Deanna Bowen | A Harlem Nocturne
A Harlem Nocturne
Curated by Kimberly Phillips
Organized and circulated by the Contemporary Art Gallery
Exhibition Dates: April 15 to July 18, 2021
Deanna Bowen’s artistic practice concerns itself with histories of Black experience in Canada and the US. Her focus is the “dark matter” in our midst: figures and events that have remained below the threshold of visibility not because they are impossible to find but because their existence reveals a systematized racism difficult for the majority culture to acknowledge. Bowen reactivates historic material sourced from overlooked archives through a process of extraction, translation and enlargement, and then reinserts this material into public consciousness in a new form.
The presentation of A Harlem Nocturne at Walter Phillips Gallery marks the artist’s first solo exhibition in Alberta and presents a terrain of research that Bowen undertook in Toronto and Vancouver in 2017–19, recovered from civic documents, newspaper clippings and numerous personal and organizational archives. These materials trace a series of interconnected figures—many of them part of Bowen’s own family—who formed an integral part of the Canadian entertainment community from the 1940s through the 1970s. As Black bodies living and working in a settler colony underpinned by institutionalized racism, they were at once invisible and hyper-visible, simultaneously admired, exoticized and surveilled. They enjoyed certain celebrity in their local milieu but also endured differing degrees of bigotry, segregation and racial violence.
Bowen’s aim is to posit a powerful counterpoint to common narratives that oversimplify historical narratives of Canada's complex and vibrant Black presence. She reminds us that even seemingly insigniﬁcant documents can be rich repositories for unintended readings, and for questioning who has been charged with writing our histories and why.
On Trial The Long Doorway was commissioned and produced through a partnership between the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver and Mercer Union, a centre for contemporary art, Toronto. Production support was provided though a Media Arts residency at the Western Front, Vancouver.
The presentation of this exhibition at Walter Phillips Gallery is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Outstanding Artist Program.
About Deanna Bowen
Deanna Bowen is a descendant of two Alabama and Kentucky born Black Prairie pioneer families from Amber Valley and Campsie, Alberta. Bowen’s family history has been the central pivot of her auto-ethnographic interdisciplinary works since the early 1990s. She makes use of a repertoire of artistic gestures in order to define the Black body and trace its presence and movement in place and time. In recent years, her work has involved close examination of her family’s migration and their connections to Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley and Black Strathcona, the “All-Black” towns of Oklahoma, the Kansas Exoduster migrations and the Ku Klux Klan in Canada and the US. Bowen is a recipient of numerous awards including a 2020 Governor General Award for Visual and Media Arts, a 2016 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and the 2014 William H. Johnson Prize. Her writing, interviews and art works have been published in Canadian Art, The Capilano Review, The Black Prairie Archives, and Transition Magazine. Bowen is editor of the 2019 publication Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada.