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Free Black North

March 6th, 2017

New AGO assistant curator Julie Crooks is hoping visitors can help unravel the mysteries surrounding a series of 19th century photographs depicting Black Ontarians.

Unknown. [Unidentified women, Niagara Falls backdrop], 1880-1900. Tintype, 6.4 × 5.1 cm. Richard Bell Family Fonds, Brock University Archives.  Courtesy Brock University Archives, Image © 2017 Art Gallery of Ontario

To celebrate International Women’s Month, we’re highlighting some amazing women of the AGO and the projects that are keeping them busy. First up is a new addition to the team, Assistant Curator of Photography Julie Crooks, and her intriguing first exhibition.

An upcoming AGO exhibition may be small in size, but offers big intrigue. Free Black North is an installation of close to 30 rarely seen photographs of men, women and children living in Ontario in the mid-to-late 1800s, many of whom were descendants of Black refugees who escaped enslavement in the southern United States. The exhibition tells the story of how historically Black Canadian communities used photography as a tool to visualize and lay claim to their complex histories.

These portraits, drawn from collections at Brock University and the Archives of Ontario—many exhibited here for the first time—highlight how these mostly unknown individuals presented themselves with style, dignity and self-assurance.

Many of the photographs were gathered and kept safe by the late Alvin McCurdy, noted historian and anti-racism activist, and Rick Bell, retired Niagara Region

Unknown. [Unidentified man with a cigar], 1870-1880. Tintype, 8.9 × 6.4 cm. Richard Bell Family Fonds, Brock University Archives. Courtesy Brock University Archives, Image © 2017 Art Gallery of Ontario

firefighter, historian and member of the Central Ontario Network for Black History. According to Bell, the histories of these communities needed to be kept from disappearing. “I have witnessed first-hand family members enjoying a bonfire fueled by Grandma and Grandpa’s heirlooms and artifacts,” he said. “It was important for me to save the photographs because they are an important part of Canadian history.”

There is still little known about many of the subjects or the photographers of these works, but the AGO hopes that by putting them on display more information will come to light.

Free Black North is curated by the AGO’s new Assistant Curator of Photography, Julie Crooks, who joins the Gallery this month. Julie has been involved with the AGO for quite some time; she consulted with us on the Frum Collection of African Art installation in 2007, and participated on the advisory council for Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time in 2014.

Julie Crooks. Photo courtesy of the curator.

Julie holds a PhD from the Department of the History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, U.K. She has curated and co-curated a number of exhibitions in Toronto since 2006, including No Justice, No Peace: From Ferguson to Toronto in February 2017, co-curated with Reese de Guzman (co-organized by the Ryerson Image Centre and BAND). She’s also the co-curator for the Royal Ontario Museum’s Of Africa project, where she was a Rebanks Postdoctoral Fellow from 2014 to 2016.

We asked Julie how she’s feeling about kicking off her new role, and what she’s looking forward to. “I am thrilled to be working with an incredible team of colleagues,” she said. “With me, I’m bringing my ongoing research and curatorial interests in the history of photography in Africa and the diaspora, as it reflects a diverse range of photographers and their practices. I am also looking forward to adding my perspective to the AGO’s commitment to bringing relevant art to broad audiences and communities.”

Free Black North runs April 29 – August 20, and will be included in general admission. AGO Members see it free!

This exhibition is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario and presented in partnership with the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

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