#WelcomeToBlackhurst: Chinedu Ukabam Curates Black Histories of Toronto
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Interviews / November 21, 2016

#WelcomeToBlackhurst: Curating a Black History of Toronto

“Welcome to Blackhurst” is a unique group exhibition that pays tribute to the life of Toronto’s black diaspora. Find out more in this curator interview.
A group of men pose outside of the offices of Contrast newspaper in Toronto in 1976. Photo: Claudio Lewis via Twitter. A group of men pose outside of the offices of Contrast newspaper in Toronto in 1976. Photo: Claudio Lewis via Twitter.

“Welcome to Blackhurst” is an exhibition that showcases mixed-media works, including pamphlets from black-owned businesses from Bathurst and Bloor and nearby intersections, books by writers from the African and Caribbean diaspora, artwork by Naomi Moyer, photographs by John Blak, older issues of Ebony magazine, portraits of staff from local food businesses like Caribbean Roti Place, and framed magazine covers of icons like Beverly Mascoll—each item records the black history of Toronto. The exhibit also holds closely the writings by late writer and novelist Austin Clarke as well as some memorable printings of Contrast newspaper.

Bloor Street’s meeting at Bathurst marks a tributary of Toronto’s black communities, their histories of immigration and ongoing enterprise. As a timeline, histories of Toronto’s black community are marked in, among other historical moments, the arrival of black Americans via the Underground Railroad in the 1860s to, more recently, the immigration of Caribbean people in the 1960s. These events are acknowledged, paid tribute to, even as each object in the exhibition remains deeply localized to the textures of Toronto, rich in its specificity to bookstores like A Different Booklist or clothing stores like Too Black Guys.

I recently visited Markham House in Toronto to interview Chinedu Ukabam, the exhibition’s curator and designer and founder of SUPAFRIK. He is welcoming; warm but reserved, the calm sort of conversationalist. In our discussion, Ukabam extends a desire for slowness, relishing the beauty in Toronto’s black enterprise and collectivity. He also discusses the validity of the black library, and the ability to organize while thriving as immigrant-run businesses.

Aaditya Aggarwal: How did the idea to document the black history of Bathurst Street on Bloor Street (and around) come about?

Chinedu Ukabam: Well, actually, it wasn’t my idea. I was approached by Itah Sadu from A Different Booklist just down the street. This area is going to be changing very soon, so different communities in this area are looking for ways to commemorate the presence of what was here. [Itah] is familiar with my work as a curator and as a designer, and she approached me to see if it was something I’d be interested in doing. Then, together with West Bank, which is the real-estate developer and one of the main sponsors for this show, we came up with a date and a time frame. I worked on this show for about two months. I decided it’d be better as an art exhibit—but something that also had a sneaky way of making people explore history.

AA: This space is a mélange of possessions that are both personal and shared by community. The multimedia content you have curated ranges from typewritten text by Austin Clarke, to archival photographs and books by black authors. What made you curate this multidisciplinary archive of Bathurst’s black community in this way?

CU: A lot of my installations span across different mediums. Personally, that’s the kind of stuff that interests me. But also, I wanted to appeal to a wide range of people, while holding their attention. It was equally as important for it to be aesthetically pleasing and also informative. So, some mediums lend themselves better to disseminating information—such as video, because it is the type of medium that is watched and listened to versus, you know, a painting or a photograph, where you are drawn less by the information but more the composition and other aesthetic elements. It was also an excuse for me to keep on learning about different media.

AA: I’m curious as to how you conducted your research and communication for this exhibition, especially when it comes to collecting all this material from a variety of black businesses, beauty shops, bookstores and so on to really create a mix of all the activity that has been happening for very long in this area.

CU: Basically, Bloor and Bathurst is the main intersection, and everything emanates from that focal point. Being able to zoom into the area wasn’t hard.

In the beginning, the challenging part was not knowing what type of information I was looking for in the first place. I started the process more as an exploration, just talking to people who’ve worked or lived in this area first. This involved a lot of conversation and from those conversations, a lot of the framework of the exhibition began to form.

