CRS Seminar: Whitewash

March 30, 2016 @ 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM
280N York Lanes
York University
Toronto, ON M3J
Michele Millard

Wednesday March 30, 2016, 11-12:30

Room: 280N York Lanes

Title: Whitewash

Speaker: Nadine Valcin, Artist-in-Residence, Osgoode Hall Law School

Nadine Valcin will give an art talk about her recent installation, discussing the issue, her process and how research informs her practice.

Whitewash is a video installation that examines slavery in Canada and its omission from the national narrative. The country prides itself as being a benevolent refuge where enslaved Africans who were brought to United States gained their freedom via the Underground Railroad. That powerful image overshadows the fact that slavery was legal in Canada for over 200 years under both French and British rule. Whitewash brings to light some of the slave families that were brought to Prince Edward Island by Loyalists and looks at how nine generations of descendants have assimilated to the point of leaving very few visible traces of their origins.

A few years ago, she received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship to research traces of enslaved Africans in Canada after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. During my work, she came across the book Black Islanders: Prince Edward Island’s Historical Black Community by Jim Hornby. Published in 1991, it tells the history of enslaved Africans brought by the United Empire Loyalists to Prince Edward Island. Members of several historically black families still remain in PEI while others have scattered throughout the world. The Shepard family is the largest among them. David Shepard and Kesiah Wilson were enslaved Africans brought by Edmund Fanning who became the Island’s second Lieutenant Governor in 1786. Before his return south in 1813, Fanning helped the couple acquire land near the town of Cardigan.

Kesiah and David had five children who in turn had many descendants, the majority of which remained on PEI. There, she found 9th generation descendants of the couple. Some of them retain darker complexions and African features, while others are very light-skinned with red hair. It became clear that as opposed to many of their American counterpart, enslaved Africans in Canada assimilated into the dominant society at such a great rate as to become virtually invisible many generations later. It wasn’t that their descendants aren’t there, but rather that they are hiding in plain sight.

Whitewash outlines how that process of assimilation parallels the collective amnesia about Canada’s history of slavery. It will feature nine women of African ancestry (representing the 9 generations of descendants of slaves that can still be found on Prince Edward Island) with progressively lighter in complexion ranging from the darkest skin tone to Caucasian. They will be shot on HD in close-up against a plain backdrop and shown on a large screen. The aim is to make the viewer scrutinise the features and details of the women’s face in a manner that is not possible in daily life. A poetic narration will outline both the general context of slavery in this country and some of the information that is known about those enslaved Africans’ lives.