Africa in Toronto
By Ngaire Blankenberg
Saturday was a day of contrasts. My kids and I visited a ‘faux’ refugee camp (‘Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City’) that Medecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders had set up at our neighbourhood park. Visitors (reportedly thousands) had an opportunity to see what life in a refugee camp is like by walking through an actual shelter, latrine, health clinic, food distribution area etc. The tour guides were MSF staff who had first-hand experience working in real camps. It was an excellent way for people to catch a glimpse into the refugee experience. For me, the most disturbing moment was in the first 5-minutes of the hour-long ‘tour’, when our little group of parents with their kids tried to convince a menacing guard to let us cross a border post. Eventually we were able to bribe him – but he would only let the women and girls through- the boys had to stay behind. Even in this space of make-believe, my heart leapt into my throat as I was forced to choose between going with my 11-year old daughter or staying behind to potentially defend my 8-year old son against those eager for a new recruit.
There were a number of ‘text panels’ throughout the exhibit, featuring images from real refugee camps that MSF works in. Although there were a wide variety of camps shown – such as Uganda, DRC. Columbia, Iraq, Thailand– showing people of different ethnicities, we came face to face with that all too common sight we cringe at: black children, black women, eyes vacant with misery, bodies defeated- their whole beings pleading, sad, downtrodden.Having recently moved to Toronto from South Africa, my family and I are sensitive to those images. We find ourselves, almost on a daily basis, having to respond to images that paint the continent as one rife with need, desperation or violence. The kids often tense up at school when there’s any talk of ‘Africa’- since they know it’s always in the context of poverty, hunger or disease, with no space for the reality they’ve come from.
In the afternoon, I dashed to Gallery 44 to see the last day of an exhibition “Always Moving Forward” (http://wedgegallery.netfirms.com/blog/?page_id=325) curated by Kenneth Montague and featuring the work of African photographers from his Wedge Collection. The show was part of the Contact Photography Festival finishing this weekend in Toronto and Montague was talking about his work and why he chose it. These images were in marked contrast to the ones I had seen in the park a few hours earlier. Here, I saw an Africa that was more familiar in its diversity- the joy of privilege on the face of the new black middle class in South Africa (Antony Kimani’s Berlin), the street fashionista posing proudly for the camera (“Lolo” Veleko’sVuyelwa ), or the golf impersonator (Samuel Fosso’s The Golf Player) relishing his ‘exotic’ attire.
Photographers always have their ‘outsider eyes’ on- the extent to which they are able to see things that others can’t, don’t or won’t is part of their gift, so I accept that it is slightly irrelevant to advocate for African photographers to tell their ‘own stories’. Notwithstanding- these photos were a breath of fresh air- but also a reminder of how far there is still to go to address the inequities in the world- that give resources to some artists and not others, that allow for some to get their work out there, and others not. Montague mentioned in his talk the difference in his experience seeing and acquiring work by South African photographers who are very well resourced, compared for example, to their Zimbabwean counterparts, who have to travel out of the country to find somewhere to even print their work.
Kenneth Montague’s personal passion to “reveal the complexity and diversity of African heritage’ as a collector and a curator, makes it possible for us to see these works. He searches for established and upcoming photographers that speak to a ‘global, disaporic experience of blackness’ and he supports them, in one way or another, to create new work. This patron sees his own values reflected by these artists, and his support enables them to find their public- from Bamako to Toronto. I consider myself blessed to be given a brief respite from the daily barrage of a hopeless Africa and lucky to be able to show my kids that it’s not only them who are fighting for their own space to see and be seen in this image-driven world.
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