The Power is in the Black Gaze: Out of Many

Out of Many, Jorian Charlton – Curated by Emilie Croning 

Online Exhibit Launched February 6, 2021

Wedge Curatorial Projects 

Jorian Charlton, Untitled (Georgia), 2020. © 2021 Jorian Charlton.

By Nya Lewis 

Outside of my grandmother, whose matriarch status reigned supreme, the second most important member of my family puzzle was the uncle with the camera. He showed up at family picnics, at weddings, on front stoops. He captured us in our most intimate and vital times and held an ever-present commitment to capturing us in our truth. The keeper of this title changed from generation to generation, but never the importance. The see-er, the documenter, every Black family deserves an archivist. Author bell hooks describes the snapshot as the launch point of the visual in Black life, and I immediately consider the Caribbean proverb “We are the stories we are allowed to see.” The power of the snapshot is that it exists in opposition to the imposed imagery of Blackness. It is self-preservation. It is a representation of self-love and understanding. The Black family snapshot is a declaration of worthiness and authority, returning a sense of presence, too often lost in the white imagination. 

In collaboration with Gallery TPW, Wedge Curatorial Projects presents Out of Many. Curated by Emilie Croning, the exhibition pairs vintage 35mm slides loaned from photographer Jorian Charlton‘s family archive from the 1970s and 80s in Jamaica, Toronto, and New York, with Charlton’s photographic practice exploring contemporary visuals of Black aesthetics and Jamaican-Canadian identity. Both the exhibition and archive explore the inter-relations of the immigration story, new ways of thinking about Caribbean-Canadian culture, and rediscover the family album through a contemporary lens.

Jorian Charlton, Untitled (Ayo & Georgia), 2019. © 2021 Jorian Charlton

Out of Many, the exhibit’s title is a nod to Jamaica’s national motto, ‘Out of Many One People,’ created in 1962 to celebrate the unity of the country’s multiracial roots. The motto is represented on the Coat of Arms. Like many of its neighboring Caribbean populations, the stain of British colonization is imprinted on the makeup of its people: Indigenous, African, Chinese, South Asian- all brought to the island as enslaved people, or indentured laborers now contribute to this quilt of Jamaican identities. Large waves of forced and independent migration shifted the quilt’s makeup as early as 1960 as Great Britain and Canada called for British colonized Caribbean countries to send their best and brightest overseas. 

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians of Jamaican origin make up one of Canada’s largest non-European ethnic groups. Ontario is home to 85% of the total Jamaican Canadian population. It is here that the impact of Jamaican culture and its people permeate North America. The landing pad for the travel and spread of their intergenerational stories and the dialogue surrounding the preservation of Afro-diasporic identities and imagery become prevalent. 

At the center of this conversation, a Toronto-based, Black, Caribbean-Canadian powered organization: Wedge Curatorial Projects, “a non-profit organization with a focus on Black identity in contemporary art.” Under director and founder Kenneth Montague, Wedge explores Diasporic narratives, identity, and representation issues through exhibitions and lectures. Established in 1997, Wedge Curatorial Projects was initially conceived as a private and public art experience. Since then, it has evolved into a curatorial organization, representing national and international artists, creating a much-needed shift in Toronto’s art community, “wedging” Black artists into a mainstream market from which they are too often excluded.

Vintage 35mm slide (Ja Maica No Problem), photographed by Clayton Charlton, c.1979. Collection of Jorian Charlton, reprinted 2020. © 2021 Jorian Charlton.

Charlton’s father’s archive presents an opportunity for intergenerational dialogue on lineage, culture, and land. In an intimate welcome into the so-called “living room” of the contemporary Black experience through the Charlton family, we are given familiar representations of home, freedom, agency. Displayed in conjunction with the slides, Jorian Charlton uses analog and digital photography to visualize new storytelling methods. As Croning describes, together these images create a tangible remembrance of “what was, what is, and what will become.” Autonomy captured -the ultimate snapshot, Charlton’s work, influenced by fashion photography, centers Black bodies and reflects self-awareness and acceptance. Confident and direct, yet delicate and playful, the audience is all at once given and denied access to inter-communal recognitions of beauty and existence. In a country where the Black community encounters displacement, transformation, and mending, mitigated by site, the subjects actively communicate the complexities of agency simply by existing in contrast to their surroundings. Their “Home.”   

Jorian Charlton, Untitled (Jem & Mikki), 2020. © 2021 Jorian Charlton.

The beautiful, light-filled, colorful photos, oozing melanin, capturing piercing gazes, embody a sense of joy and freedom that is truly a relief. They are relatable; they are humanizing. Acknowledging the power of the Black gaze, the exhibit calls the audience making the invitation clear, an opportunity for the Black Caribbean community to see themselves. To discuss the importance of capturing images of the Black experience is to discuss civil rights, equity, and access. In full participation, the photography positions itself as a powerful reclamation, a visual resistance. To Black families, cameras give access to critical intervention, a disruption, shifting from being seen to seeing. Out of Many emotionally contextualizes immigrant Canadians’ experiences and the interconnectedness of their impact on first-generation Canadians. The exhibit homes in on the joy of photo taking, which is as important as displaying them when capturing marginalized groups. There is magic in documenting an existence that is consistently challenged. Through Black portraiture, Out of Many carves out an empowering show of record and representation on their terms.

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