Volume XIII, Number 1, Spring 2017

"Changemakers: (self) Representation in a Kaleidoscope of Blackness" by Joana Joachim

Joana Joachim is a PhD student in the department of Art History & Communication Studies and the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at McGill University. She completed her Master’s degree in Museology at Université de Montréal in 2015. Her research interests include the critical examination of the role of art museums in nation making and investigating pragmatic means of inserting Blackness within Canadian cultural institutions. Ms. Joachim is also interested in Black Canadian art dealing with notions of identity and self and in critically examining the ways in which popular visual culture has historically impacted Black girls and women.

Because race has historically been understood primarily as a visual and corporeal concept constructed around biological traits such as skin tone and hair texture, it is of utmost importance that western representations and visual culture be scrutinized and critically understood (Nelson, Representing the Black Female Subject 5). Black women in the west have historically been denied what art historian Charmaine A. Nelson terms “the power of the gaze,” meaning that they have historically been stripped of the ability to self-determine as artists and viewers held the power to construct the narratives attached to Black bodies. For a long time, these women were also refused access to artistic production, thus representations of Black women in the west were produced neither by nor for them (5, 15, and 19). Deconstructing colonial stereotypes involves not only critically rereading representations of Black women in western art history but also carving out spaces for oppositional representations and narratives to exist. Self-representation, then, becomes for Black women a crucial act of resistance against the status quo, which consistently attempts to define them from the outside. It is an act of reclaiming control and power over their bodies (hooks Teaching Community 94-95, Crenshaw 1241-1299). Black feminism underlines the importance of agency in all aspects of life (social, political, economic, health and sexuality) and celebration for African American women through self-definition and by extension self-representation (Painia 12). According to Black feminist writer bell hooks, this shift opens up the possibility for Black women in America, and the Black communities they belong to, to heal (Talking Back: 9, Oppositional Gaze 115-131, Morris 153-154). By taking control of how they are represented, Black women are able to deconstruct stereotypes, which have time and again served to further marginalize and dehumanize them.

Shanna Strauss, a formally trained Tanzanian-American artist, who moved to Montreal after living and studying in Tanzania and the United States at various times in her life, is particularly interested in diaspora and what one brings with them when they settle in new places, and her practice involves painting on and craving into discarded pieces of wood. Strauss completed her Masters of Social Work at McGill university in 2014. She spent many years working at DESTA Black Youth Center in Little Burgundy, Montreal and has worked abroad with youth from Arusha Tanzania. Kevin Calixte, a Haitian-Canadian self-taught photographer born and raised in Montreal, focuses on using his medium to convey interpersonal relationships and internal states of being through the use of movement and blurred gestures (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19, 2016). Calixte completed a degree in social intervention at Ahuntsic College in 2005. Calixte, having grown up in a predominantly Haïtian part of Montreal, Saint-Michel, has dedicated many years to reaching out to Black teens in group homes for youth in his neighbourhood. Both artists have training and several years of community work experience, which along with their composite identities as African diasporic people in Canada are central to their artistic practises. In the summer of 2016, they created Changemakers, a collaborative exhibition of six portraits of Black women living in Montreal. In this series, the artists do far more than simply underline that “As gender and racial minorities, Black women are often underrepresented in many aspects of socio-economic and political life, and [that] for the Black women who engage in community work, this reality is more true as their efforts are often unseen and unrewarded […]” they also reconfigure the ways in which representation and self-representation are approached (Changemakers Exhibition booklet, 1).

