A new arts center, the first of its kind dedicated to Black creatives, opened this month and artists say it is long overdue and will increase the visibility of Afro-diaspora arts in Canada.
The new Nia Center for the Arts space in Toronto’s Little Jamaica community has been 15 years in the making. Renovations undertaken in 2019 made it possible to complete what is today the first multidisciplinary professional space for black artists, according to a press release from the center.
“Our communities, our varied the communities are here,” Pamela Edmonds, a Halifax-based curator and director of the Dalhousie Gallery, told CTVnews.ca.
The lack of professional cultural spaces dedicated to Black artists from different disciplines to exhibit and develop their work creates barriers for artists in accessing resources and contributes to the minimization of Black communities in Canada’s arts industry, a- she declared.
“It’s not like anyone is giving you permission to tell your story. It’s being able to say, ‘I’m opening the door.’ I have a space where this can be celebrated in all its diversity.” It doesn’t have to be a certain type of job all the time.
The center provides Black Canadian artists with opportunities for mentorship, artistic development and, most importantly, Edmonds said, a space where artists from the African diaspora in Canada can identify. It celebrates the country’s different art forms outside of Eurocentric norms on their terms.
“It’s important to have spaces where it doesn’t feel like we’re intervening in a space, because that’s often how a lot of our practices as Black conservatives have been positioned, as if we’re let’s come to (only) talk about identity, to highlight our diversity,” she added.
“When sometimes you just want to be a creative artist and talk about whatever, and it’s not always political.”
Edmonds has been a curator for over 20 years working to amplify and archive the works of African Nova Scotian communities, and has worked as a senior curator and mentor with the Nia Center on select exhibitions and digital collections.
She says having a dedicated space for Black creatives to collaborate has been years in the making and something she wishes had existed when she first started her career.
“It is important that Canada sees the Nia Center as a model, as a space that has longevity that did not just arise in 2020, but is committed to showcasing a range of artists in different disciplines and to support their practices. ” Edmonds said.
She says former organizations like Canadian Black Artists in Action (CAN:BAIA), which disbanded in the 1990s, attempted to create an arts space dedicated to black artists in the country, but none were successful in developing a space as the Nia Center for the Arts in almost 30 years.
The brand new, fully functional, versatile performance space offers, among other additions, a digital media lab and artist studio, and the center’s general manager, Alica Hall, told CTVNews.ca that they are now in able to fully extend their reach in Canada. and provide a space that members of the city’s community can visit regularly without the pressure of commercial gain.
“In Toronto, I think the pressures we face here are being felt in other parts of the country. “Access to community space and art space is very difficult because it is expensive and it is often centered in the city center, which is a most expensive part of the city…” said Lobby.
She adds that with pressures on the city to provide affordable housing, many public spaces that could be used as art spaces are being lost to private development, which makes the dedicated multi-purpose arts center so important for black creatives from the city.
Montreal-based experimental storyteller Kofi Oduro, who also worked with the center on an online collection titled “Digital Launch: The Cut, the Tear, the Remix: Contemporary Collage and Black Futures” in 2021, sees the center as a opportunity for artists from diverse backgrounds. disciplines to interact with other Black creatives, which is an essential aspect of building community.
“There’s a lot of black music… black theater… We do a lot of black events, but to have a place that is the premier national multi-art center, it’s not just that they get mentorship, but also from a cross-pollination experience,” Oduro said.
For Oduro, the new center now constitutes a “fundamental base” for black artists and represents an opportunity to encourage collaboration not only in Canada but also abroad.
For Canada’s Black artists, the appeal of the new center lies not only in its efforts to increase artist representation, it is also a space that goes beyond just one-off exhibitions.
“Not just for Black artists, but for all artists as an institution, you need to have these kinds of spaces where you can experiment and collaborate and work with other artists and present. This is a rarity. So I hope this inspires other communities,” Edmonds said.
Reporting on this story was funded by the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Black Journalism Fellowship.