Stan Douglas, a multidisciplinary artist, was born in Vancouver, BC, in 1960. As an African Canadian growing up in a primarily white and middle-class neighborhood, his art explores essential topics such as racial identity, class disparity, and pivotal historical incidents. He attended the Emily Carr College of Art in Vancouver and graduated in 1982 and was a young feature the following year at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s installation of Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931–1983. Although his artistic endeavors resulted in travels to places such as Cuba, New York, Lisbon, and many more, his hometown of Vancouver plays a vital role in his research into transitional periods.
Although Stan Douglas began his career as a video and installation artist in the early eighties, he shifted his focus towards photography, film, and video in the late eighties. This shift in medium came about after reading the complete works of Samuel Beckett. His videos would explore media and how it functions as a communications tool. He would also use this medium to discuss the class differences and the lasting implications of historical incidents.
The Detroit Photos
During this point in his career, he began to explore the relationship between urban cities and the people that dwell in these spaces. This exploration brought about his famed series of work, the Detroit Photos.
Douglas documented the metropolitan town of Detroit through a series of photographs taken over an eighteen-month period. A city that was once a shining example of progress is now a husk of its former glory. The series depicts a city left abandoned and buildings left in decay once the city’s occupants retreated to the suburbs. A closer examination of his work brings to the surface a city changed by civil unrest, economic and demographic changes.
Art as social commentary
Stan Douglas is recognized as one of Canada’s most internationally acclaimed and successful artists, and it is easy to see why. His work reflects and explores local issues reflecting familiar global phenomena, “I often depict minor histories, but I always try to depict a local symptom of a global condition.” He primarily focuses on the failed utopian aspiration of modernist architecture and the social realities surrounding their failure.
This failure of urban aspiration is brought to life through his exhibition Cuba; were using still photographs he displayed images of banks and living spaces after the Second World War. Douglas explores how the use and functions of these spaces and buildings have changed with time, morphing them into something entirely different than what they were intended for. In Print Shop / Auto Shop, Habana Vieja, we are told the story of a printing house, once open and thriving, now serving as an auto shop/ parking lot after its closure in 1989 due to supply shortages.
It is not surprising Stan Douglas picks locations such as Detroit or Cuba, they both reflect his work’s core theme. Themes that explore the impact of riots, revolutions, disruptions, and instances of historical significance. What set’s Stan Douglas apart, and lends to his success and relevance, is his use of art as a form of social commentary. He uses his work to explore why pivotal moments fell short and what larger factors prevented their fulfillment. Questions that are still relevant and important to this day.