- Where Are the Black Angels?
In an oblique nod to the privileged roots of public galleries, visitors to Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, a major solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), were invited to sit down and stay for a while. Patrons were not only presented with an array of visual art, including the funked-up and bedazzled takes on classic European paintings like Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe( Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010) for which the artist is known, but to bright patchwork upholstered armchairs and side tables piled high with books written by women from across the black diaspora, including Canadian writers like Esi Edugyan and Dionne Brand. But the domestic spaces that artist Mickalene Thomas wrought could not have been more different from those that have defined the AGO's distant past and near present. Deeply informed by the artist's positionality, her rooms provided a space to linger and consider the complexity and intimacies of black femininity and black women's art.
Thomas's patchwork upholstered armchairs would be familiar to those who have followed her work over the years. The armchairs also marked a point of continuity between Thomas's much-vaunted exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013 and the Toronto exhibition. Yet while the homey furnishings and welcoming gestures that characterize Thomas's aesthetic were incorporated into the AGO exhibit, their valence was markedly different from some of the artist's large-scale U.S. exhibitions. What does it mean to be invited to partake in stylistically black domestic intimacy? Or to contemplate such blackness in a space that has so clearly been reluctant to admit it and that defines itself by a particular kind of whiteness? All white walls are not created equally. In contrast to the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, until very recently the entrance fee to the AGO has been prohibitive for many residents of the city of Toronto, particularly working-class black Torontonians who might have hoped to see their faces reflected on its walls. [End Page 82]
One of Canada's largest public art galleries, the AGO was originally housed in the Grange: an historic Georgian manor built upon the ancestral and traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, and the Huron-Wendat, in 1817, two years before black people in Upper Canada were granted legal freedom. The Grange, presently the oldest brick house in Toronto, was bequeathed to the gallery in 1909 by Harriet Boulton Smith, a wealthy white Boston-born patron of the arts. Massive renovations and twentieth-century reimaginings mean that today's AGO has a footprint which fully encapsulates the Grange manor. Most visitors to Femmes Noiresonly glimpsed the old building's façade from behind glass on their way up to Thomas's show, now the entrance to the exclusive Norma Ridley Members' lounge. But on the fifth floor of the main building, Thomas had styled herself somewhat in the mode of a millennial black hostess.
Curated by Julie Crooks, Femmes Noireswas Thomas's first Canadian solo show and a landmark exhibit, since this marked only the second time such an honor had been bestowed upon a black woman artist (the first black woman to have a solo exhibition at the AGO was Wangechi Mutu in 2010). The exhibition was also a stark reminder that no black Canadianwoman has ever had a solo exhibition at the AGO. The first major exhibition of work by black Canadian artists, Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter, curated by the Diasporic African Wimmins Art Collective (DAWA), occurred in 1989, but few similar opportunities have been granted in the thirty years following that ground-breaking moment. Thomas's show was accompanied by several big-ticket events that were meant to "heal" some of these wounds. Nevertheless, Femmes Noiresrevived concerns about a continual lack of intuitional support and recognition for black women artists in Canada outlined by critics such as Anique Jordan, Connor Garel, and Yaniya Lee...