For example, Contrast newspaper, which was at 28 Lennox Street, kept on coming up in a lot of conversations. I was then able to make [Contrast] a central theme in the show because I’m trying to document the history of this neighbourhood, and that is exactly what the newspaper was doing at the time, except it wasn’t doing it as something that’s passed but something that’s [taking place in] contemporary times. So, 10 years of Contrast, which was, I’d say, about 15 to 16 per cent of my research, was bound in those black folders—each of those [contains] one year [of Contrast issues]. Going through each of those took a lot of time, but I had help from my Alexis from ERA, the architectural firm tasked with heritage. We were just combing through it, looking for any mention of Bathurst or Palmerston or Markham Street. We double-checked the addresses on Google Maps to see if they fit the area of interest. Then, going to the Toronto Reference Library as well, looking at old maps and census information.

While we collected a lot, I still had the nagging feeling that there were gaps in my knowledge. Hence, I designed the exhibition to have a crowd-sourced aspect to it as well. The show has evolved from when it started to now; you can see people pinning their memories on the wall; there’s also a library catalogue people have put photos and information in. That is the way I envisioned [the exhibition] being. If it were to be remounted, it would look different than it does now, because of all the new information that has recently been contributed.

AA: As an attendee in this space, you are encouraged to touch and feel the paraphernalia as well as write about your lived experiences, if any, from black Bathurst. This is so different from most gallery spaces, where there is a restriction on touching and feeling things. Why is inviting sensory responses from attendees important in experiencing this exhibition?

CU: Sometimes, if you go to a museum, there’s a palpable tension between you and the work on display. Between the sign telling you not to touch [a work] or security guards protecting it. I definitely wanted to break away from that. When we are talking about people and we are talking about spaces, it’s important to give that sense of ownership, because it’s real people that I’m showcasing, not something abstract or esoteric. I didn’t want the guests to feel that distance or tension; I wanted it to feel welcoming, inviting. Even so, people are not used to touching things at galleries; I have to tell them that it’s okay to open the drawers, which they think are to remain closed as part of installation. But it’s really what is inside each drawer that’s important.

I think there’s a time and place for everything, and having an exhibition where things are touched and people can contribute works in this case, but it might not work for something else. If I’m showcasing original Benin Bronze art from the 17th century, I definitely would not want people touching it, because it’s very valuable, and could also be destroyed. But here, for the most part, the things that I’ve used here are scans of originals.

Blackhurst #welcometoblackhurst

A photo posted by BATHURST ST TO (@bathurststto) on Oct 21, 2016 at 7:15pm PDT

AA: You have curated material from black businesses, beauty shops, bookstores and other places of community to create an archive that commemorates black Torontonians. In your interview with Nam Kiwanuka for The Agenda with Steve Paikin, you said, “part of the reason there is a Blackhurst is the fact that some of those black people own those places till today.” Why is it important record Toronto’s black history as something deeply entrepreneurial and even self-sufficient when we are talking about ownership in this city?

CU: I think that was probably my biggest inspiration in doing the show. I wanted it to be a celebration of black business. It was what struck me most, and it was also where I thought I could do something different, because you don’t see this quite often.

I was interested in how political figures, artists and people at the helm of social movements were overlapping with businesses. In this area, it really fit together like pieces of the same puzzle. For example, Third World Bookstore was a business, but it sold arts and crafts from local artists, and it was also a place where people held meetings around social activism and organizing. It was a hub where people would come across each other and have passionate arguments about whatever the topic of the day was.

So when you look at Third World Bookstore, it was a business, but all these other things are happening in the same space. All these issues are also being fed by the books in the space. It’s not just books in a shelf, it’s ideas—whether it’s Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X or Soul on Ice or Things Fall Apart—it’s giving physical space to abstract thought.

The same thing is happening at restaurants and other businesses. So, as much as it is a documentation of businesses, it is also one about the spaces that black businesses create.

What’s lost when you lose these type of businesses is the space to have a certain type of discourse. Social media is only a recent phenomenon, but prior to that, the loss of these spaces could have led to a literal loss of discussions in them. You are not going to have the same type of discussion you are in Third World Bookstore as you would in a Chapters Indigo. That’s the difference.

AA: Bookstores like A Different Booklist, in many ways, through their engagement with both literature and organizing, archive histories of blackness in Toronto. There’s an entire wall in your exhibition dedicated to black libraries with books. How did you conceptualize and create that segment with drawers, shelves, text and books?

CU: A Different Booklist would describe themselves as standing on the shoulders of Third World Bookstore, which came before them. Itah, from A Different Booklist, was very instrumental in pushing this exhibition forward. So books as a concept, obviously, was not going to be ignored in this exhibit; it was going to be a focal point of it.

