Co-presented with Gallery 44. In dialogue with "An Archive, But Not An Atlas" at Critical Distance Centre for Curators
Developing Historical Negatives examines the strategies artists use to harness the affective dimensions of the colonial photographic archive. Probing histories of migration and assimilation, and stories of resistance, fugitivity, and escape, the works commissioned for this exhibition use photography’s imaginative potential to illuminate difficult histories, and to question how images can act as tools of knowledge transfer between generations.
Taking its title from the work of colonial anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, the exhibition reorients attention away from the glossy, state-sanctioned photographs of “official” histories to the space of photographic production—the darkroom—where inverted, grainy impressions reveal the tenuous grounds of how histories are formed. In these new works incorporating collage, digital manipulation, reenactment, and translation, Canadian artists Deanna Bowen (Toronto), Morris Lum (Toronto), Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn (Stockholm), Krista Belle Stewart (Vancouver/Berlin), and Hajra Waheed (Montreal) interweave family narratives with state histories to picture transnational experiences of belonging and unbelonging, sovereignty and unfreedom. Importantly, these artists’ works do not seek to insert missing narratives into the historical record, but to expose the presence of racialized subjects who were always and already there, waiting to be “developed” into public sight.
Morris Lum’s series of photographic collages, Subtle Gestures (2017 – 18), recontextualizes portraits of Chinese residents that appeared in the Calgary Herald newspaper from the 1950s to 1970s by removing the captions and headlines that originally accompanied their publication. By doubling, mirroring, or inverting images meant to act as evidence of Chinese assimilation into dominant culture, Lum’s digital interventions point to the subtle glances and understated gestures of refusal that have leaked into these otherwise banal photographs.
Deanna Bowen’s film installation similarly addresses questions of continuity and resistance through the lens of the family archive. As part of her ongoing genealogical research, Bowen re-presents a 1962 CBC documentary, The Promised Land—a 16mm film featuring several family members recounting memories of a small Black church they helped establish in Edmonton after migrating from Oklahoma at the turn of the century. Looped in on itself endlessly, Bowen’s installation defers the arrival of safety and belonging promised by the film’s title, leaving her family’s status in the landscape unsettled and unresolved.
Legacies of inheritance also animate the work of Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, whose series Presence in Absentia (2018 – 19) transposes photographic materials inherited from her great-grandfather into brightly coloured sand compositions, reminiscent of mandalas, laid out on the gallery floor. Nguyễn Khu’o’ng, a mandarin of the third rank for the last emperor of Indochina, made and collected portraits of himself and his family from the mid-1910s to the 1970s: images that were salvaged and carefully annotated by the artist’s grandfather when he came to Canada in 1982. Combining studio portraits and snapshot images, Nguyễn’s archive hints at the pivotal historical events that shaped her family’s movement across the globe.
For Krista Belle Stewart, photography is deployed metaphorically, operating as a structuring device for other kinds of material exploration. Playing with the medium’s promise of mimetically recording the past, and its intertwined history with the phonograph, Stewart revisits a wax cylinder recording of her great-grandmother singing, captured by an anthropologist in 1918. Relayed through a layer of soil collected from her maternally inherited property on Spaxomin (Douglas Lake, B.C.), Stewart visualizes the reverberations of intergenerational Indigenous knowledge across space and time, providing the grounds for sovereign speech to occur.
Known for her intricate narratives constructed from archival traces, Hajra Waheed’s site-specific installations in the gallery vitrines examine the ways Jim Crow models of segregated urban planning have been exported to locations around the world. Exploring the gated suburban communities and walled compounds of her upbringing, Waheed’s layered compositions reveal the ways these architectures of exclusion work to protect extraction zones and maintain racial divisions of labour. In so doing, the vitrines offer a window into the ways the colonial archive, much like the photographic negative, endlessly reproduces itself.
Treating the archive as blueprints for a yet to be realized future, these artists attend to what could have been, what might come to pass, and what can be imagined differently. Their works therefore picture colonialism as unfinished, asking us to attend to its continued impact on the present, and proposing ways to collectively imagine its eventual undoing.
Curated by Gabrielle Moser