Strauss and Calixte employ a unique approach to representation in their refusal to abide by conventional portrait production by sharing the power of (self) representation among all participants. They go one step further in this process by also inserting parts of themselves into the work. The time-consuming and painstaking process of carving, burning, beading, drawing and painting these pieces fostered an intimate relationship between the creators and the final product, hence, the portraits may depict specific individuals but they are representative of all eight people involved as well as their larger communities. Indeed, in her choice to employ kitenge fabric patterns and Maasai beads, both from her homeland of Tanzania, Strauss imbeds herself within the stories of these Black women, linking her own heritage and experiences to theirs. She notes: “I guess in a way, incorporating these elements are a way of bringing myself – my heritage and culture – as well as my artistic aesthetic into each of the pieces.” Calixte also finds himself reflected in Changemakers as his own community work aligns with that of the women being portrayed. His artistic practice shines through in the balance between power and softness that these Black women exude. Changemakers then becomes a hybrid portrait of Montreal’s Black multiplicity in simultaneously representing individual Black women and various Black Montreal experiences to which the artists themselves also belong. Strauss and Calixte are not representing themselves as individuals, but rather as members of an intricate network of communities, thereby appropriating the historical tendency to view and represent Black people as a monolithic group and turning it on its head. In the Changemakers project, this collective representation becomes a celebration of Black Montreal’s multiplicity in a kaleidoscope of Blackness.

Black women in Canada are faced with a similar challenge to those confronted by their southern neighbours because this country has historically upheld a version of Canadian-ness, which makes being both Black and Canadian impossible (Stanley 82-84, Nelson Representing, 19, 180, Crenshaw 1241-1299). Identity is an important aspect of any person’s life, whether it is based on family history, nationality, ethnicity, race, gender or sexuality. As a nation-state, Canada has long identified as the welcoming, well-meaning, and polite citizen of the world, as the “good guy” (Aylward 40, Fleras 243-247). Since the 1980s, colorblind ideologies linked to the Canadian Multiculturalism act (1988) have been regarded as the ultimate solution to end discrimination and racism. However, this perspective in its refusal to acknowledge difference does more harm than good (Fleras 243-247, Stanley 75-103, Delgado and Stefancic 26-27, Ryan and al. 84-85). It ignores the realities faced by people who are outside of what Audre Lorde names the “mythical norm”, which is limited to white, thin, male, cisgender, young, heterosexual, Christian and of the middle-class individuals (2, Joachim et al., 1).

As stated in the introduction of “[Dis]Identifications: Challenging Dominant Narratives of Black People in Canada,” “Colorblindness to social, economic and political attitudes negates the lived experiences of many racialized individuals, as well as the historical fact of slavery in this country. […] This dynamic forms the basis upon which many forms of exclusion, discrimination and oppression can masquerade as a form of multiculturalism and justify exclusionary practices in various social circles.” (1). Beyond the murderous destruction of Native societies on this land, Canada’s colonial history is strikingly similar and connected to that of our southern neighbours in building this system of oppression over centuries (see Renwick Riddell 1923, Winks 1971, Sutherland 1996, Aylward 1999, Stanley 2000, Nelson 2010, Whitfield 2010, Mackey 2010). Critical race theorist Carol A. Aylward asserts that “Although most Canadians would deny the existence of widespread racism and, in particular, anti-Black racism in their country and would reject comparisons to the racial situation in the United States, the fact remains that Canadian history, legal and non-legal, does not support such denials.” (14). According to Timothy Stanley, part of the construction of this “good guy” national identity and of the “mythical norm” of white Canadian-ness stems from a focus on European-derived communities and institutions as the foundation for English-Canadian grand narrative (82). This exclusive focus on European exploits throughout history marginalizes all other groups and thereby positions European-ness, Canadian-ness and ultimately whiteness as the “mythical norm” which Lorde speaks of (2, Nelson, Ebony Roots 2, Crenshaw 1241-1299, Stanley 83).

People in Canada who, like Black women, exist at the intersections of identities, through their race, gender, sexuality, religion, social class, physical ability or otherwise, find themselves ultimately unable to reconcile these different parts of themselves. Many scholars have discussed this notion as it relates specifically to Black people in the diaspora. While W. E. B. Dubois and Paul Gilroy discuss double consciousness and the Black Atlantic, Nelson underlines both the physical and psychological locations of Black diasporic identities (see DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Nelson, Ebony Roots 16). She asserts that the constant refusal to acknowledge the historical presence of Black people in Canada and the denial of their contributions to the country’s history reinforces the dominant assumption which conflates Canadian-ness and whiteness (Nelson, Ebony Roots 2). All of these discussions support one simple fact: recognizing the multiplicity of Black identities and experiences is fundamental to the deconstruction of western hegemony.

