Stanley February exposes systemic inequities

In July 2018, the artist Stanley February submitted his master’s thesis to UQAM, a text of painful lucidity. Research that deserves to be published. He demonstrated the absence of the public sphere of visible minorities in a Quebec where they constituted 11% of the population at the time. We can read there how “the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) does not count[ait] 38 people from visible minorities for its some 6,000 employees ”and how“ Hydro Quebec does not understand[nait] in its workforce that 312 people of color for more than 20,000 employees ”.

You might think that the arts community is much more evolved, enlightened, and even engaged than the rest of society, right? Not so sure… This is the observation that the Guerrilla Girls collective had already made about the place of women in the arts. And it is an equally disturbing assessment that Stanley February draws up about the situation of black artists in the art world in Quebec, an assessment that could certainly also be done in the rest of Canada.

In his thesis, which dealt specifically with the collection of the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC), he came to this sad conclusion: “the examination of the data made available to me by the MAC enabled me to establish that the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montreal count[ait alors] 4 black artists, 2 Canadians and 2 Quebecers: James Geoffrey, Stan Douglas, Russell T. Gordon, Lionel Jules and no women from the black visible minority. Russell T. Gordon is the only black Quebec artist whose works have been purchased by the Museum ”.

Yet the MAC, founded in 1964, owns 8,000 works and, as the Hill Strategies research cited by February indicates, there are many visible minority artists in Montreal. In 2001, there were 1,300 out of 18,280 artists, he noted, or 7%. In 2020, the same body, which was based on the 2016 census, reported that the 23,300 racialized artists in Canada made up 15% of this creative community.

On the other hand, if the MAC did not buy works by black artists, it certainly had to show some in its temporary exhibitions. Here again, we will be disappointed. February explains that only one event had so far been devoted to non-white artists, the exhibition Beat Nation in 2013-2014!

Stanley February then continued his reflection by speaking of the under-representation of black and indigenous artists in art galleries in Montreal, but also of the poverty of blacks, Aboriginals and artists belonging to these communities …

A double exhibition under the sign of the tragic

In the double exhibition that the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the Musée d’art contemporain des Laurentides are dedicating these days to Stanley February, visitors will not be surprised to see works dealing with the living conditions of Blacks, in particular those of the black artist that is February, one example among many others.

In Quebec, from the start of the presentation, in The Last War (2009), this artist addresses the insanitary conditions of the housing in which many racialized people are kept. At the end of the exhibition, February shows how he took over in 2009 a project developed in January 1970 by Christian Boltanski, a project which featured an artist at the end of his rope. Boltanski, who was not then the star he would become in the 1980s, had sent a letter to the writer, critic and art historian José Pierre asking for his help.

February, meanwhile, sent this hand-copied letter to 41 Montreal art galleries. Without answer…

Right next to it – and again in a spirit close to Boltanski and his work Reconstruction of an accident that has not yet happened to me and in which I was killed (1969) -, in digital print titled Clairvoyance (2014), February shows how he represents himself having died a violent death… In one of his creations, Vanity (2021), the shape of his body even evokes the appalling death of George Floyd. In other works, February seems to represent itself in a skin, in a surface, as if the gaze of others summed it up to that.

This is an intelligent and very disturbing work. With the possible exception of the series devoted to Alphonse Allais, which seems a little more simplistic and literal, even if it wishes to celebrate the art of artists removed from the usual narrative of art history. But it is a creation that will lead the viewer to reflect on social and artistic issues of great magnitude. Issues that deserve more visibility. This exhibition is a very good step in that direction.

Possible lives / Even old tinkling

From Stanley February. At the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ), in Quebec. Curator: Bernard Lamarche. Until October 16, 2022. At the Musée d’art contemporain des Laurentides (MAC LAU), in Saint-Jérôme. Commissioners: Jonathan Demers and Elizabeth Lauzon. Until February 13.

Watch video

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *