Archival materials, family documents, and personal mementos, some of them passed down to Deanna Bowen when she was young, have proven a deep source of inspiration for the multidisciplinary artist. Initially, however, two items—an oral history of a black settlement in northern Alberta and an actor’s scrapbook celebrating the vibrant black entertainment community of mid-20th-century Vancouver—were something of “a burden”, she tells the Straight, speaking by phone from her Toronto home. The two volumes of remembrances by the early-20th-century black pioneers of Amber Valley, including her great-grandparents, were particularly overwhelming.
“I inherited them when I was about 24 and the weight of that history was well beyond me at that time,” she says.
In anticipation of her solo exhibition, A Harlem Nocturne, at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Bowen is patiently providing background to her life and art practice. Opening on Friday (April 5) as part of the Capture Photography Festival, her show is complemented by two off-site works: a billboard at Fraser and Kingsway and a one-hour video to be screened at the Western Front. Foundational to the new work is Bowen’s family history. This includes the migrations of her ancestors, freed slaves from the American South, to all-black towns in Oklahoma and Kansas following the American Civil War and then, in 1909, to northern Alberta to homestead.
“The Canadian government was actively encouraging white settlers in the United States to come to Canada, but their research wasn’t so great,” Bowen says. “They were accidentally placing ads in black newspapers.” To say that the black settlers weren’t welcome in their new home is a cruel understatement. A racist campaign by local white officials, threatening violence against their black neighbours, caused the federal government to block their further immigration.
Bowen, who grew up in Vancouver, studied at the then Emily Carr College of Art and Design before moving to Toronto in 1994. She produced and exhibited art across multiple disciplines before earning her master’s degree in visual studies at the University of Toronto in 2008. Although she was already exploring ideas of family, it was “really opaque, experimental work, trying to get to a mental plane to understand what I had grown up in,” she says. “And then I ran out of ways to metaphorically speak about them and had to engage with the history as directly as I could.”
A Canada Council grant enabled her to deeply research multiple generations of her family in both Canada and the U.S., resulting in a video and performance piece.
The new works on view at the CAG also represent years of research—and family connection.
On Trial: The Long Doorway is a four-channel video installation, commissioned by the CAG and Toronto’s Mercer Union artist-run centre. It restages a mid-1950s teleplay about a black lawyer assigned to defend a white university student charged with violently assaulting a black athlete. Bowen encountered a reference to the original work while looking for information about her great uncle, the actor Herman Risby, who had a supporting role in it. Sifting through the CBC’s archival materials, she recovered the script and set designs. (No videotape of the performance had survived.)
In 2017, Mercer Union provided a space in which Bowen could workshop and videotape the drama, opening rehearsals to the public on weekends. “We were just riffing off what was on the page,” Bowen says, adding that she turned things around a bit by inverting gender roles. The videotaped workshops included conversations with the actors as a means of grappling with black Canadian identity.
The most recent body of work on view at the CAG again builds on archival materials and family memorabilia (including Risby’s scrapbook) to create a multifaceted history of Vancouver’s black entertainment community from the 1940s to the 1970s. Through the use of lightboxes, sculpture, large-scale photographs, hand-painted signage, a bookwork, and video, Bowen evokes the bodily presence of leading black singers, dancers, actors, songwriters, and choreographers of the time. Many of the people Bowen cites are related to her in some way, including a distant cousin, Choo Choo Williams. “She was a shake dancer for a nightclub called the Harlem Nocturne, which is where the name of the show comes from,” Bowen explains.
Originally located near the intersection of Hastings and Main, once the hub of the black entertainment district, the Harlem Nocturne is no longer there—nor is the community it represented. “I’m trying to map the black spaces that Vancouver has now largely forgotten,” Bowen says. “The failure to acknowledge that extended history speaks to something a little bit dark, but I can’t quite put words to it.” For now, it seems, she puts images to it instead.
A Harlem Nocturne is at the Contemporary Art Gallery from Friday (April 5) to June 16 as part of the Capture Photography Festival.