In October, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that a new department, led by curator Julie Crooks, would focus on connecting visitors to the Arts of Africa and its Diaspora. Central to the department will be the Montgomery Collection, the AGO’s 2019 acquisition of more than 3,500 photographs from 34 Caribbean countries.
It is a move that follows the 2017 creation of a Department of Indigenous & Canadian Art and reinforces the AGO’s shift to a global approach and their commitment to the meaningful representation of all peoples in art.
Diaspora and Art
The African Diaspora refers to the 14 million native Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries, forcing them to leave much of their culture behind.
The art created by those living in the Diaspora often addresses the horrors of “The Maafa,” or the atrocities committed on the African people by non-Africans. Diaspora art highlights the impact on black identity and culture, even now in the 21st century.
This is the artwork that the AGO intends to spotlight within the department, as they expand their collections and programs. They also seek to display works from the African continent.
A partnership group, Friends of Global Africa and the Diaspora (FGAD), has been formed and is designed to support the department’s work, and provide a forum for conversation and feedback from the community.
Julie Crooks, the head of the new AGO department, was an integral part of the acquisition of the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs in 2019, along with strong support from Toronto’s Black and Caribbean communities. They raised more than $300,000 to bring the historical images, dating from 1840 to 1940, to Canada.
Crooks is now curating an exhibition using these photographs, set to open in 2021. She regularly checked in with those who made the donations with Zoom calls as she went through the images, to ensure that the donors were able to share in their analysis.
Dr. Liza Murrell, the co-chair of FGAD, stated, “Supporting this acquisition has allowed us to be active participants in shaping our cultural identity.
AGO’s Ongoing Efforts
The AGO has consistently in past years attempted to become more culturally sensitive, and be understanding of the impact that art galleries can have on the collective consciousness. In 2018, they renamed an Emily Carr painting from Indian Church to Church at the Yuquot Village to remove painful language.
The AGO does not seek to rewrite history but instead bring context to the art that was developed out of colonialism. The appointment of a new department focused on showcasing African and diaspora art strengthens the AGO’s support of diversity in art.