For 28 years, Toronto-based artist Robert Small has painted portraits of accomplished Black Canadians in honour of Black History Month. His artwork culminated in a poster series called LEGACY, which is currently on display at the Niagara Artists Centre.
In an interview, Small shares his journey in art, entrepreneurship, and how his creative passion became a collection of work honouring Black Canadians.
Entrepreneurship and transition into art
In the background of Small’s Zoom display, there are two of his pieces on display: “Majesty of the Mountains,” which focuses on the importance of activism, and “Celebrating African-Canadian Women,” which celebrates the accomplishments of Canadian Black women at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels.
Aside from his office, Small’s artwork has also been hung in schools across Canada, every branch of the Bank of Montreal, and as part of an anti-racism campaign in over 20 Toronto subway stations. Additionally, his art was featured on the side of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union’s Yonge and Wellesley building as a mural.
“[When I was younger], they would think that you’re some radical if you asked for a Black face on the wall,” Small recalled. “[Now, people] come to me saying they’ve grown up with my poster and that their mother used to get a poster every year.”
Aside from being a self-taught artist, Small is also an entrepreneur and educator. He graduated from the University of Windsor with degrees in sociology and criminology, and has a teaching degree from York University. Small’s first experience in entrepreneurship was through his first job outside of university at Black Pages Directory, which was a telephone listing of Black businesses in the GTA.
Small was inspired to pursue art because of the worldbuilding that he noticed in comic books. “When I was reading [comics], I was captivated [by] how the artist created a scene,” he said. “I always feel like I was there… so consequently, my interest in art developed from there,” Small said.
Similar to how colourful comic covers make people want to read the story inside, Small’s art engages viewers to learn about incredible Black Canadians who — like comic heroes — are changemakers and fighters. Small’s art was also inspired partially by history that, the artist noted, usually tends to repeat itself, excluding and forgetting people’s societal contributions in the process. “Being exposed to what other ethnic groups have experienced in Canada… shows you that you’re not alone,” Small explained. “All people have a Canadian experience, both positive and negative.”
Poster series and inspiring others
Each of the posters in Small’s LEGACY series measures 19-by-27 inches and features about five or six prominent Black figures. Small draws each person and writes captions that explain their contributions to Black history. Though the posters focus primarily on people of African descent who live in Canada, they also incorporate different aspects of African culture.
For Small, LEGACY catalogues change, as the posters inspire a future where Black Canadians have space to share their stories. “I [wanted] to create something that is known throughout my whole family,” Small said. He imagines his future family proudly pointing at his posters and saying, “Your great grandfather made that poster.”
Small also educates youth by conducting workshops targetted toward them. In February, he led an interactive workshop organized by UTSC’s The Hub, during which he shared knowledge and experience of creating value and earning money as an artist and entrepreneur. The message was important to Small, as he encourages young creatives to consider their reputation and learn about service costs.
“Is there something about you personally that has some value, that you have to add to the prices that you’re asking for?” Small posed. “Sometimes, with entrepreneurs, we get too personally attached to the cost we’re asking people and not looking long term… You might give somebody a break on the price [and] they might introduce you to 10 other people.”
Legacy and future endeavours
Late last year, Small was appointed to the Order of Canada, which is the highest honour given to Canadian citizens who contribute to the country for a lifelong or significant time. Small is one of the youngest Black recipients of the Order of Canada.
“It’s a tremendous honour to be listed among other Canadians I grew up watching [and] respecting. It’s really great for both myself as well as the community at large,” Small said.
Small, like the people he paints, is a symbol for legacy and recognizing history. But what’s next for the innovative artist?
Small plans to release an education-driven project called “Afrotastic” this year. Afrotastic will be a learning tool about African Canadians from various provinces and territories, and fields of work.
Afrotastic would also acknowledge often underrepresented demographics such as Black women and LGBTQ+ individuals. “[The learning portal is] a good learning tool for university students as well as high school students,” Small explained.
Aside from expanding Afrotastic, Small wants to continue to paint and produce posters, and gain support from new businesses. He also hinted at getting into the comic book business, saying, “I eventually want to create my own comic book… for the 18 year old in me who still yearns to get out.”
Disclosure: Jenefer Savoeung is a writer at The Hub.