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Legacies Denied: Unearthing the Visual Culture of Canadian Slavery

McGill University’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library, Montreal, Canada

A book of the same name was published in a limited print run and is housed in certain collections and libraries inducing the library in the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), Nova Scotia Archives (Halifax), and McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections, Osler, Art, and Archives (Montreal).


This exhibition catalogue is the by-product of an ambitious student exhibition that assembles an extraordinary group of art and visual culture objects of direct relevance to Trans Atlantic Slavery. The two- and three-dimensional objects include runaway slave advertisements, maps, illustrated travel and natural history books, prints, ceramics, photography and other works. In contestation of the erasure of Canadian participation in the histories of Trans Atlantic Slavery, the exhibition highlights the role of Canadian art and visual culture in producing, sustaining and contesting the enslavement of people of African descent and Natives in the territories that became Canada.

From January to April 2013, Prof. Charmaine A. Nelson led a group of sixteen talented students (14 undergraduates, 1 MA Art History, and 1 PhD Education) in an intensive course entitled “Canadian Slavery and its Legacies: A Curatorial Seminar”. On the first day of class, she did not give the students the traditional “slow day”. Instead we dove into the topic with a screening of Jennifer Holness and David Sutherland’s insightful National Film Board of Canada film Speakers for the Dead (2000). The film chronicles and interrogates the displacement of black communities around Priceville, Ontario, through the practices of strategic violence and marginalization. How the geography became racialized as white and policed through unwritten rules and invisible boundaries are the subjects of the film. In the wake of the forced out-migration, the “coloured” cemetery was abandoned, and the descendants were unable to tend the graves of their loved ones.

Instead, local whites callously desecrated the site with the adults farming the land on which the cemetery resided, strategically removing, hiding, and even paving over (on roads and in barns) the headstones and children using it as a baseball field, the grave markers serving as bases. The expendability of black bodies, the desecration of black sacred space and the erasure of black histories in Canada resonated with the students. The term unearthing, which the students carefully chose for the title of this book, paralleled the careful archaeological unearthing that was finally sanctioned and performed on the site of the cemetery in the 1990’s. This time, the digging was not the careless plowing of a hateful farmer tearing up and systematically discarding headstones, but the careful, reverent, meticulous investigation which came only with an acknowledgment of the site’s original purpose as the final resting place of the remains of individuals who mattered.

The course focused on Canadian Slavery, recuperating Canadian sites and their representation across various types, styles, and genres of art and visual culture. The students read from a wide selection of art historical and other disciplinary sources on Canadian Slavery and slavery in other Trans Atlantic locations including Brazil, Barbados, Jamaica, the American south and Europe. Although Africans and Natives were enslaved in Canada for over two hundred years, Slavery Studies scholarship regularly focuses on tropical or semi-tropical plantation contexts like the American South, the Caribbean or South America. Ironically, the long practice of slavery in Canada has been erased and disavowed in Canadian national consciousness, replaced by a celebration of the Underground Railroad (1834-1865) and the heroization of Canadians as the liberators of slaves from elsewhere.

Nelson’s course sought to critically examine Canadian slavery and its art and visual culture comparatively within the broader context of Trans Atlantic Slavery. Art History is one of the last disciplines to engage with (and to be engaged by) Trans Atlantic Slavery Studies. But while more recent publications have focused on historical art of the American South or the Caribbean, Canadian art is rarely discussed in this field.

The course assignments were not typical examinations and essays. Rather, through individual seminar presentations, the students worked directly with the exceptional collections of McGill University’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library and produced original research, which culminated in catalogue entries and final research papers. The exhibition could not have taken place without the cooperation of Dr. Richard Virr, Chief Curator. This intensive hands-on research and engagement would not have been possible without the knowledgeable support and direction of Jennifer Garland, Liaison Librarian and all of her generous colleagues who assisted the students in every facet of their research. Ann Marie Holland and Sharon Rankin (Liaison Librarians) and Greg Houston and Jennifer Innes (Digitization Administrators) also deserve special mention for their input. The library has extensive collections that are of direct relevance to the study of Trans Atlantic Slavery in Canada and elsewhere, including: the Lincoln North: The Joseph N. Nathanson Collection of Lincolniana, the Napoleon Collection, the Roy States Black History Collection and the Lawrence Lande Collection of Canadiana.

Nelson assembled the students’ sixteen chapters into a landmark publication. Due to the absence of a large amount of critical secondary sources on Canadian slavery, and the near total absence of such works within the discipline of Art History, she early advised the students that their chapters could focus exclusively on an aspect of Canadian slavery or, that they could work comparatively between Canada and another region. Although students choosing to focus exclusively on Canadian topics faced a formidable challenge, many of them bravely took up the call. While the majority of the chapters focus solely on Canada, several of them specifically tackled issues within the Montreal context (Burke, Freedman, Penttilä, Riddle), while others dealt more broadly with Quebec (Bardes, Hatoum, Ioffredi, January) and other regions of Canada (Agostino, Thomas, Zhang). But the comparative chapters are equally challenging, working between Canada and the Caribbean (Charles), the American South (Fu) and Africa (Baugier). Meanwhile, two chapters explore the place of slavery in the context of Canadian education (Kanduth, Zhang). While the majority of the chapters deal with the enslavement of people of African descent, two students also focused on Native enslavement (Ioffredi, January).

In terms of the artworks themselves, several types, styles, genres, media and periods are represented. Two students tackled the largely uncharted territory of portraiture and whiteness (Freedman, Hatoum) and two more waded into another untouched topic, slave dress in Canada (Bardes, Fu). Three students made significant contributions to the study of photography (Agostino, Thomas, Zhang), while others focused on print culture (Bardes, Baugier, Burke, Fu, January, Riddle) and still others on painting (Charles, Freedman, Hatoum). One student examined an illustrated manuscript (Ioffredi).

Several students chose topics, which forced them to work across different types, genres, media and styles of art (Bardes, Freedman, Kanduth, Penttilä, Zellars). Others explicitly tackled the topic of Canadian institutional power and investments in colonialism, slavery and racism (Agostino, Baugier, Burke, Charles, Freedman, Ioffredi, Kanduth, Penttilä, Zhang). Finally, a PhD candidate in Education, Zellars’ chapter is a poignant and deeply moving contemplation of the experiences of the enslaved that seeks to displace spectacular brutality, by focusing instead on the quotidian aspects of slave life and recuperating the practices of defiant self-definition, self-care and self-love in the face of constant physical containment and regulation.

The exhibition and catalogue are the culmination of the students’ tireless work and dedication and represents outstanding original research within the fields of Canadian Art History, Black Canadian Studies, Race and Representation and the Visual Culture of Slavery. Indeed, this exhibition catalogue is the first multi-authored Art History publication on Canadian Slavery. It needs to be stated that the students, the majority of whom are undergraduates, clearly rose to the challenge and worked consistently at a graduate student level.

This class was anything but easy. The readings, histories and Nelson’s teaching method challenged each of the students intellectually, socially and emotionally. That they stayed and worked and produced an art exhibition and a book is a testament to their profound intellects as well as to the strength of their characters.