Sylvia D. Hamilton
Thames Art Gallery
May 15 – July 5, 2015
Mining Memory, the recent exhibition by Nova Scotia-based artist, filmmaker, educator, and activist Sylvia D. Hamilton, is a complex remembrance of black histories. This plurality is to emphasize the fact that the land now known as Canada embodies multiple sites of black history, including the very area in which the exhibition takes place—Chatham-Kent, Ontario. Merging stories from Chatham’s black settlement vis-à-vis the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s with those of Black Loyalists who arrived in Nova Scotia as early as the mid-1700s, Hamilton’s exhibition reminds viewers of how histories continue to shape one’s past, present, and future memory, including those of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Curated by Andrea Fatona with an accompanying essay by curator Pamela Edmonds, Hamilton’s exhibition brings together diverse objects and artworks that require critical thinking in understanding their interrelationships. Using objects mined from the local Buxton National Historic Site & Museum such as a pen, a pot of ink, and an embroidered quilt, along with Nova Scotian artifacts like a slave auction advertisement and two hogshead barrels, these objects are re-presented throughout Thames Art Gallery as important cultural narratives to both remember and reflect upon. The large wooden barrels, as well as a pile of potatoes presented on the gallery floor, reflect the commodification of bodies and their labour throughout colonial history. However, Hamilton complicates narratives of bartering and enslavement, giving voice to the ‘freedom runners,’ whom she poeticizes on the wall through such texts as “Potato Lady” and “The Passage”:
Mary Postell sold for
A bushel of potatoes
On the main gallery wall, Hamilton hangs five massive scrolls that display the names of black loyalists, refugees, and those that were enslaved from the early 1700s to 1815 in Nova Scotia, where Hamilton’s own ancestors found themselves as descendants of the Beechville community. She does so in order to highlight the complexity of human experience that goes beyond mere memorialization and acts of witnessing—that demands an active process of remembering. By making visible the names and histories of those that have so often been rendered invisible by dominant narratives of settler-colonialism, and through the viewers’ physical confrontation with the vast number of names before them, “their stories [become] stories of resistance and assertion of personhood.” Additionally, Hamilton augments the scrolls’ records of names by playing aloud a soundtrack of additional ones—of those free and unfree—drawn from T. Watson Smith’s canonical text The Slave in Canada (1899), which he presented to the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1898 as “an attempt to supply a missing chapter in Canadian history.”
The inclusion of disparate artworks, archival artifacts, and personal objects allows Hamilton to engage important conversations about black histories across time and space. These histories include those of enslavement, violence, diaspora, dispossession, freedom, resistance, and resilience. Her film Keep on Keepin’ On (2004), shown in the smaller gallery, proves this through narrativizing the unique development of African Nova Scotian communities through combination of personal photographs and text with projected images of rocky shorelines—evocative of the waters that carried bodies via the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
What are the intricacies of these cross-national histories, and what can we learn from thinking through their commonalities? Scholar Katherine McKittrick explains, “The geographies of slavery, postslavery, and black dispossession provide opportunities to notice that the right to be human carries in it a history of racial encounters and innovative black diaspora practices that, in fact, spatialize acts of survival.” For instance, Hamilton parallels the slave auction announcement from a Nova Scotia newspaper with a found ‘freedom runner’ ad, which works to complicate histories of blackness as ones of profound hardship and dispossession, but also, of survival and resilience.
Indeed, the historicization of Canada has many holes it in, as it has most often told from a dominant perspective. The ongoing legacy of settler-colonialism in the West is one that evades and effaces important cultural histories—in particular, black and Indigenous ones. However, the work of Hamilton—both in this exhibition and within her overall practice—speaks back to these dangerous elisions, allowing viewers the opportunity to learn more about their own relationship to Canada’s historical project. However, what is at stake in linking the past to the present within Fatona’s curation and between Hamilton’s arrangement of objects and artworks? How do these temporal and geographic liminalities offer viewers the opportunity to negotiate their own relationship to various histories? Wherein the colonial context of Canada, we are all implicated in processes of colonization and decolonization.
Mining Memory reminds viewers that histories continue to speak to us, such as through our experiences, interactions and relationships with material objects and memories, prompting viewers to consider the ways in which histories shape (and sometimes shift) our own identities and notions of belonging on this land.
Ellyn Walker is a writer and curator based between Toronto (Tkaronto) and Kingston (Cataraqui), on Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wendat land. Her work is informed by critical art history, decolonial theory and anti-racist methodologies, and focuses on modes of cross-cultural engagement within the arts as potential sites for resistance, re-imagination and (re)conciliation between Indigenous peoples and diverse settler communities. Her writing has been published in such venues as Prefix Photo, PUBLIC Journal, Fuse Magazine, the Journal of Curatorial Studies, BlackFlash and C Magazine, among others. Ellyn is currently a PhD student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University where she looks at the politics of alliance in contemporary curatorial and artistic practices.