The books you see on the shelf are supposed to represent the type of literature that would’ve been sold at Third World Bookstore, but also the books that have been influential in shaping the mindspace of black Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s.

The idea for the library catalogue came very early on during the process of putting this together. The cabinet of drawers for the library installation was actually the hardest piece, physically, to find. In the end, after looking everywhere, we were able to find it a shop that rents out furniture for movie props.

#Blackhurst #history

A photo posted by Sashoya Shoya Oya (@sashoyasimpson) on Nov 10, 2016 at 12:44pm PST

I wanted to use a library metaphor because I knew I was going to be spending time at libraries, putting this together. But I also knew libraries weren’t going to give me everything. The cabinet that I tried to create for that space is something I would have liked to see at the Toronto Reference Library, a space exclusively about the black history of Bathurst and Bloor. It obviously does not exist, but that’s part of imagining and bringing that fantasy to life. Rather than complaining about what I couldn’t find or the problem with how archives are categorized, I simply decided to create my own.

And what it has turned into is a black library of Bloor and Bathurst Street. The headline above it is actually from an issue of Contrast newspaper, referring to a black library that did exist in Toronto in the late ’60s or early ’70s. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I believe a big part of the collection of that black library is now at the Parkdale Library.

AA: In the library installation, there are some drawers that are missing and some without any contents in them. The others have pamphlets from the addresses of businesses labeled on them. There seems to be a connection between furniture, archives and the actual geography of Toronto.

CU: I was basically just looking for any type of ephemeral material that represented the address written on the drawer. Not all addresses in the neighbourhood are in that, but there are about 30. There are some drawers that are not there. I took those out as a way to say that we can never know everything. They represent the missing information, the information that has passed away with people.

There was a woman called Deborah Brown who lived just up the street from here in what would have been the 1860s. But she’s passed away, and her knowledge is dead with her. Therefore, I didn’t want to have a complete set of drawers as though everything has been captured. I wanted to pay homage and respect to the fact that many people are long gone, and the knowledge they had is gone with them.

The spaces on the wall are just people pinning their memories of different addresses. In the beginning, it was just a blank white space, and it’s now been populated. That is also going to feed into the library installation. I’m going to catalogue that later on, so then, when you open the drawers, you have new information. People who came on the opening night are also invited to come on the closing night—not only so they can see how it has evolved but also so they can see how they’ve contributed to that. Finding their own contributions in these drawers, the photos they’ve submitted now on the walls.

AA: There are clippings from Contrast newspaper on the wall. What can you tell me about your choice to depict its pages, advertorials and clippings as an archival collage?

CU: The pages on the wall are actually from a zine that was given out on opening night. We did a hundred of those for the first hundred people. I went through ten years of Contrast and put together my own magazine and it involved remixing some of the content, reworking it in Photoshop.

I wanted to do that online as well. I wanted to make sure that the exhibition was not implying in any way that the black history of the city was a time capsule. My own approach to history is to inhabit history and to use it as a way to propel forward. It is not a dusty box of old photos. I went in there and played around with it, and I’m encouraging people to do the same with these images and this information. To reflect on what it means for us today.

The stairs, each of which contain a headline from Contrast, were picked to represent turning points in Toronto’s history. Other headlines were picked because even though they were from 40 years ago, they could be from today. One headline addressing how the immigrant vote is going to go to Trudeau is talking about the current prime minister’s father. And that’s relevant. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

…headlines from CONTRAST, the community newspaper headquartered on Bathurst Street, steps you into #welcometoblackhurst…an interactive exhibition signifying the history of Bathurst St. as a nexus and hub of black presence and life in The Six…just one of many genius ways curator @chinedesign immerses visitors in the experience of this seminal commercial area in the migration and settlement of the African diaspora in the GTA…in the opening night words of the engine behind the exhibition, Itah Sadu…”where we came to make business, do business, thrive business, cross paths and live life”…exhibition on every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday until November 27th, 2016 at Markham House, 610 Markham Street in Mirvish Village across from Honest Ed’s…#blackhurst #toronto #torontoneighbourhoods #bathurststreet #bathurstandbloor #bloorandbathurst #markhamhouse #blackcommunity #blackcommunities #blackhistory #africanhistory #chinedesign #supafrik #thesix

A photo posted by Douglas Stewart (@cloglo) on Oct 16, 2016 at 5:42am PDT

AA: You have quoted locally celebrated black elders and icons in this exhibit. In part, it is also an homage to writer and novelist Austin Clarke (1934–2016). How did you decide to dedicate a section of the exhibit (with typewriters and quotes from his work) to Clarke’s legacy?

