Sankofa: African Routes, Canadian Roots celebrates Black Canadian artists and shares powerful stories of the African diaspora

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      (This story is sponsored by the .)

      Sankofa is a proverb that comes from the Ghanaian Akan language, which embraces the idea of moving forward while reaching back to connect with one’s heritage. In symbol form, the term can be represented by a bird with its head looking backwards—representing pride and the importance of being in the world.

      For the , this philosophical idea inspired an exhibition that celebrates the expanding legacies of African and Black Canadian contemporary artists. It is on display throughout Black History Month in February and continues until March 27, 2022. 

      The meticulously curated collection—including a delicate wood sculpture of the sankofa bird—brings forward different ways of understanding the world through the lenses of African and Black communities. Those who attend the exhibition can explore the complex relationships between traditional African art and Black Canadian contemporary art.

      Sankofa figure, maker unrecorded (Asante). MOA Collection K2.368.
      Photo by Skooker Broome, courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

      “I find that the term sankofa relates to the exhibit because it’s a timely display that began with us sifting through what already belonged to the MOA in terms of African Indigenous work,” says Toronto-born and -raised Nya Lewis, guest curator and founder of BlackArt Gastown.

      is also curated by MOA curator Nuno Porto and Titilope Salami, a PhD candidate at UBC’s Department of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory. It also features an installation curated by Oluwasayo Olowo-Oke, MA candidate at UBC’s Department of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory.

      “We were attempting to reroute these cultural bodies of knowledge, at this site of ethnographical and anthropological study, and have conversations about what objects are still relevant,” says Lewis. “We thought about how they related to retribution and the current Black presence in Vancouver.”

      With a background in curatorial practice, criticism, and museum studies, Lewis has been an independent curator for the past five years. This includes helping galleries curate collections that engage Black and African histories, addressing any absences, and contributing knowledge to create spaces that are respectful and authentic. Lewis’ ongoing research on the history of Black Canadian diaspora is at the root of everything she does. 

      “Sankofa addresses the uncertain moment that many Black Canadians face when they enter a museum and encounter a historicized version of Africa,” says Lewis.

      “We didn’t want to live in anybody’s imagination or perpetuate the very stereotypical Africa—we didn’t want that at all,” she says. “It’s dense and informative because we wanted to make sure there was interconnectivity between contemporary art, Black Canadian art, reclamation, and African Indigenous studies. We wanted to forge these ideas and connections for you. We’re positioning ourselves as the experts that are sharing with you in a way that the museum has never done before.”

      In hopes of combatting any damaging misinterpretations of the objects and artwork included in the show, the MOA installed several infographics thoughtfully written by the curators.

      The mentally stimulating exhibition consists of more than 100 works from the MOA collection and 30 works by 16 contemporary artists from Lagos, Nigeria, to Vancouver, B.C. Berlynn Beam (Black Arts Vancouver), Michèle Bygodt, Chantal Gibson, Odera Igbokwe, and Chase Keetley are a few of the local artists with works featured in Sankofa.

      I am Queen Idia, the Angel of Kings by Victor Ehikhamenor.
      Photo by Sarah Race, courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

      “We also have some artists who are from Gabon but are based in France, which is really representative of the Western African diaspora. It’s a conversation between Lagos, Ghana, and Vancouver,” says Lewis, who also has art showcased at the exhibition.

      “We chose that relationship because that coast is the birthplace of the middle passage of transatlantic slavery. This was how those other West African cultures ended up travelling into South America, North America, and Europe, via the genocide that was slavery,” she says. “We didn’t attempt to do a show that would speak for the entire continent as it is not possible. But where Caribbean diaspora meets this MOA collection would be the conversation that transatlantic slavery allows us to have, which is that West African culture has travelled.”

      MOA’s latest exhibition is focused on nine themes: recognition, remembrance, reconnection, restoration, reparation, reclamation, restitution, return, and reconstruction. Visitors are encouraged to explore sections dedicated to wealth, devotion to Orishas, Islam, Christianity, looting, and repatriation.

      The curatorial variety demonstrates diversity, resilience by continued presence, and the relevance of art from Africa and by Black Canadians.

      To this day, the majority of exhibitions about Black history and culture displayed at galleries have not been curated by members of the BIPOC community. But museums are beginning to realize that collaborating with Black curators and artists is a way to introduce new perspectives and expand conversations.

      “I would love for guests to leave the museum with an understanding of the importance of centering the voices of Black and African curators, thinkers, theorists, and artists at the core of any collection that has to do with African histories, cultural production, and contemporary arts. It’s not ethically sound or possible without it,” Lewis reveals.

      With Sankofa, the curatorial team created an exhibition that was intended for the Black community first—an effort to welcome and include a group that’s been oppressed for so long. 

      “We are the only living and breathing connection, we are the archive and the new ideas. There’s a reason why this exhibit feels different—it’s because the voice behind it is different, it’s not just the museum’s voice.”

      In celebration of Black History Month, the MOA is offering free museum admission to Black and African community members all month.

      For tickets to visit the exhibition, visit