Colonial practices of representation have consistently positioned Black women as the ultimate antithesis of the “mythical norm” because of their Blackness and femaleness (Nelson, Through an-other’s eyes 8). As such, Black women have navigated a space between invisibility and hypervisibility in society and representations of them have moved from one stereotypical extreme to another (Nelson, Representing the Black Female Subject 180, Crenshaw 1241-1299).

Dating all the way back to pre-abolition years in North America, these historical stereotypes have time and again served as justification for the dehumanization, control and torture of Black women. Tropes such as that of the hypersexual Jezebel, the masculine Mammy or the Angry Black woman persist to this day (Nelson, Through an-other’s eyes 7-11, Emerson 117). As Nelson underlines, “[t]he colonial stereotyping of black peoples was a necessary extension of European imperialism that sought to provide a discursive framework and moral foundation for the horrific trade in African peoples and the colonization of ‘other’ lands.” (Representing the Black Female Subject 19). Over time, these images have permeated several spheres of visual culture including cinema, advertising, museums, galleries and even social media, evidenced by the sustained popularity of problematic film and television characters such as Tyler Perry’s Madea in both the United States and Canada (Thompson 2014). By virtue of their pervasiveness, these stereotypes become assimilated and accepted as authentic representations of Black womanhood (Representing the Black Female Subject 10).

The representations created under these power dynamics were for a long time the only portrayals Black women had of themselves in western visual culture. As Nelson notes, “The visual arts in the west form an oppressive repository of stereotypical representations of black female subjects that the subjects themselves were forced to consume daily as they saw themselves imaged and imagined through white eyes and white social perceptions, in public and private spaces through elite and populist art practices alike.” (Representing the Black Female Subject 5, Crenshaw 1241-1299). The psychological impact on Black women of, consuming caricatured, hypersexual and stereotypical images, is not to be discounted (Nelson, Ebony Roots 14-15, Crenshaw 1241-1299). Indeed, Black feminist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins affirms that cultural production, including visual art, by Black women is an important component of resistance against patriarchal and racial systemic oppression (Collins 270, Painia 13, Smith, “Combahee River Collective Statement” para 1). Without this, the constant presence of such representations leads to the eventual incapacity to disassociate stereotypes from reality, thus, discriminatory attitudes and systemic oppressions become legitimized through the omnipresence of the myths embedded in these stereotypes (Nelson, Ebony Roots 14-15, Crenshaw 1241-1299).

In producing Changemakers (2016), Strauss and Calixte actively deconstruct and undermine historical power dynamics existing in representations of Black women specifically by handing over the power of representation to the women themselves. In the initial phase of this series, Calixte worked collaboratively with the “changemakers” to represent and convey who they are as individuals and the work that they do through photography. Strauss then used these images to quite literally ingrain their presence on the city by working on pieces of wood collected all over Montreal. Keeping in constant dialogue with the women being represented, Strauss engaged directly with the textures, symbols and imagery with which each woman personally identified, thus maintaining the women’s agency in how they were represented all the way through the artistic process (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016). The combined force of their practices overthrows the dynamics of representation by decentralizing and dispersing what Kobena Mercer names the “burden of representation” among eight representatives: the two artists and the six women they are portraying (62).

