Protest photos at Ryerson show the power of activism and its influence

Images zoom in on Black history in Canada and the U.S.


The Black Lives Matter movement has a rich history of anti-racist protest to inspire it – and it didn’t all come out of the United States. 

No question the demands of the imprisoned men who fought back in the 1971 uprising at upstate New York’s Attica Correctional Facility – for education, health care, better food, religious freedom, minimum wage – remain at the root of the fight against social disparity to this day. 

Ryerson Image Centre has collaborated with BAND (Black Artists’ Networks Dialogue) to organize Power To The People: Photography And Video Of Repression And Black Protest, a program of concurrent exhibitions that take the uprising as a starting point to chronicle Black political activism. In the main exhibit, music, magazines, posters, film and television clips and other cultural artifacts bring to life the social justice movements of the 60s and 70s in the U.S. 

Other exhibits include a video portrait of former Black Panther Party member David Hillard by Adam Pendleton and a portrait series by Dawoud Bey of Birmingham residents who stand in for victims of the 1963 Ku Klux Klan church bombing in that Alabama city. Vividly evocative images of the Birmingham civil rights movement selected from Ryerson’s important Black Star Collection of photojournalism complement Bey’s project.

3 (1).jpg

© Nation Cheong

Also from Black Star is a series of photos of superstar activists Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver.

You can see images of the most influential American Black activists here, but as impressive as the accomplishments of these political superstars are, it’s their influence on Black communities across Canada that makes them essential to those trying to get a grip on our own local Black history. 

“There was a very localized, Canadian manifestation of these Afro-diasporic events (pictured in the RIC shows),” says David Austin, author of Fear Of A Black Nation. Groups like the Black United Front of Nova Scotia, founded in 1965, and the Black Education Project, started in Toronto in 1968, put into active practice many of the Black Panther Party’s programs. Black Canadians also organized the Congress of Black Writers in Montreal in 1968, and the Black Peoples Conference in Toronto in 1971.”

As the issue of Canadian anti-Blackness persisted, so did community organizing. In 1988, the police shooting of Lester Donaldson, a Black man suffering from schizophrenia, led to the creation of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), whose work can arguably be linked to the current Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter. 

2 (2).jpg

Zun Lee, A protester raises his fist chanting “No justice, no peace” during a nightly march toward the Ferguson Police Department on October 10, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Austin describes Third World Books and Crafts, owned and run by Gwendolyn and Leonard Johnston, as a hub of local organizing and consciousness raising when he was growing up in Toronto.

“We had these free-ranging conversations. Sometimes people were talking about ancient African history or African and Caribbean politics. Often times they were talking about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King.” 

The kind of activism represented in the RIC exhibits began in places like Third World Books. These are spaces that “galvanize people, that attract people: meeting places where people get to talk, exchange ideas and materials,” Austin says.  

Though images of Black protest in the 60s are extremely important, they were not always made by people in the community. No Justice, No Peace: From Ferguson To Toronto – documentary photos of protest by Zun Lee, Nation Cheong and Jalani Morgan, co-curated by Julie Crooks and Reese de Guzman of BAND Gallery – provides an African-Canadian counterpart to the RIC exhibits.  

Morgan, a Toronto-based photographer who quickly abandoned editorial fashion photography to document protests in the Black community, says, “When I was told that there would be actions, it was like, ‘Oh, I gotta do this!’ It was a call to arms.” 

As a member of the community, his goal is to humanize his subjects. Just as Black folks operated Third World Books in service of their community, Morgan makes images dedicated to the people he represents. 

“We have to produce these images, because if we don’t, someone else is going to tell the story.” 

Black History photo shows

No Justice, No Peace: From Ferguson To Toronto Zun Lee, Jalani Morgan and Nation Cheong, curated by Julie Crooks and Reese de Guzman, to February 26, at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West). 416-531-4635.

Attica, USA 1971: Images And Sounds Of A Rebellion curated by Philippe Artières with Le Point du Jour (Cherbourg, France)    

Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 Dawoud Bey and the Black Star Collection, curated bt Gaëlle Morel 

Adam Pendleton: My Education, A Portrait Of David Hilliard curated by Andréa Picard

From The Collection: Sister(s) In The Struggle: Angela Davis And Kathleen Cleaver curated by Julie Crooks, all running to April 9 at Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould). 416-979-5164.

website@nowtoronto.com | @yaniyalee

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *