On February 16, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and U of T’s Black Students’ Association (BSA) visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to take a tour of the gallery’s Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora collection in honour of Black History Month. The tour included artwork from the Murray Frum Gallery of African Art, along with photography from the You Look Beautiful Like That exhibition and paintings from the Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond exhibition. 

Established in 2020, the Department of the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora aims to “address historic gaps and erasures related to the representation of Africa and its diasporas through programming, acquisitions, and exhibitions,” according to the AGO. Including both historic and contemporary artworks, ranging from sculptures and installations to prints and paintings, this AGO collection works to share the stories of African and Black artists. 

To learn more about the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, The Varsity attended the museum tour alongside the UTSU and the BSA, and interviewed Curatorial Assistant Emilie Croning, who worked on the You Look Beautiful Like That exhibition.

You Look Beautiful Like That

You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa is a current exhibition at the AGO and is on view from now until June 11. This exhibition commemorates the history of photographic practices in Africa from the 1860s to the 1980s and features artwork from Black artists such as Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, Michel Kameni, and Paul Kodjo, among others. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Croning said, “We are bringing in the focus on modern African studio photography with a strong focus on the Western central regions.” By including modern and contemporary artwork, Croning affirmed that a key purpose of this collection is “expanding how we see and interact with African art and art by artists who identify as African or are a part of the diaspora.” Additionally, she explained that this exhibition serves as an introduction to these photographers and the photographic techniques and technologies they used to capture their subjects. 

As a relatively new department, the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora worked closely with other lenders and collectors outside the AGO in order to assemble this collection. In part, this decision demonstrates the significance of the artistic community in the formation of such exhibitions.

Croning also spoke about how her curatorial practices more generally aim to support and showcase the work of emerging and local artists, specifically racialized artists and women artists. “It’s important that these works are shown to a wider audience,” said Croning on the AGO exhibition. “It’s a matter of physically inserting them in these spaces that have a long history of exclusion… It’s important to have those spaces and showcase that work.”

“The most rewarding part is the outcome,” Croning added. “Once your vision comes to life and folks are able to see it and enjoy it and spend time in the space.”

Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond

Housing more than 70 paintings, most of immense size and fortitude, this exhibition ​ held from October 5, 2022 to February 20, 2023 celebrated the artwork of the late Trinidadian-Canadian artist and UTM alum Denyse Thomasos. 

When asked about her favorite artwork from the tour, the UTSU’s Vice-President Equity Sarah Rana said that Thomasos’ entire collection was very moving. In particular, Rana liked how Thomasos used the concept of rigid lines in order to talk about the motif of imprisonment. 

The BSA’s Equity Officer Rayan Awad-Alim also found Thomasos’ work incredible. She expressed her interest in Thomasos’ portrayal of gentrification in her portraits, as well as the artist’s representation of a locked-up mind frame. 

Rana noted that “It’s important that we take the time to educate people about different kinds of art that the Black community has contributed.” Additionally, Rana expressed the importance of student clubs finding artistic and creative ways to celebrate Black History Month.