Photobook As We Rise captures the vast beauty of Black life

Anique Jordan's photo 94 Chestnut At The Crossroads (2016)
Courtesy the artist and Wedge Collection

At its best, photography has a way of holding us in its thrall, forcing us to grapple with its alluring power, especially when it speaks to the intricacies of our own experiences, lived or imagined. In their subtle capacity to pause and focus the unfolding story of our lives, photographs reveal who we are.

This is made achingly clear in the photobook As We Rise: Photography From The Black Atlantic (Aperture, $65, 184 pages), where life across the African Diaspora is celebrated and refracted in ways both personal and collective

Published by Aperture, the volume presents selected photographs from the Wedge Collection owned and curated by Toronto-based art collector Kenneth Montague. Encompassing an impressive array of images that address notions of community, identity and power, the book features over 100 artists from the UK, Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, South America and the U.S., including photography greats such as Seydou Keïta, Vanley Burke, Carrie Mae Weems, Louis Draper and Deana Lawson, among others.

With strong representation from contemporary artists such as Anique Jordan, Sandra Brewster, June Clark, Bidemi Oloyede, Dawit L. Petros and Michèle Pearson Clarke, all of whom live and work in Toronto – the book signals growing international interest in – as well as recognition for – Black Canadian artists. Interwoven with insightful writings by Teju Cole, Mark Sealy, Liz Ikiriko and Deborah Willis and other scribes, As We Rise offers a poignant and handsomely designed art book made with discernible care and love for its subject: the vast beauty of Black life.    

Throughout 25 years of art collecting, Montague has been instrumental in presenting and supporting Black Canadian artists. I spoke with him about his latest book, art collecting and sustaining artistic production.  

What motivated you to put this book out?  

Actually, it’s been a long time coming. I think the idea for the book has probably been around for at least five to 10 years. In 2007 we self-published a book called Flava, which was a wonderful thing to happen at that point in my collecting life. But the world has changed, and there is definitely a wider interest in the artists that I’ve championed. So to be approached by Aperture – a publisher of global importance to photography, one that has produced beautiful photobooks over the years – is really special. I think the idea of my being a Black collector of Black art was something they thought was significant for a variety of reasons.   

Sandra Brewster, Blur 14, 2016–17
Courtesy the artist and Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto

In Teju Cole’s introductory essay for the book, he talks about a sense of intimacy that runs through the images. Tell me about the process of selecting the works.  

The title of the book refers to my father, who passed away in 2018. He immigrated to Canada from Jamaica, which led to my growing up in Windsor. I had this tri-cultural upbringing: a little bit Caribbean, a little bit Canadian and American, which inspired my interest in art that spoke to me culturally, socially and politically. My father would always use that saying “lifting as we rise,” meaning that as we do well, we have to reach back and lift others in the community. That set the tone for the book. Also, Aperture noted that the majority of the works in my collection are from artistic practices peripheral to the UK, Africa, South America, Canada and the U.S. That gave us the Black Atlantic as a framework through which to look at the collection and make the difficult decisions around which artists would be pulled in or left out.

There are number of Black artists from Toronto in the book. What does their inclusion in a book of this significance mean to you?  

It means that our moment has arrived. We have a small but incredibly diverse and powerful Black artist community in Canada. We get overshadowed by the proportionately much larger Black community in America, where all the major art centres and publications are located. With As We Rise, I wanted to show that despite this, we have this active and vibrant scene here. I pushed hard to ensure there was a sizeable number of Black Canadian artists in the book, and I hope we’ll have a follow-up volume that will focus on Canadian artists in the Wedge Collection.  

You’ve been collecting art for over two decades. Do you see other Black collectors in Canada coming alongside you? Is there a critical mass emerging?  

I would love to see that. One of my personal missions is to influence Black folks of various means to start collecting and supporting Black artists. Another mission of mine is related to my work in art institutions. As you know, I’m a trustee at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I work to bring a local perspective there. I’m hoping my presence there can create opportunities for Black folks to move toward a situation where we control the storytelling about works from our own community.

Melisse Sunflowers (July 30, 2018) by Toronto's Michèle Pearson Clarke. From As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic.
Courtesy the artist

What’s your view on the role of the Black art critic in supporting Black artists?   

There is definitely a difference in the sensitivity and criticality that Black art critics bring. We benefited on this book by having so many Black writers. As much as possible, I’m trying to work with Black people who have a certain knowledge to bear. There are times when critics can completely miss the point or a cultural reference. We feel strongly about the need for more Black writers like Yaniya Lee and Kelsey Adams, writers who are young and up and coming, and who are thinking about Black artists with a particular perspective as the Black art market broadens and proliferates. We need representation as curators, collectors, gallerists and writers. If we don’t have this infrastructure around Black Canadian art, it won’t be sustainable.   

Are you planning an exhibition in Toronto with works from As We Rise?  

Yes, Aperture is organizing an associated exhibition tour, which opens next September at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, and we’re in talks about other international exhibitions that will follow.  


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