New group looks to celebrate creativity of N.B. Black community both past and present

·3 min read
New group looks to celebrate creativity of N.B. Black community both past and present
New group looks to celebrate creativity of N.B. Black community both past and present

It's not easy to keep a people's art and culture alive and relevant when their past has been buried, sometimes literally.

For David Woods, a man who has worked to promote art by Black Atlantic Canadians from his home province of Nova Scotia, that's the dilemma facing the Black community in New Brunswick.

"It was a situation where blacks were on the fringes of society. They didn't have the security of jobs and they were discriminated against," Woods said of the history of Black people in New Brunswick.

"So the things that came out of the Black community were never looked upon as something to be elevated. So if there was art, it would not have been in galleries. And therefore it was ignored."

Woods points to the career of New Brunswick-born Black painter, Edward Mitchell Bannister, who is a celebrated landscape artist in his adopted home in the U.S.

While some of Bannister's late-1800s paintings can be found in the Smithsonian, he is almost unknown in New Brunswick.

Woods said he had always found that puzzling, given he learned of Bannister as a young boy growing up in Dartmouth and has been researching him for decades.

But, he said, even the community where Bannister's ancestors lived is gone, buried beneath the golf course on the outskirts of Saint Andrews.

"I don't think you can separate in terms of the dichotomy of what's been happening with the Black community and why the art is not recognized."

That's something he hopes can change with the creation of the New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance.

A few months ago, Woods met up with Fredericton spoken word artist Thandiwe McCarthy, who lamented his province didn't have a Black arts group as Nova Scotia does.

McCarthy said Woods's response was to just do it.

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

"It was just a recognition from one Black artist to another and him saying that I don't have to wait for someone to build something. I really just have to get people together."

For McCarthy, his art has helped to create his Black identity.

"My art really stemmed from the fact that my family didn't raise me Black. They raised me, through strong character and values, to be a good person," McCarthy said, "So I always tell the story that it's almost like I found out that I was Black a year ago."

McCarthy is hoping the alliance can be the vehicle for other Black artists to find their identities.

"Searching for my identity, creativity has been the most powerful tool for me to build brick by brick, the type of character and culture that I can be proud of, and I just know through conversations with other Black artists that that has helped them, too," McCarthy said.

"And I just want to be able to offer a space where anyone who's trying to navigate their culture can have the freedom to do so, and the comfort."

Woods is also hoping the group can be a force to look back at Black creativity in New Brunswick in the past.

"A lot of the creativity of blacks was never looked at," he said. "And so this is one of the things I'm looking forward to with this new alliance, not only to look at the now, but to look back at the past and see 'What were people creating?' Because everybody creates and it's just a matter of, you know, whether you give recognition to it."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.