Pathways to Ancestral Knowledge art display speaks through a Black lens

‘When we lose the older generation, we lose the stories of the things that they went through’

Trevor Twells

When Toronto artist Trevor Twells started the MakeRoom organization in 2019, his goal was to find places for emerging artists — particularly BIPOC ones — to show their art without having to go through the traditional gallery system, and “without spending a dime.”

“Oftentimes they were faced with nepotism and gatekeeping, as well as having to sell their own trauma for grants and opportunities,” he says. “In a city where these systemic issues and expensive real estate are driving artists out, I wanted to create initiatives that help solve these problems.”

MakeRoom’s largest success so far has been the Space Project, which projects artists’ work in the windows of various businesses and organizations after hours. Their latest collection is called Pathways to Ancestral Knowledge. In it, 10 Black artists present pieces about how they honour their ancestors and remain connected with their heritage — something that felt timely in the wake of COVID.

“COVID has disproportionately hit Black communities,” says Twells. “When we lose the older generation, we lose the stories of the things that they went through, and it feels like almost a double whammy because we’re losing that knowledge, as well as understanding that we’re not a priority.”

He asked painter and multimedia artist James Yeboah to curate the project. Yeboah was drawn to the topic of remembrance and connection to heritage due in part to the death of his grandmother early in the pandemic.

One of the paintings on display

“There wasn’t a way to say goodbye to her in a way that felt right,” he says. “The way you got to say goodbye felt really rushed.”

It left him asking the question, “How do you say goodbye to your ancestors, especially in times where you can’t do it in the way you want to?” as well as thinking about ancestral connections more generally.

“It was an opportunity for artists to create work where they can tie themselves into those connections,” he says. “To actualize their work and themselves in a way that informs their ancestral history.”

He adds that Black Canadians sometimes “can feel disconnected to our ancestral connections.”

“I can only speak to my experience and hope that other folks can connect to it,” he says. “But I feel disconnected to my own ancestral experiences because the whole idea of being an African Canadian is you have to kind of ‘assimilate,’ quote unquote… And in doing that, you kind of lose out on where you’re from, where your history and your culture is from, because you’re trying so hard to adhere to the Canadian, mostly white, European standards of existence.”

Photographer Jaslyn Marshall was one of the artists chosen by Yeboah to take part in the project. Her suite of photographs, entitled “Severed,” shows her family gathered around her ailing grandfather in the days just before his death. She says that, while she wasn’t close with her grandfather, he was one of her few connections to that side of her family and memorializing him felt important to her.

A first-time curator, Yeboah says he was happy to work on a project that helped make Black art widely accessible and took it out of traditional gallery spaces, which he calls “inherently white.”

“Many of these spaces are both non-Black owned and non-Black operated,” he says. “Having the works accessible digitally allows for us as Black folks to create a space for ourselves and to take in and discuss the art on our own terms. MakeRoom has also given artists the opportunity to show their work several places at once, giving them access to a wider Black audience.”