CU: Austin Clarke lived in this neighbourhood, on 432 Brunswick, I believe. He wrote for Contrast for many years; that was where he cut his teeth. Not just him, but a lot of black writers, black people in the media, whether it’s Royson James at the Toronto Star or Norman Richmond.

Clarke is one of my favourite writers. He is also one of the most known black Canadian writers. I thought it would be amiss to do this exhibition without referencing him in some way because he is so tied into the neighbourhood. What I wanted to do was make sure that he takes up space.

The typewriters represent the different typewriters that he would have written on over the course of the years. But those are not his actual typewriters. Inserted into the typewriters are excerpts from different books by Clarke where he mentions Bloor and Bathurst. In that way, while I’m memorializing him (he only passed away a few months ago) as part of this neighbourhood; he has been memorializing that intersection in his own work. I really wanted to capture how we are both encapsulating history. But it’s almost like, you know, those Russian eggs?

AA: Oh, the Matryoshka dolls?

CU: Yes, the Matryoshka dolls. You take one out and there’s one inside it. I felt like that’s something I was trying to do with this exhibition. I’m documenting the people who have themselves documented this neighbourhood.

AA: The contents of this exhibit, and its interactive nature, emphasizes community. How do you think the art gallery as a space can ground community further, especially when, for many, galleries are considered to be isolated from community building and community arts?

CU: In some sense, this exhibition is a fusion of what a gallery is supposed to be and what a museum actually is—both have two different focuses. But I think that seeing people come through this, I gained a deeper appreciation of what it means to make a space that is not only relevant, but also welcoming.

When people talk about dwindling attendance at museums, the answer might be to make stuff that is more relevant. I knew this would resonate with the black community, but it has also had a very diverse attendance, many of whom are simply curious to know about this history. People who themselves inhabit this neighbourhood, but didn’t know what came before.

Definitely, there is a lot of room and work to be done in galleries and museums. Museums, especially. I think that Toronto is about to celebrate 150 years of Canada. 1860 would have been over 150 years ago. But the black history I’m documenting predates the history of Canada itself. Doing the math just puts things into perspective.

At what point does it become important to capture the history of immigrants in Canada, whether it’s Asian or those of African origin?

You don’t have to go too far before you hit an immigrant when you are looking into the history of Canadian icons. When we are talking about Canadian immigration, we are not just talking about the last 20 or 30 years; we are talking about the last 150 years. The history of Canada is the history of immigration to Canada. And of course, there’s a history of people who have lived on this land prior to Canada becoming a country. Museums need to address all of that.

AA: What is your vision from this exhibit as a black archive in a city where gentrification is deeply racialized, and rampant in the current moment?

CU: I’m very careful using the word “gentrification,” where it applies and where it doesn’t so that the nuances are not lost.

Historically, this city has been expanded by immigrants (who couldn’t afford to live in the core) by moving a little to the east of it, a little to the west of it and building their own neighbourhoods. For that reason, you can tell a Portuguese-built house from a Polish one, because it reflects where they came from and how they built it. A lot of the times they built houses themselves.

The way that the city is expanding now is radically different from the way it had expanded before. It was people-driven in its expansion; now it is driven by developers. Some of it is by necessity. But I think that something will be lost if there isn’t a balance between the two.

I like Greek Town being Greek Town, I like Little India being Little India, I like Eglinton West having a Caribbean and Jamaican flavour. But I also know that big developments will eventually come and swallow them up. So, there has to be a way to balance; there has to be a way of maintaining the Greekness of Greek Town, the Indianness of Gerrard, and the Jamaican-ness of Eglinton West, while they are being developed.

Some of that has to do with having conversations with people. In the end, they will actually add more value. Otherwise, how do you differentiate one cluster of high-rises from another one?

“Welcome to Blackhurst” is curated by Chinedu Ukabam with the support of A Different Booklist, ERA Architects, Ontario Black History Society, Monograph Design and West Bank, who sponsored the exhibit and provided the space at Markham House in Mirvish Village. The exhibition is on until December 11.

Aaditya Aggarwal is the online editorial intern at Canadian Art. Aaditya’s twitter is @aarweasleep.