Reclaiming Caribbean history one photo at a time

The hackneyed and lazy understanding of the Caribbean is often situated between surface accounts of transatlantic slavery on the one hand and the excesses of hedonistic and exploitative tourism on the other. Seldom do we get a nuanced and multi-layered interpretation for the region and its people beyond what we are able to glean from scholarship, literature and music. This is particularly the case when we consider the history of photography in the Caribbean, a subject that has been woefully marginalized within the annals of the medium – until now.

With its recent acquisition of the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is poised to become an important site where scholars, community members and general art enthusiasts will be invited to see the Caribbean in an unprecedented light.

There are over 3,500 artifacts including daguerreotypes, albums and photographs showing the region between the post-slavery and pre-independence period (1840-1940). The collection, which includes portraits, landscapes and other subjects, is being touted as a significant cultural achievement, and is also deeply meaningful for the Caribbean community that fundraised extensively to secure it.

There are so many untold stories about life in the Caribbean after slavery. We owe a great deal to historians like Franklin W. Knight and Eric Williams for what we do know. However, seeing the region during this period through photographic image has not been readily accessible. For collector Patrick Montgomery, years of visiting the Caribbean led to questions about whether such photos even existed.

“I couldn’t find them when I visited the local historical societies,” he says over the phone from New York. “I started looking around in 2005 and, of course, I ended up finding them in auctions and on eBay and other such places.”

A decade of building the collection led to a deeper appreciation for the region. But Montgomery is quick to point out that there are a lot of unknowns about the work. Many of the images have no identifiers. And what is known about the photos suggests that many were produced for commercial use.

“Most of the photos were generated by Europeans for the purposes of tourism, and yet these photos were used to illustrate what slavery was like,” says Montgomery. “There is need for a great deal of scholarship to better understand what the photos show and to put them in their proper context.”

montgomery collection

Morin.Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs

Coolie Woman, Trinidad, a photograph taken circa 1890 by Felix Morin.

In the early 2000s, the work of the late curator and art scholar Okwui Enwezor supplied African photography with a revived importance and value within artistic circles. It’s hoped that the Montgomery Collection will do something similar in drawing attention to the history of photography in the Caribbean.

Until now, the presentation of photography from the Caribbean has been lacking, says AGO assistant photography curator Julie Crooks.

“It’s all about resources. Many of these countries just don’t have the resources to preserve their collections,” says Crooks. “That makes the [Montgomery] collection in its entirety so compelling. Here you have a collection featuring several countries from an important time period, showing a complex social history.”

Migration and the social and economic development of the region are just some of the thematic focuses present within the collection. “When you dig deeper into the collection, it really surfaces a lot of complexity and questions. Who is taking the photos? Where are they coming from? Who are these subjects?” says Crooks.

montgomery collection

Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs

Bananas, Trinidad, a photograph taken circa 1890 by Felix Morin.

Securing the collection came about through two years of fundraising within Toronto’s Black and Caribbean communities. Art collector and AGO board member Dr. Kenneth Montague was instrumental in spearheading the effort to galvanize donors.

“This is new for the Black community, locally. It’s not new within other communities, but I think this is a blueprint for subsequent purchases like this,” says Montague, who chairs the AGO’s education and community engagement committee. “It’s important that we purchased this art as a community. We’re making a statement that says for us by us.”

Montague thinks the collection will draw people who haven’t previously thought about engaging with art. “I’m always interested in learning, and how to engage diverse communities, particularly people who don’t think to go to the AGO,” he says.

“What was most urgent and essential about having this collection is that it opens up a whole new world of potential visitors. People can say, ‘Here is something that looks like my ancestors here are pictures that my grandmother could have had on her bureau.’ It’s going to be exciting to present these stories.”

The inherit value of the collection to a community that has had no prior representation in the AGO made it easier to fundraise, says Crooks. “We didn’t have to do much of a sales pitch. Everyone was interested.”

montgomery collection

Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs

Jamaican Women, a photograph taken circa 1900 by an unknown

The AGO plans to organize a series of study days for the public to engage with the collection in the run up to an exhibition in 2021. There has already been significant interest among Caribbean historians and scholars.

“This is more than just one exhibition,” says Crooks. “There are so many themes, so many stories and issues to explore within the collection. We’ll take a slow and measured approach to thinking about how to present it.”


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