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New Photography Exhibition Sheds Light on Historical Black Community in Saint John, New Brunswick

By Chris Gismondi

When Kenneth Scott inherited a family photo collection, it sparked an opportunity to claim the long presence of black New Brunswick populations as a part of the Black Diaspora. As Scott grew the collection, he contemplated how to share the photos and display them in a way that would give back to the community from which he came. The exhibition of historic photographs A Time, A Place, Our Gaze: Re-framing the Subaltern is currently installed at the Saint John Arts Centre in New Brunswick from 12 January to 8 March  2024. The curated collection depicts black life in the city as early as 1915 through to the 1960s with portraits, candid street photography, and posed scenes. The provenance and circumstances of the photos varies from unknown black photographers within the community to those commissioned by journalists following a fire in the Union Alley neighbourhood in 1954. The exhibition is an opportunity to see Saint John history through the eyes of its black residents in vernacular photographs capturing their community, strength, and resilience.

 

The African descended population of New Brunswick has deep roots in the region like the family of famed painter Edward Mitchell Bannister. The Black Diaspora in the Maritimes more broadly dates to the period of Canadian Slavery and encompassed both enslaved and free(d) black populations. The institution of slavery was practiced by both the French and British empires and expanded with the influx of black and white Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, the latter of whom arrived in regions like Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes with enslaved black people in tow. After several colonial wars like that in 1812, the population rose as black veterans, trades people, and labourers provided key roles for the industries in the bustling port city of Saint John. Established in the late 1800s, the Union Alley neighbourhood was eventually condemned in the aftermath of the fire in 1954. Many African Diasporic people called Saint John home, coming from other parts of the Maritimes, the UK, US, Australia, the Caribbean, and British Guiana. The power of A Time, A Place, Our Gaze is how it reminds Canadians of the long lasting and deep roots of black history and people in the territory now called Canada.

 

The exhibition of curated photographs celebrates and “remembers” the black history of Saint John. Scott envisioned the show to share his collection of historic photographs with his native city while also combatting the marginalization of black history. Scott’s work seeks to fill voids that are not natural, but gaps that have been manufactured to diminish and sideline black communities and black voices. The exhibition also contests counter current misconceptions of “presentism,” confronting the erroneous myth that the history of African descended people in Saint John is recent or new. Like elsewhere in Canada, these inaccurate ideas negate the presence of historic and ongoing communities of African descent and are only sustainable if histories of Canadian Slavery, that date back to the 1600s, are erased. Indeed, the long-established presence of the black community was embodied by a 100-year-old attendee at the exhibition opening, who embraced Scott’s snapshot of the city’s black history. For Scott, the exhibition is part of a process to unapologetically reprint the black community into municipal, provincial, and national historical narratives from which it has been erased. The exhibition invites us to re-discover the history of often vibrant and self-reliant African descended communities where popular perceptions and dominant narratives of the past have forgotten them.

 

One of Scott’s intentions with the exhibition revolved around highlighting self-representation through the medium of vernacular photography. These everyday scenes of life document the humanity of real people and families. In contrast, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, black communities in Canada and elsewhere were subjected to racist caricatures in various mediums as opposed to being the subjects of complex and holistic representations. Against the history of blackface minstrelsy and racist caricature, Scott provides content that showcases extreme confidence, self-awareness, and grace. Many of the sitters flaunt their refined style in their best dress as a form of expression and self-care. Notable, are women in skirt suits, girls in dresses, and boys at play in crisp white shirts. Some of the subjects stare down the lenses of the cameras at the photographers behind with gleeful smiles or demure poise.

The people pictured showcase joy, family, togetherness, and community despite the hardships or difficult conditions imposed upon them by the broader, white-dominated society steeped in racism. A photograph of Bernice Dixon after the Union Alley fire captures her cautious expression sitting on the steps of one of the tenement buildings. She had helped families escape the fire before being photographed in a wool coat and skirt with her crossed legs and one bare stockinged foot. In the foreground of the building is ash and debris, against Dixon’s stoic refinement. The photo collection offers glimpses of a tightly knit community that made do, made a way, and looked out for one another. Scott asks that we bear witness to this powerful history.

 

Significantly, this exhibition also celebrates the way the camera democratized representation. The invention, nothing short of a revolution, allowed those who were pushed to the margins to represent themselves as they saw themselves and to push back against hostile mainstream depictions. In the Black Diaspora, those racist depictions were the work of generations of white artists who deliberately created pro-slavery stereotypes of blackness to support Transatlantic Slavery. In contrast to expensive “high” art portraiture like oil paintings and marble busts which were wildly inaccessible to most people, photography studios with their speed of production and lower prices allowed various “subaltern” communities, like the African Diaspora, to access the tools of self-representation. This strategy came with immense cultural and political weight at a time when most existing cultural depictions of black people were stereotypical tropes and racist caricatures. Scott described this difference as the “friendly camera” as the subjects interact gleefully with the photographers and their cameras. The provenance of many of the photographs is not known, but some likely belonged to Scott’s great uncle. Many photos have the romantic, quaint charm of old family photo albums in black and white or sepia tones. Others demonstrate an immense familiarity between the photographer and subjects, not at all like the traditions of ethnographic representation with the dynamics of unequal power. Some photographs look up at the windows of homes, or out at scenes of gathering, but rarely down from a superior vantage point.

 

For Scott, his family, and the wider black communities of Saint John and New Brunswick, the exhibition has started a process of naming and identifying some of the subjects and settings in the photographs. This continues to apply lived experience and specific identity to these photos of early twentieth-century life in Saint John. It ensures that black history in the city, province, and nation will not be easily forgotten.

 

Curator Kenneth Scott’s, A Time, A Place, Our Gaze: Re-framing the Subaltern, is on display at the Saint John Arts Centre in New Brunswick from 12 January to 8 March 2024.

 

 

Chris Gismondi Bio

Chris Gismondi is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of New Brunswick and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada awarded art history scholar. He is also a curator and former Graduate Research Fellow of Slavery North. His research focuses on the visual and material culture of Canadian Slavery. He is queer-white settler from Dish with One Spoon, Head of the Lake Treaty no. 14 (1806) territory.