Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2023, installation view

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2023, installation view at the National Gallery of Canada, 2023. © Deanna Bowen. Courtesy the artist and MKG127. Photo: NGC

Two Pages from MacLean’s: Deanna Bowen’s The Black Canadians (after Cooke)

Covering the Gallery’s south façade, Deanna Bowen’s The Black Canadians (after Cooke) is a monumental photo-based work, comprising scans of archival documents, works of art, cultural objects and ephemera spanning some 150 years of history connecting Canada, the United States, the British Empire and Africa. The second work in the Gallery’s Leading with Women series, Bowen’s project pointedly asks how dominant narratives might be unsettled by exploring the records, realities and experiences of those excluded from full participation in the freedoms of Canadian citizenship.

The “Cooke” referenced in the title of Bowen’s work derives from the article “The Black Canadian” by Toronto-based writer and sometimes playwright Britton B. Cooke in MacLean’s Magazine, in which he notes: “Roughly speaking, one might divide all Canadians into two classes, white and the others. The predominant elements in Canada are all of the former colour.” Cooke’s highly racist foray into the subject of immigration in Canada was prompted by a particularly scrutinized wave of African Americans (as well as those of mixed African/Native American heritage) fleeing deadly violence of a segregated Oklahoma by moving northward as part of The Great Migration of Black America (c.1910–1970s). Recognizing that the mixing of peoples from different ethnocultural backgrounds was inevitable, Cooke wrote, “One of the problems of Canada is to encourage the inter-mingling process. And, in order that this may be done, Canadians must be careful to let into this country only those elements with which it is possible to merge the other elements.” In this, the author was reflecting no more than what the Canadian government itself had stated earlier that same year. On 12 August 1911, under Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier and his Minister of the Interior Frank Oliver, Order-in-Council P.C. 1911–1324 was passed. The Bill proposed a one-year prohibition on the migration of Black peoples who were “deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” The Order was repealed in October 1911, prior to an upcoming federal election. Cooke’s article was published that November.

Bowen’s interest in the realities of and hysterical reactions to the “Creek-Negroes of Oklahoma” comes from a personal place: these are her direct ancestors. The tracing – and reconciling – of her family’s fragmented history of forced migration into Canada over the past century (as well as those of her kin who were part of the Exodusters movement along the Mississippi River to Kansas) has been the basis of much of the Montreal-based artist’s work and research. The Black Canadians (after Cooke) is one of Bowen’s most ambitious offerings in this respect, and follows lines of inquiry explored in recent exhibitions, including Black Drones in the Hive, organized by curator Crystal Mowry for the Kitchener–Waterloo Art Gallery (2020); The God of Gods: A Canadian Play (2019) at the Art Museum of the University of Toronto with director/curator Barbara Fischer; and The God of Gods: Berlin, Berlin, at the Gropius Bau in 2020, as part of the 11th Berlin Biennale.

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2023, detail of John Graves Simcoe, An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude, Statutes of Upper Canada, 3 George III, Cap. 7, 1793

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2023, detail of John Graves Simcoe, An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude, Statutes of Upper Canada, 3 George III, Cap. 7, 1793. Archives of Ontario. © Deanna Bowen. Courtesy the artist and MKG127

The Black Canadians (After Cooke) is conceptually structured along a timeline that begins with census data confirming the artist’s African-born great-great-great-grandfather and advances through a maternal lineage of descendants which concludes in 1943 with the birth of her Canadian mother, Leora (Risby) Smalley. Bowen summarily states of her project, “Beyond my family, this chronology also maps the over-culture/colonial legacy of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland’s abolition of slavery in 1833 through the Dominion of Canada’s evolution.”

As in the majority of the artist’s recent photo-based works that in a gallery setting are shown in varying scales, framed and hung salon style, the images in The Black Canadians (after Cooke) are at times tinted, subtly coloured, or left as is. Her artistic choices in this respect exist within an aesthetic field of play, in which positive and negative renderings and under- or over-exposed imagery consistently raise the issue of photography’s role as evidence, witness and tool of objectification.

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), detail of Black Boy, 2023

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), detail, 2023. © Deanna Bowen. Courtesy the artist and MKG127

At the centre of work is the project’s largest image, depicting a young child wearing a hat and whose features are all but obscured. We know little of this character, who in Bowen’s visual chronology faces away from the past and towards the future. The artist has cropped this picture from the first page of Cooke’s article, in which it appeared as part of several photographs of mostly anonymous Black Canadian sitters referred to anthropologically by type, for example, “A Family Group.” In the original pages, this figure was flanked by a pencil sketch titled Sunday on a Skyscraper by a twenty-something-year-old Lawren Harris. Intentional or not, the editorial decision to place these two pictures side by side is striking. On one side is a depiction of the modern Canadian city in transition, as drawn by an artist from a wealthy and connected class, who would achieve great fame for defining a dominant perspective on the Canadian landscape. On the facing page is the photogravure of an anonymous individual, placed in support of an argument in a mainstream journal that the Black presence in this country was barely tolerable in rural settings (where it could perhaps be justified if no lower-class whites were available for labour) and outright dangerous in an urban one.

