East End Uprising is the organization’s art showcase, presented in the form of a collaborative installation. Employing Black artists to create surrounding the theme “the anticipation of Black community,” it is described as a love letter to the Black communities that came to Vancouver in the 1900s and made Strathcona their home.

East End Uprising showcases the work of local artists in various locations across downtown Vancouver, including Massy Books, where Michel Kamanzi, a Vancouver-based queer artist from Rwanda, is exhibiting his photography project.

Proudly taking space

Michel Kamanzi, 27, moved to Ottawa from Rwanda in 2009 before relocating to Vancouver two years ago. “I consider myself Africanadian,” he confides, when asked about his relationship to Canada and to Vancouver. “I have built my home in Vancouver because this is where I have gotten to discover myself and build my own community, my own sense of self. I consider Vancouver home, the place where I am authentically myself.”

Kamanzi’s artwork celebrates the uniqueness, talent and beauty of Black individuals, highlighting the radiance and magic of claiming space in a Black body today. After creating for several years as a fashion writer and photographer, he started focusing on portraits when taking closeup pictures of his community and family members.

“It brought me a lot of joy seeing faces like my own being represented properly: exposure, composition – usually photographers do not capture Black people the same way I do,” he explains. “I want to showcase them in the proper light.”

Portraits for the East End Uprising showcase were intentionally taken around the Gastown and Strathcona area, in homage to the historic Black neighborhood. According to the artist, these photographs are reflecting “joy of life, queerness, happiness.” They focus on drawing viewers into the now, honouring both present and past Black communities in Vancouver, and documenting the lives and telling the stories around Kamanzi.

Kamanzi describes his work as an effort to change false narratives and break barriers. “Most of my work is with the queer Black community here in Vancouver,” he says.

The artist feels his work is about proudly taking space. “Because we deserve to be here, just like anybody else,” he says.

For more information, please visit:

BlackArt Gastown: www.blackartgastown.com

Michel Kamanzi’s instagram: www.instagram.com/instadoode

Massy Books: www.massybooks.com

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