SFU celebrates Black womanhood through art

Dr. Otoniya J. Okot Bitek and Chantal Gibson embody Blackness and solidarity in their collaborative installation mounted on the SFU Belzberg Library

Photo of un/settled art installation at night on the Belzberg Library's windows. Photo courtesy of SFU.ca

Written by: Linda Kanyamuna, SFU Student

Since November of 2020, Vancouverites have been consuming the resilience, energy, and beauty of Black womanhood through visual art in the form of a 240 foot photo-poetic art installation un/settled. The piece, which resides at the intersection of West Hastings and Richards Street occupying SFU Belzberg Library’s large windows, embodies Blackness and everything that celebrates Black creativity. 

The artwork features stunning poetry written by writer and academic Dr. Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, and portrait imagery of artist-educator Chantal Gibson. On February 10, both Black creatives, along with SFU Belzberg head librarian Ebony Magnus, shared dialogue for upholding Black voices through art in an enticing panel that aimed to unpack the presence of Black bodies in urban public spaces. 

un/settled encompasses overlapping significances: from Black women representation, to challenging notions of visible blackness in public spaces, and encouraging solidarity between communities. The atwork exhibits poetry excerpts from Dr. Okot Bitek’s 100 Days which were written in response to the horrors of the Rwandan genocide in 1994:

Some of us fell between words

& some of us onto the

sharp edges

at the end of sentences

& as if we’re not impaled

we’re still falling

through

stories that don’t make sense

In discussion, Dr. Okot Bitek emphasized the use of the word “we” (which is bolded in text as a part of the installation) to symbolize solidarity. Although un/settled was created in the light of Black womanhood, the artwork is for everyone to indulge and cultivate narratives for solidarity and unity. 

It’s important to recognize the urgency of solidarity in the scope of racial justice, and that standing in solidarity for Black lives is a communal effort, that requires an ongoing willingness to support and attain equality. Moreover, unsettled means to be disturbed by what is happening around us, to question, and object to the humanity behind discriminatory enforcement.

“I want us to continue to be unsettled by the horrors [ . . . ] what will it take for us to be unsettled?” asks Dr. Okot Bitek after she recites the excerpt to the audience. 

As simply as she put it, this statement proposed so much more dimension to the artwork in the sense that even Dr. Okot Bitek, one of the artists behind this work, questions the extent of its impact on society. Similarly to when people chant “Black Lives Matter” in a protest, one’s intent is determined and confident; but simultaneously, there is that doubt of whether or not that pain and anger is valid enough to spark systemic change — what will it take? This uncertainty exemplifies what it means to feel unsettled: the dread of not knowing if things will be different, and the frustration of stagnancy. 

Another interesting angle introduced by un/settled is that the installation is presented as a temporary piece, hence, unsettled in its placement. Where un/settled is mounted up in Vancouver, there happens to be an abundance of permanently “settled” art pieces surrounding it, be it inside the SFU campus or in nearby areas. The temporary nature of un/settled plays on the lack of Black art within Vancouver. 

This juxtaposition speaks to the current decolonizing moment in history, where we allow people to be uncomfortable about the realities of racial inequalities. As a result, we are able to shift those emotions into learning items to actively dismantle and restructure systems that derive from, and uphold white supremacy. In any event, to see Black culture on this scale is indeed a valuable step towards acknowledging this restructuring. 

Having been closed since the pandemic, Magnus brings up the fact the SFU Belzberg Library as a social construct has always been closed for some, alluding to the exclusion of institutions built upon white supremacy. 

That being said, un/settled is so much more than a 12 foot tall Black body at a busy intersection Black womanhood is depicted in the artwork through the strands of braids, representing her crown, her history, her heritage, her protection, and her identity, all the while acknowledging her inner void through the dark, empty space on the inside of this art. The installation reminds us that Black bodies are allowed to occupy space, in a world where they are so confined. 

Mounted onto the library building, the presence of un/settled  holistically speaks to the absence of representation and Black voices within SFU as an academic institution, as well as within urban spaces in the city of Vancouver. The real estate that un/settled takes up engages the community in a special way, embracing solidarity through art.