By: Dagmawit Dejene
It’s not about being black. This is the point that Michael Chambers is trying to convey with his latest show, Michael Chambers: Shadows to Silver – A 25 Year Retrospective. The exhibit, which is running from January 25th – March 18th at the BAND (Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue) gallery, is a collection of photographs featuring representations of the nude Black body, from various stages of Chambers’ career.
“I made a decision, at the very early stages of my career, to use black subjects not as black people but as generic subjects,” said Chambers.
He offered an example using one of his works which features a nude woman with her hands clasped behind her back and her face looking up at the sky. The piece is in black and white and the woman has black marks all over her body and face. Chambers put this piece in an exhibit he held in Japan, and most of the feedback he received mentioned that that piece really resonated with the audience because it made them think of Hiroshima.
“So, it wasn’t about her being black,” said Chambers. “It was about the posture and circumstances.”
Chambers fell in love with photography in his third year at York University, studying Art History. He bought his first camera, a Nikon, to help document his paintings, but soon began taking Pictures for fun. Queen Street West was his playground, anywhere between Bay and Bathurst, Chambers always felt inspired.
“It had a pulse that I have seen nowhere else in Canada,” said Chambers. “I just really was inspired by the innovative thinkers [there], people who did things because they felt they could. A question of why not.”
Although Chambers didn’t want the focus of his art to be race, he does use his photography to explore political and social issues including racism.
“I wanted to make sure that, whatever I said, reflected my ideas on politics on society on racism on people in general,” said Chambers
Chamber’s first exhibition of this show in Catham, Ont. Featured over 100 works in a large, two-story art gallery. Karen Carter, co-founder of the BAND gallery and cultural center here in Toronto, points out that there is quite a great deal of significance in the location of the original show.
“That border community has a rich history of activism or anti-slavery,” said Carter. “The school in Buxton, when they had segregated school, the black school actually was better and the white school closed because the white people sent their kids to the black school, so it’s really fascinating and really empowering history.”
Carter said that the fact that it opened there is really appropriate in historically telling, but the show needed to be in Toronto.
“Our only regret is that we didn’t have the space to show everything that they showed,” said Carter.
The exhibit is being funded through TD Bank’s Black History Month program, but Chambers rejects the idea that the exhibit was put together for Black History Month specifically.
“Everything that a black person does ends up on black history month, it’s ridiculous,” said Chambers. “It’s basically just throwing us a bone.”
In fact, in the early stages of his career, Chambers refused to do any interviews so that people would not know that he was black. Instead, people could react to his work and take home their own meaning of it without any preconceived notions. This is the idea that Chambers put behind this exhibit.
“Each person walks away with a different meaning based on who they are,” said Chambers.
However, although Chmabers doesn’t want any praise for being a “black artist” or for creating “black art,” his works have contributed greatly to the collective voice of black Canadian artists.
“An artists like Michael looking at 25 years shows you that we have had artists and creatives working and doing things in the sector, commenting on black culture and identity and the space we hold in society long before Black Lives Matter protests,” said Carter. “And we know that because protest and activism goes in waves, a lot of these images speak to very current issues around black identity and masculinity.”
This piece was edited by Jacklyn Gilmor.