Bowen has turned the MacLean’s Magazine gatefold into a work of art on several occasions. In The Black Canadians (After Cooke) she has opted, however, to focus only on one half of the frame, that of the boy. He is the centre of the narrative and – as a faceless voice from the same wave of contested migration to this country as Bowen’s family – reads as a surrogate for both the artist, her ancestors and her maternal lineage. Formally speaking, the boy divides the work in half: on the left is a story of migrations by her ancestors in a global and North American context, and to the right the context and experiences of Bowen’s forebears for the most part in Canada (with the exception of a darkened image of the violent aftermath of the Tulsa race massacre that signals the potential fate of what would have awaited her family had they not fled).

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2022

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2022. © Deanna Bowen. Courtesy the artist and MKG127

It is to the larger side of the frame, which physically stands closest to the Gallery’s entrance and adjacent to Louise Bourgeois’ towering sculpture Maman (2003), where the artist grounds the Gallery’s history, collection and archives. This includes a nod to its first director Eric Brown, who championed the Group of Seven (and Emily Carr) as synonymous with the Canadian landscape and modern Canadian art over the course of his tenure from 1910 to 1939, a legacy that persists to this day. In this corner of the work painters Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson preside alongside prime ministers and other politicians, including Frank Oliver.

There are at times deeply personal declarations associated with the work’s more troublesome imagery, such as that of Tulsa and the photograph of Ku Klux Klan members outside their Vancouver headquarters in the city’s Shaughnessy district. This was an area of town that Bowen’s grandfather warned her to avoid when she was a child. Finally, the horrors of the Second World War are evoked through an image of Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie-King at an all-German sport competition at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, during his notorious failed bid in 1937 to stave off war by seeking a well-documented audience with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, whom he admired. It was under this prime minister's watch that some of the most historically restrictive policies on immigration were implemented – statutes with violent consequences that have impacted communities of Canadians to this day. In exhibiting this image, the Gallery sought the counsel of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa for which Community Relations Specialist David Sachs provided an eloquent video response.

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2023, detail of Benjamin F. Powelson, Portrait of Harriet Tubman

Deanna Bowen, The Black Canadians (after Cooke), 2023, detail of Benjamin F. Powelson, Portrait of Harriet Tubman /Powelson, photographer, 77 Genesee St., Auburn, New York. Library of Congress. © Deanna Bowen. Courtesy the artist and MKG127.

What are the ties that bind all these pictures, subjects and stories together? In a word: history. They are all part of the indisputable (though often obscured) archival record of Canada at a crucial moment in which a still relatively young country in the decades before and after Confederation was forging its identity and place in the world through politics, art and culture. Is there a direct and causal link to be found between any one image and another? This is a more tenuous question; a vitriolic response might overlook the reality that Bowen’s artwork is precisely that – an artistic impression of documents and fact (times, places and events) juxtaposed via the age-old technique of collage. This strategy allows placement of dominant narratives against the marginalized in such a way that neither can be ignored. More specifically, The Black Canadians (after Cooke) brings global and national references and associations into direct dialogue with the protagonist Bowen stipulates is at the heart of the story: her mother. Viewed through this lens, prevailing political, artistic and sociocultural discourses are neither “worlds away,” nor abstract concepts for intellectual debate. They become the systemic bricks and mortar that have affected a life lived on and in the landscape of Canada.

Looking across to Parliament Hill and onto the Gallery’s Taiga Garden that was directly inspired by A.Y. Jackson’s 1913 painting Terre Sauvage, The Black Canadians (After Cooke) asks the country, to which Bowen’s family migrated amidst intolerance and threat, to be accountable to the full breadth and expanse of its collective history. Her towering installation posits a set of difficult and overdue questions (after Cooke's “of the two classes, white and the others”): Upon whose artworks and stories was the National Gallery of Canada initially founded – to preserve, share and uphold; whose artworks and stories have been subordinated or eclipsed; and whose artworks and stories are only now beginning to be visualized and reconciled within a more inclusive and diversely focused art history? To answer means delving into the kinds of structural and experiential queries that have been at the heart of Bowen’s critically acclaimed artistic practice for decades. An œuvre across the mediums of photography, video, printmaking, performance and, most recently, a public sculpture centred upon an unsuspecting agent of history – an anonymous Black boy pulled from the archive and rendered at a scale nothing short of monumental.


Deanna Bowen on The Black Canadians (after Cooke) – Part I

Deanna Bowen on The Black Canadians (after Cooke) – Part I of the NGC video series for YouTube .


Deanna Bowen's The Black Canadians (After Cooke), part of the Leading with Women series, is on view on the exterior south façade of the National Gallery of Canada until fall 2024. For details of the screening of Deanna Bowen's We Are From Nicodemus and the conversation with the artist on February 22, 2024, see the calendarShare this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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