Far too often, representations of Black women have been devoid of agency, individuality and humanity, in Changemakers, however, Strauss and Calixte strove to maintain the women’s agency by following their lead (Nelson, Through an-other’s eyes 22). In this body of work, comprised of six individual portraits, Strauss and Calixte chose to prioritize collaboration and collectivity in all aspects of the process. Taking care to reach out to a broad spectrum of women differing in age, social class and educational backgrounds and from different areas of Montreal, the artists personally invited women from their surroundings, friends and colleagues who they felt contribute in their own ways to Montreal’s Black communities. Tali Taliwah is a radio and television figure and performer; Shanice Nicole is a Black feminist spoken word poet, writer and educator; Annick Maugile Flavien is a multidisciplinary audio (radio & podcasts) and video (documentaries) gatherer and cultivator; Ma’liCiouZ is a Haitian multidisciplinary artist; Patricia M. Jean is a same gender loving woman, activist and volunteer and until recently, the executive director of African Rainbow and Maguy Métellus is a Haitian-Quebecoise mother, grandmother, Black feminist, community worker and human rights advocate, and radio host. (Strauss and Calixte. Changemakers Exhibition booklet, 1) As Strauss speaks primarily English and Calixte French, this choice permitted to circumvent the ever-present French-English language barrier, which is often a challenge in creating networks among various Black communities in Montreal (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016). Because of their decision to invite women across these two languages, the exhibition gathered a large number of visitors from several communities in Montreal not only across language lines but also across age and geography.

From the onset of the project the two artists opened a continuous dialogue in which all six “changemakers” were active participants. During the photography phase of the project, Calixte met with each woman individually, asking them to try to convey the kind of work that they do through hand gestures, using one hand to symbolize their values and the other to represent how they are received by society. He describes the artistic process as follows: “It was almost like a dance, they took the first step and I followed and I try to capture them.” (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016). In stepping aside to allow the women to lead the photoshoot, Calixte challenged usual patriarchal power structures and each “changemaker” became their own representative in front of his camera; ultimately having the power to select the very image they felt best captured who they are (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016). In the next phase of the project, Strauss engaged in at times lengthy conversations with the each “changemaker” in order to better understand the roles they play in their respective communities and how they perceive themselves. Through these conversations, Strauss and the “changemakers” selected the symbols and meanings that would best capture each woman’s vision of herself. These were later incorporated in the final product, a mixed-media portrait of each Black woman (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016). After constructing a work surface, using worn pieces of wood gathered from the streets of Montreal, Strauss meticulously transfers the photos taken and printed by Calixte onto the planks. After carefully rubbing away the photo paper, the artist is left with an almost holographic version of the portrait. All of the women’s faces appear at the centre of a glowing halo of light – a direct reference to the spotlight Strauss and Calixte are placing them into. The work is at once photographic, painterly and sculptural as it overlaps several mediums, reminding us of the complexity of Black womanhood itself.

During the latter phase of the project, Strauss, assisted by Calixte, slowly and mindfully incorporated the “changemakers’” words and symbols into each piece. In Tali’s portrait, her face is framed on the left side by her long locs as they fall onto her shoulder (Figure 1). Her eyes meet the gaze of the viewer as she reaches for them with the fingertips of her right hand almost beckoning them to come closer, to listen. With her left hand, she seems to be gesturing towards her lips, perhaps alluding to her work as a storyteller and performer. The right side of the piece is covered in intricate Tanzanian kitenge patterns from which lush hibiscus flowers emerge referencing Tali’s Caribbean heritage. The portrait of Shanice presents the young woman, gazing solemnly in the direction of the viewer as her fingers lace themselves around her neck (Figure 2). Flowers and Ako-Ben symbols, Adinkra figures representing ‘A call to arms’ or ‘War horn,’ surround her shoulders signifying the ways in which she challenges the people around her to fight injustice in its various forms and the beauty that exists within the struggle to fight for a more just world (Strauss, S. and Calixte, K. Personal interview. August 19 2016). Annick stares away from the viewer in her depiction, her fists held up together on the left side of her jaw in a shield-like gesture. The depictions framing her figure are reminiscent of her relationship with the land and healthy, homegrown food and represent sustenance and human dependence on the earth (Figure 3). The pattern and colours in the portrait of Ma’liCiouZ are a direct reference to her own work as a street artist.1 Colourful Maasai beads flow in organic lines curling their way down towards her upturned face as she gazes at the backs of her hands, the very tools she uses to create a view of the world she craves to see (Figure 4). Patricia, smiling, meets the viewer’s gaze as her cupped hands extend towards them as though to make an offering. Her inviting nature, lightness and vibrant energy are embodied by a mandala-like formation of kitenge patterns above her face (Figure 5). Maguy looks down, away from the viewer a slight smile touching her lips as she gracefully lifts her hands to frame her left side. Her warmth and caring nature is embodied by rich, soft, curly woodcarvings, which recall the texture and pattern of Afro-descendent hair (Figure 6). The presence of two afro-pick-like combs further enforces the reference to the nurturing nature of this woman by recalling the care she provides to her family, friends and the broader community (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016).

