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Art Pick of the week: African Appeal

August 23rd, 2019

Violet Keene Perinchief, African Appeal, around 1935. Gelatin silver print, Overall (sheet): 64.45 x 50.80 cm. Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery © The Estate of Violet Keene Perinchief

A portrait of a Toronto jazz singer taken by a Toronto photographer; this week’s art pick may not be part of the AGO Collection, but its connection to the city is undeniable. And it’s currently on view as part of the exhibition Photography, 1920s–1940s: Women in Focus. 

African Appeal by Violet Keene Perinchief is a striking portrait of a Black woman, dressed in a headscarf and wearing hoop earrings. The subject’s gaze is intense and determined, as she makes direct eye contact with the camera lens, and us, the viewer. The studio portrait was taken by Perinchief in her studio around 1935.

The daughter of famed photographer Minna Keene, a young Violet modelled for many critically acclaimed photographs taken by her mother, including Pomegranates, which was awarded Picture of the Year at the London Photographic Salon in 1911. Working alongside her mother, Violet quickly learned how to use a camera, demonstrating her own talent for portrait photography.

Born in Bath, England, Violet moved many times with her family before settling in Toronto. After years working with her mother, Violet managed the Eaton’s photography studio and opened her own portrait studio in Oakville Ontario. An artist in high demand, Violet photographed many celebrities, including Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, author Aldous Huxley, pilot Amelia Earhart and poet W.B. Yeats.

Though the subject in African Appeal was previously unknown, recent research suggests that the sitter was Canadian jazz singer and actress Phyllis Marshall. A pioneer of Black women in the arts, Marshall was also one of Canada’s first celebrities. Throughout her long career, Marshall was a regular on the CBC program Cross-Canada Hit Parade – even voicing a Muppet for a film in 1972.

Come and take a look at Phyllis Marshall’s piercing gaze in African Appeal, on view now as part of Photography, 1920s–1940s: Women in Focus on Level 1 in the Edmond G. Odette Family Gallery (Gallery 128).

Stay tuned for next week’s Art Pick.

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