SIAT artist’s Senate artwork raises social awareness for Black Canadian voices
An artwork created by acclaimed writer and artist Chantal Gibson, a university lecturer in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), is helping to challenge historic and systemic racism—from its place in the foyer outside the Canadian Senate Chamber.
The work is one of two pieces recently installed in the Senate of Canada honouring the country’s Black artists.
Gibson’s artwork, Who’s Who? is part of her mixed-media series Historical In(ter)ventions, in which she explores the omission of Black voices in Canadian historical texts by altering books with braided and twisted black cotton thread.
Gibson created the piece from a 1927 edition of Who’s Who in Canada, a work that entailed punching holes in its pages and sewing close to 2,000 threads into the sculpture.
She also incorporates into the piece a 2020 e-reader, which plays a video depicting her turning the pages of the original book.
Her unique artworks challenge Canada’s structural racism and the racist construction of history through text and other memory objects and institutions.
“Art allows us to question power and authority, and it asks the viewer to think about whose voices are included in national narratives and whose are omitted or erased,” says Gibson.
The installation was spearheaded by Senator Patricia Bovey, chair of the Senate Artwork and Heritage Advisory Working Group, to reflect within the Senate a wider representation of Canadians.
To better represent those voices, and in response to the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bovey says the installation is a first iteration of more artistic diversity to come.
“What is the point of this wall? It is essential that the Canadian voices we hear and present reflect the diversity and depth of our regions and nation,” says Bovey. “The national response to this installation has been overwhelming. May we as senators and Canadians listen and build on the messages these works convey.”
Gibson hopes the artwork, and others to follow, will highlight the critical need for a paradigm shift in society that rejects anti-Black racism.
“As an artist and educator, I see the Senate’s recognition of Black Canadian artists also reflecting the decolonial moment,” she says, “where Canadian political, cultural, and educational institutions, like SFU, are being challenged to reflect, rethink and reform the mechanisms of power that have systemically excluded, silenced and erased the voices of Black people, Indigenous people and People of Colour.
“For EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) to work, for Black lives to really matter, we must interrogate the moment rather than tokenize it.”
Reaction to the news about her national installation from peers at SFU, where EDI is a key priority, and from colleagues around the world, has been steady.
“The accolades from within SIAT and beyond have been tremendous,” says professor and SIAT director Carman Neustaedter. “Chantal is an inspiration to us all; a voice for the voiceless.
“Her research and artwork are a critical reminder of our history, and the reality that there is so much more to do when it comes to tackling pivotal topics such as anti-racism.”
Ebony Magnus, head of SFU’s Belzberg Library and former interim library manager at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary, calls the honour empowering. “To see Blackness embodied in the Senate building—Black "hair" literally overtaking and reshaping deeply racist historical narratives—in a chamber that has excluded BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) and their representations—is desperately overdue. Chantal's work is so deserving of this recognition and this stage.”
The other artwork, Stolen Identities, was created by Winnipeg painter Yisa Akinbolaji. The two pieces were installed Sept. 18.
Gibson, whose work has been featured in galleries and museums across the country, teaches writing and visual communication and is a founding member of SIAT.
Currently listed as one of the CBC’s 24 Canadian writers on the rise, she was shortlisted earlier this year for the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the world’s highest awards for poetry, for How She Read (Caitlin Press, 2019).
The decolonizing book brings together two aspects of Gibson’s research, the historical misrepresentation of Black women in Canadian art and literature, and the systemic use of the English language as a mechanism of power and oppression.
The work was also recognized with the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize at the recent BC Yukon Book Awards, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, given to Canadian women writers in recognition of their impactful work.
Says Senator Bovey: "I particularly applaud and thank the artists for their visual insights, and for permission to show these works for our and Canadians' reflection."
For more on Gibson's artwork see: chantalgibson.com