Deanna Bowen’s artistic practice concerns itself with overlooked histories of Black experience, often connected to her own family in Canada and the US. Mining archives and forgotten documents, she makes use of a repertoire of artistic gestures to bring traces of a complex, deeply personal and often violent past into public visibility. Bowen’s solo exhibition A Harlem Nocturne comprises two separate trajectories of new research that follow the artist’s maternal lineage in Canada.
In the Balkind Gallery, a four-channel video installation presents footage from On Trial The Long Doorway (2017), a project co-commissioned by CAG and Mercer Union, Toronto. It focuses on a lost 1956 CBC teledrama titled The Long Doorway, in which Bowen’s great uncle Herman Risby played a supporting role, and tells the story of a Black legal aid lawyer who represents a white University of Toronto student charged with violently assaulting a rising Black basketball player. The Long Doorway is potent for Bowen because Canadian culture so infrequently, in her words, “takes up questions of race in its own place,” and because the issues the episode examined in the mid 1950s are no less urgent today. Conspicuously, no recordings of the teledrama exist, so Bowen used the recovered script and set design notes to experimentally restage the work with five Black actors, each of whom performed multiple roles in public, video-recorded rehearsals. Just as the original script refuses any resolution to the tense questions it poses around race and class, visitors to Bowen’s multichannel video installation at CAG are confronted with an amalgam of overlapping readings of the script, and we must follow the cast through myriad threads of dialogue as they parse out the scenes and deconstruct them from their own positions. Off-site at Western Front, a single edited cut presents Bowen’s restaged teledrama in its entirety.
Across the hall in CAG’s larger B.C. Binning Gallery, a second major suite of works presents a terrain of research that Bowen undertook in Vancouver in 2017–18, recovered from civic documents, newspaper clippings and numerous personal and organizational archives. This material traces a series of interconnected figures who formed an integral part of Vancouver’s Black entertainment community from the 1940s through the end of the 1970s, including her great uncle Risby and numerous others. As Black bodies living and working in a settler colony rife with societal and institutionalized police racism, they were at once invisible and hypervisible, variously admired, exoticized, surveilled and violently attacked. They enjoyed certain celebrity in their local milieu and endured differing degrees of prejudice, bigotry and segregation. What Bowen ultimately reveals with these recovered documents is the picture of a complex, varied and intersectional Black community in Vancouver—one offering a powerful counterpoint to common narratives and the representational modes that have upheld them, which oversimplify the city’s Black presence by containing it within the spatial, economic and temporal confines of Hogan’s Alley.
Bowen translates each piece of archival evidence into a discrete form—choreographic notation, reinterpreted and re-performed dance sequences, large-scale wall vinyl, framed and mounted prints, photocopied transparencies, a hand-painted sign, sculpture, a book work and an off-site billboard—in an explicit effort to bring them into visibility. Everywhere we are confronted by Bowen’s tools of retrieval and viewing, whether overhead projectors, lightboxes or flatbed film editors. In fact these apparatuses are often the only means through which the material becomes visible and legible. Such legibility, however, is simultaneously challenged by the many registers of darkness that comprise A Harlem Nocturne, which speak not only to the obstructions and opacity Bowen encountered in her research efforts, but also to her strategies for protecting communities close to her family by avoiding a repetition of the overexposure they endured in their public and private lives.
Bowen’s work also reminds us of photography’s power to categorize and contain, and the degree to which it has relied on the archival model to achieve legitimacy. Theorist Allan Sekula describes the way that photography “welded honorific and repressive functions together” through a generalized, inclusive “shadow archive,” which encompassed an entire social terrain, and contains the traces of visible bodies of leaders, moral exemplars, as well as the poor, the criminal, the non-white “and all other embodiments of the unworthy.” Perhaps this “shadow archive” is ultimately Bowen’s (dark) matter—a system of representation that cannot be seen directly but silently constitutes the all-encompassing structure within which Black experience was contained, made visible and variously vilified or admired in twentieth century Vancouver (as elsewhere). In daylighting its evidence, Bowen’s objectives are forensic. She understands how to search for these traces, because she too inhabits a body that is subject to this same system’s principles of organization. And therein also lies the force of her work, her visual and material mattering of that archive—both its residual and potential meanings—because, to borrow the words of artist Hito Steyerl, “a document on its own—even if it provides perfect and irrefutable proof—doesn’t mean anything. If there is no one willing to back the claim, prosecute the deed, or simply pay attention, there is no point in its existence.”
Presented in partnership with Capture Photography Festival. On Trial The Long Doorway was commissioned and produced through a partnership between the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver and Mercer Union, a centre for contemporary art, Toronto. Production support provided through a Media Arts residency at the Western Front, Vancouver. Additional support provided by Clark’s Audio Visual.