The Senate honours Canadian Black artists

Stolen Identities – a painting by Nigerian-Canadian artist Yisa Akinbolaji – was installed in the Senate of Canada Building on Friday, September 18, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Senate of Canada

Two works by internationally acclaimed Black Canadian artists were installed outside the Red Chamber on September 18, 2020 – the first art display in the Senate arranged specifically to honour Canada’s Black artists. Stolen Identities, by Winnipeg painter Yisa Akinbolaji, and Who’s Who in Canada 1927 – a mixed-media piece by Vancouver-based artist Chantal Gibson – will be on display for the next nine months.

“One of these artists is looking at the complexity of cultural identities now and one is addressing our systemic writing of Canadian history,” said Senator Patricia Bovey, an art historian and former gallery director who is chair of the Senate’s Artwork and Heritage Advisory Working Group.

The Senate represents Canada’s different regions and culturally diverse communities – representation that should extend to the artwork displayed in its buildings, Senator Bovey said.

“We at the Senate are looking at how we represent Canadians, and this is a positive step. If we’re going to have proper reconciliation, there has to be reconcili-action by everybody.”

The Manitoba senator consulted with and received support from a number of her Black colleagues in launching this project. Stolen Identities and Who’s Who? are on loan until the end of June 2021.

Stolen Identities shows Louis Riel within a Métis dream catcher hanging from Winnipeg trees. The acrylic and oil on canvas fuses the traditional colours and patterns of Mr. Akinbolaji’s native Nigeria with motifs of Indigenous history and reality.

Stolen Identities is to bring attention to the plight of the Indigenous people of Canada,” Mr. Akinbolaji said. “Their cultural artifacts and historical heroes – like you have on that painting – are celebrated, yet their women and girls have been regularly missing or murdered.”

Vancouver-based artist Chantal Gibson’s altered text Who’s Who in Canada 1927. An e-reader displaying a recording of the book’s original pages is part of the installation. | Photo courtesy of Senate of Canada

Who’s Who? is part of Ms. Gibson’s mixed-media series Historical In(ter)ventions, in which she explores the omission of Black voices in Canadian historical texts by altering books with braided and twisted black thread.

Ms. Gibson sculpted Who’s Who? from a 1927 edition of Who’s Who in Canada. A 2020 e-reader is part of the installation and plays a recording of Ms. Gibson flipping through the book’s pages and pictures as they were originally printed.

“Artwork allows us to question power and authority, and it asks the viewer to think about whose voices are included in national narratives and whose are omitted or erased,” Ms. Gibson said.

Senate Curator Tamara Dolan noted the two works have been installed in a “significant space” that otherwise contains only a bust of Queen Elizabeth II and the doors from the original Senate antechamber in Centre Block.

Senator Bovey said she tried to select works that had “tangible hooks” to senators’ and Senate committees’ work. She was a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade when it urged the federal government to increase the use of arts and culture in international diplomacy in a 2019 report.

She hopes the project to honour Black Canadian artists will continue beyond June 2021.

Senator Bovey oversaw the installation of two works by Black Canadian artists in the Senate of Canada Building as part of a new initiative to honour the country’s Black artists.