Photography exhibition tour challenges the colonial gaze

The exhibition features over 100 photographs of Black subjects by Black photographers

Two Black femme-presenting people are crouched in what looks like a grassy front yard, with only their backsides visible. Both have dynamic disco-esque outfits on, one with hair rollers holding up their hair, and the other with a top knot and traditional hat.
PHOTO: Jorian Charlton

By: Nercya Kalino, Staff Writer

As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic is The Polygon Gallery’s latest exhibit, from February 24 to May 14. It’s part of an ongoing photography exhibition tour curated by SFU Masters alum and curator Elliott Ramsey, whose non-binary and mixed-race identity influences his artistic approaches. The exhibition is organized by Aperture and photos in the exhibition are sourced from the Wedge Collection, “Canada’s largest privately owned collection committed to championing Black artists.”

As We Rise features more than 100 photographs from “1930’s Harlem Renaissance, through post-colonial Bamako, to contemporary Toronto.” This includes images by iconic civil rights photographer Gordon Parks, Hasselblad award-winner Malick Sidibé, portraitist Carrie Mae Weems, and contemporary photographer Texas Isaiah.

The Peak interviewed Ramsey to learn more about the exhibition, in anticipation of the opening celebration on February 23.

“Black identity is a very heterogeneous and plural thing,” Ramsey stated, “Plural identities are really brought in this exhibition; different experiences and histories of migration, of work, of play, of family — all of these different representations.” Ramsey explained the focus is not only on the ethnic backgrounds of the photographers but also their immediate subjects that have Black histories and ancestry. He added these representations offer a different narration, considering the history of exclusion in “fine arts photography.” 

Ramsey explained there is a difference in approach when the subject and photographer are of the same ethnicity, compared to a photographer with a different ethnicity sympathizing with a subject. In the case of a Black photographer and subject, “the gaze is mutual and consensual.” He also pointed out there are feelings of reciprocalities, familiarity, and trust within the images shown in the exhibition. 

“Thinking about the Atlantic as the middle passage that the Black and African diaspora disperses out from, we’ve got photographers from North America, South America, Africa, and Europe,” said Ramsey. According to the press release, “the imagery produced is far from uniform. It is as varied, surprising, and heterogeneous as the Black Atlantic itself. Like a family album, it is idiosyncratic.”

Speaking on the audience’s response to the tour so far, Ramsey pointed out that their University of Toronto Art Museum exhibit in September 2022 amassed keen interest. “It’s been a lovely thing for our community,” Ramsey said. He mentioned that there was “an eager and appreciative crowd coming together for the opening in Toronto.” Ramsey looks forward to receiving the same welcome to the exhibition tour when it arrives in Vancouver. 

“I hope that all kinds of people, different audiences, come to see this exhibition. I think that with the exhibition As We Rise there is an assumption that it is a show for Black audiences and we definitely want to celebrate Black communities, Black people.” Ramsey explained. “I myself come from a mixed-race background and my father’s family is Black. This show is not only for one audience, it’s also for all audiences who haven’t seen Black culture through depiction in this kind of celebratory way.”

Ramsey also spoke on the methods of bringing the works of the various photographers together. The exhibition is based on a book published by Aperture in New York by the same name: As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic. Ramsey elaborated how the book has many photographs but “a bit of editing had to happen there, the way the book was laid out and printed there are photographs that take up two pages of spread that in actuality are very small.” 

Ramsey and Aperturedidn’t want to organize the work by geography or time.” Instead, they came up with the themes, “community, identity, and power.”

“In the context of Blackness,” he explained, “these things seem almost synonymous with each other. Your identity comes from your community and it bestows on you power and you seek to empower that community that you draw your identity from.

There is a lot to see once the exhibition tour arrives in Vancouver, including guided tour options. For more information, visit the Polygon website.