The comb is also a strong reference to the care Black women – mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, aunts – give one another as they pass on family values and cultural traditions between generations. Indeed, “hair day” is a somewhat universal component of Black girlhood and womanhood as mothers and daughters share an intimate moment and create a bond by caring for one another’s hair (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016, Banks, Prince). It should also be noted that hair holds an important place in many Black communities because Black people, especially women and girls still often face discrimination in western societies based on their hair texture and styles. The comb, then, stands in as a reminder of the pain involved not only in detangling tightly curled hair but also of the dehumanization of Black hair during slavery and the ongoing legacies thereof through colourism and institutional discrimination (Banks, Prince, Nelson Representing the Black Female Subject 93-95). This dichotomy between gentleness and tension is carried out through each component of the series as both Strauss and Calixte spent hours painstakingly constructing the portraits to encapsulate the “changemakers” essence.

The work of Black self-representation in visual arts is delicate and complex, as it operates against the backdrop of historical tendencies to flatten Blackness into a monolith of stereotypes. Black Canadian artists are so seldom in the spotlight of the art scene that the trap of “the burden of representation” – to borrow the words of Mercer – is constantly looming (62). Indeed, he affirms that: “Artists positioned in the margins of the institutional spaces of cultural production are burdened with the impossible role of speaking as ‘representatives’ in the sense that they are expected to ‘speak for’ the black communities from which they come.” (62). Mercer compares and critiques the role of Black artists as public representatives with the double responsibility of visually representing Black people and of being the “voice of the community”, and somehow also becoming a political representative (Mercer 65). Black artists are then placed in a hybrid role of representative-ness, which is reminiscent of recurring calls for “Black leaders” in other public spheres. As Black civil rights movements see a renewal across several continents namely under the umbrella of #BlackLivesMatter, so too emerges a nostalgia for 1960s-style activism, mobilization and leadership (Lalonde para 1-13). The role of Black artists is thus further complicated. Mercer offers interesting insight into this complication in stating:

[…] whereas politicians and other public figures are elected into positions from which they speak as ‘representatives’, this role has fallen on the shoulders of black artists not so much out of an individual choice but as a consequence of structures that have historically marginalized their access to the means of cultural production. If the problem is posed in terms of structure and agency, it seems to me that the ‘burden of representation’ is constructed as an effect of the hierarchy of access to the institutional spaces of cultural production in the visual arts. When black artists become visible only one-at-a-time, their work is burdened with a whole range of extra-artistic concerns precisely because, in their relatively isolated position as one of the few black practitioners in any given public field — film, photography, fine art — they are seen as ‘representatives’ who are accountable to, and speak on behalf of, their communities (65).

