Monday, August 13, 2012

Black history uncovered in Luminato art installation

Black history uncovered in Luminato art installation 

6 June 2012 No Comments

By Anya Wassenberg
Black History: The War of 1812 at The Encampment
An art installation by Thom Sokoloski and Jenny-Anne McCowan
Conceived by Thom Sokoloski
Produced by Sherrie Johnson Productions
Fort York grounds June 8 to 24
This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, considered a key turning point in the development of this country. The black voices that make up that story don’t always make it to history textbooks. Many Canadians are still ignorant of the fact that Africans and their descendants have been present in this country since the 1600’s — and that slavery was a fairly widespread practice here.

I’m one of more than 100 “Creative Collaborators” in an art installation project known as The Encampment. Two hundred tents will cover the grounds of Fort York during the Luminato Festival and as part of the City of Toronto’s official commemoration of the War, each one using objects and text to illuminate the story of a life that was lived during the period. The histories of African Canadians of the time come not simply as an addition to those of the iconic figures from all the textbooks — Sir Isaac Brock, Joseph Brant et al — but as rich and integral threads in the fabric of the nation that would become Canada.

One of my installations features Chloe Cooley, a young woman whose story actually takes place 15 years before the war in 1793. She lived as a slave on a farm in the Niagara region and was taken by force by her owner to the U.S. side of the river to be sold. The young girl struggled and fought valiantly; it took three men to subdue her, tie her in rope and throw her in the boat. The commotion was seen by Peter Martin, a freed black man who brought William Grisley, a white man from Queenston to be another witness. The latter took the disturbing story to Lord Simcoe, who was then the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe was himself an abolitionist, but had found little support for the position locally. He used the tragic story of Chloe — whose treatment was perfectly legal under the laws of the time — to push for new legislation.

Lord Simcoe’s vision of an act abolishing slavery, however, had to be tempered; nine members of the Legislative Council themselves owned slaves. He brokered a compromise that allowed existing owners to keep their slaves and the title of the law is self-explanatory. An Act to prevent the further Introduction of SLAVES and to limit the Term of Contracts for SERVITUDE within this province, dated the 9th of July 1793, begins:

Whereas it is unjust that a people who enjoy Freedom by Law should encourage the introduction of Slaves, and whereas it is highly expedient to abolish Slavery in this Province, so far as the same may gradually be done without violating private property; …

Even in its watered down form, the Act did set up the legal framework for the Underground Railroad, in that fugitives could no longer be enslaved once they arrived on Canadian soil.

What saddens me most is the fact that, although her name will forever be linked with the very first piece of anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire, after her sale Chloe Cooley herself vanished into the dark and secretive history of slavery in the United States. In trying to depict her story in visual form I chose a tree branch to represent her struggle, tied in ropes and white ribbon that tangle around everything; just as she was physically bound with rope, Lord Simcoe was bound by the vested interests of a racist society.

Lit up at dusk each evening the 200 tents will make a dramatic and very atmospheric visual statement and a fascinating way to explore history. The Encampment is open (and free of charge) from June 8 to 24 and from 7:30 pm – 11:00 PM. During Luminato (June 8 – 17) between 5:00 pm and  7:30 pm there are daily events listed here — The Encampment

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