Ògo Tàwa  plans to create  gardens of statues of Black Canadians across  the GTA

By Lincoln DePradine

Khalidah Bello

Khalidah Bello, a creative entrepreneur, wants to see more images in public spaces that honour the contributions to the country of Black Canadians.

Bello, founder and CEO of the non-profit Ògo Tàwa Inc., noted that while a few African-Canadians have had places such as schools and roads named after them, statues of whites overwhelmingly dominate outdoor public spaces.

“This disparity is really troubling,’’ Bello said last week as she addressed an online festival and conference.

The event, organized by Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO), examined anti-Black racism in the arts.

The vision of the project being embarked upon by Ògo Tàwa is to “make sure that Black Canadians feel recognized, cherished and honoured as valuable members of our society and who have really been critical to Canada’s success as a nation and have made an impactful influence on the country’’, said Bello, who also is a cultural producer.

Under the planned project, Ògo Tàwa intends to create “gardens of 20 to 25 statues across the Greater Toronto Area’’, Bello said.

“What we’re seeking to do is to create life-size and visible, tangible portraits that are designed by Black artist entrepreneurs. They would celebrate the contributions that Black Canadians have made to events in all of Canadian society.’’

Members of CPAMO, which is headed by Charles C. Smith as executive director, say the movement’s aim is to seek “to open opportunities for Indigenous and racialized professionals and organizations to build capacity through access and working relationships with cultural institutions across Ontario’’.

The CPAMO festival and conference was addressed by various Back cultural arts professionals and stakeholders, as well as City of Toronto representatives such as Cheryl Blackman and Timaj Garad.

Garad, outreach and access program manager at the Toronto Arts Council (TAC), explained that her role at the council is to “lead the development of a new Black arts funding program and to also manage this program once it’s up and running’’.

“The Black arts funding program has been proposed to address the current disparity in access to arts funding for the Black community in Toronto,’’ said Garad. “TAC recognizes the need for commitment to greater outreach and to greater engagement of the Black arts community.’’

Garad said there are existing support programs available to artists, but admitted that “a lot of people just don’t know about them’’.

She said what now being proposed to be implemented would involve “targeted and structured funding’’, with “sustainable support’’ for Black artists.

It would “simplify the process and remove barriers, so that people are not feeling like they have to jump through a bunch of hoops’’ to get funding, Garad said.

Blackman, acting general manager for economic development and culture, said she and her staff are “working very deeply on not only an awakening of our programing, but also on an awakening of how we approach all of the work that we do in the division’’.

Blackman also holds the position as director of museums and heritage services. On this aspect of her work, at the Toronto History Museum, “we have been going through transformative change’’ that began before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Blackman said.

“We started looking at who we are. The fact that we are very unknown; that we have 10 historic sites that should be assets for all Torontonians; and that we should be leaning into this idea that we want to be able tell stories that reflect the past, the present and the future,’’ she said.

“We want to move from this notion that future should be dystopian. We want to make sure that we can fight against those kinds of challenges and that we are actually lifting up and elevating the voices that have not been heard.’’

Bello said the first public statue Ògo Tàwa is commissioning is of Joshua Glover, with the work to be done by Quentin VerCetty, an award-winning visual storyteller and art educator.

The project would receive “creative direction from West African master sculptors’’, Bello said.

“We’ve been here in Canada since about 1589 and there is an underrepresentation of the significance of Black people’s contributions to Canadian society – past and present – in the permanent life-size public monuments in the GTA,’’ she said. “These are things that we may not always think of but they’re quite important.’’

Glover escaped slavery in the United States and arrived in Canada in 1854. He lived and worked in Etobicoke.

He  died in 1888 at age 74 and is  buried at St James Cemetery in Toronto.