Through their collaborative approach, Strauss and Calixte’s project also works to unhinge and dislodge the “burden of representation” Mercer speaks of. Partly in response to these inquiries by Montreal media outlets about the alleged absence of “Black leadership” and community involvement among youth in the city, Strauss and Calixte teamed up to produce a series of portraits dedicated to highlighting those very things among Black women in Montreal today (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016, Lalonde para 1-13). “Changemakers (2016) is an art project featuring Black women in Montreal who work tirelessly to create positive change in their communities.” (Strauss and Calixte. Changemakers Exhibition booklet, 1). This particular collaborative work brings to light many questions about the “burden of representation” and questions of Black leadership and mobilization. Just what happens when the burden is hybridized in a project where the representative is also the represented? What happens when Black identities become amalgamated precisely to undermine the purported monolith of Blackness in Canada? When the representative and the represented are equally involved in the act of representing, can we then speak of a collective (self) representation? I would argue that the Changemakers (2016) project as a whole stand as a representation of the complex and multifaceted Black Montreal communities and as a portrait of Montreal’s collective Black identities.

Strauss and Calixte are challenging the necessity of a singular Black leading figure for social change to be recognized and legitimized, and powerfully countering inquiries around “Black leadership” as a prerequisite for social change in Montreal’s communities. In an effort to deconstruct the falsehood of Black Montreal apathy in the face of political and social adversity, the ongoing series focuses on Black women who are engaged in and dedicated to “positive programming and the pursuit of social change” in their everyday activities (Strauss and Calixte. Changemakers Exhibition booklet, 1). The artists underscore the importance of recognizing that activism, or “changemaking”, is complex and can be subtle, it can be quiet. Strauss and Calixte call into question the romanticization of political activism as being necessarily public, loud, and grand in nature (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016). They assert that activist work involves more than protesting injustices in the streets and publicly calling out problematic behaviour. “Changemaking” also involves building and maintaining loving, inclusive and respectful relationships behind closed doors within Black communities. (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016) Through this project, Strauss and Calixte wish to underline that Black women who are making a difference – who are the Changemakers in Montreal – do not come from a single monolithic group, these women encompass a myriad of identities and do a variety of work both in public and not-so-public spheres (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016).

The women currently featured in the ongoing series each have a public platform which they use for the improvement of Montreal’s society. Each woman portrayed continuously contributes to the betterment of Montreal Black communities in her own particular ways. Collectively, these women’s work includes community education; fighting for equity and diversity within institutions and academia, addressing issues of misogynoir, sexism, homophobia, anti-Blackness, and systemic oppression through a plethora of mediums including video, audio, performance and poetry; de-stigmatizing Black single mothers’ positions within society; celebrating Black womanhood through visual arts; and spotlighting Black cultural production (Strauss and Calixte. Changemakers Exhibition booklet, 1). By bringing together these Black women from all walks of life in different Montreal communities, Changemakers underscores the magnitude and power of their persistent collective work towards meaningful social change. Together Strauss and Calixte highlight the work of women they see every day whether it be in non-profit organizations, in big-name institutions or within their personal circles. The artists state: “This is what ‘changemaking’ looks like. These are women in their own communities doing work that might not be seen in its entirety but if you gather all of them all in one space, look at what is happening in the City.” (Interview 2016). Although each of these women have public platforms and are somewhat visible in their respective circles, most of them had never met before, as such, the project brought together members of Montreal’s Black communities and served as a space within which connections could be made – networks, which may not have existed otherwise. These women’s unawareness of one another points to the fact that there exist many more Black women in Montreal, whose names remain unknown, tirelessly and quietly working to ensure the survival and development of their communities. The “changemakers” represent but the tip of the iceberg of Black Montreal community work.

The dialogue Strauss and Calixte worked to establish in creating the series is sustained as the voices of the “changemakers” are incorporated into the exhibition itself. The women were asked to communicate in a few words their perception of the work they do in Montreal, their words were offered to the visitors in a takeaway exhibition booklet. Shanice and Tali reinforce the importance of being vocal and of being a storyteller. For her part, Shanice affirms that: “Navigating this world as Black women and femmes means always having to fight to use our voices. Systems of violence like misogynoir – the intersection of misogyny and Blackness – continue to strip us of our power, and so, it is revolutionary every time we speak up and speak back.” Similarly, both Annick and Mal’iCiouZ underscore the inevitability and importance of change, reminding visitors that we can collectively choose the ways in which we change and affect our society. Annick notes: “Changing together takes effort, time, vision, understanding, and trust but its impact is like no other.” (Changemakers Exhibition booklet, 1) Further, Maguy and Patricia call us to come together to heal one another and fight for the rights of everyone by recognizing the complexity and intersectionality of their identities. Maguy turns to Black female poet, Maya Angelou’s words calling visitors to “Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” (Strauss and Calixte. Changemakers Exhibition booklet, 1).

The closing evening of the Changemakers exhibition featured the work of spoken word poet Teeanna Munro who, accompanied by “changemaker” and performer Annick, presented an original duet entitled, Our Sisters’ Work. This was followed by a performance by Maguy who recited the poem Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou. These powerful words and incredible representations of Black womanhood and mobilization were received by a gallery full of Black Montrealers from a multitude of backgrounds, speaking numerous languages and of all ages. Changemakers is ground-breaking in that it gathered communities, claiming the very space to which they have historically been denied access. In this space, Black communities from all over Montreal, met, connected and celebrated each other. Strauss underlines that “The power of the work comes through the series. I think that one could appreciate one piece at a time but you don’t actually feel the ‘-ness’ of it until you see them all together and you see that it does come alive.” (Strauss and Calixte. Personal interview. August 19 2016). The relationship between each part the Changemakers (2016) goes beyond the mere aesthetic or conceptual. Indeed, the works complement each other and are in constant dialogue as all of these Black women aim to better the world they live in.

In centring the voices of Black women in Montreal Strauss and Calixte actively part take in creating social change and they themselves become “changemakers”. As Stanley notes:

An anti-racist history necessarily seeks to engage the meanings created by those subjects to exclusion and should try to understand the complexities of their lives. Indeed, rediscovering such meanings and incorporating them into contemporary understandings of the past are, in and of themselves, worthwhile contributions to a more complete understanding of racisms. They are especially useful in trying to understand the historical construction of racial privilege. Privilege needs to be understood relationally. Someone’s privilege only exists in relation to someone else’s oppression or lack of privilege. One cannot document the former without also documenting the latter. Thus, the engagement of excluded and silenced meanings is central to an anti-racist project (Stanley 99).

By centring the narratives of a multitude of Black Montreal women as well as the stories of their communities by virtue of the work that they do within them, Changemakers, then, embodies the anti-racist history, which Stanley calls for. Therefore, Changemakers is exemplary in demonstrating the ways in which (self) representation goes hand-in-hand with social change and collective betterment.



Figure 1

Shanna Strauss and Kevin Calixte, Tali (2016) Phototransfer, acrylic, woodcut on salvaged wood, 23.2 × 31", Montreal, Canada. With permission from the artists.

Figure 2

Shanna Strauss and Kevin Calixte, Shanice (2016) Phototransfer, acrylic on salvaged wood, 24 × 28.75", Montreal, Canada. With permission from the artists.

Figure 3

Shanna Strauss and Kevin Calixte, Annick (2016) Phototransfer, acrylic, fabric, wood burning, woodcut on salvaged wood, 22.05 × 33", Montreal, Canada. With permission from the artists.

Figure 4

Shanna Strauss and Kevin Calixte, Ma’liCiouZ (2016) Phototransfer, wood burning and beads on salvaged wood, 42.05 × 26", Montreal, Canada. With permission from the artists.

Figure 5

Shanna Strauss and Kevin Calixte, Patricia (2016) Phototransfer acrylic, fabric on salvaged wood, 27.05 × 34.25 ", Montreal, Canada. With permission from the artists.

Figure 6

Shanna Strauss and Kevin Calixte, Maguy (2016) Phototransfer, acrylic, fabric, woodcut on salvaged wood, 35 × 26", Montreal, Canada. With permission from the artists.


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1 Ma’liCiouZ, “Ma’liCiouZ: Afro Urban Art.” maliciouz.com.