McIntosh African Canadian identity

The McIntosh Gallery is currently featuring Worn, an installation piece by Vancouver-based artist Karin Jones, and the John and Suzanne Kaufmann Collection of African Art.

Although Worn and the Kaufmann Collection seem to be united by the theme of African art, they are incongruous with one another in terms of the message they send. While Jones’ work asserts her identity as African and African Canadian and criticizes colonialism of African culture, the Kaufmann collection aims to display and celebrate various forms of African art.

Worn consists of a black Victorian-style jacket and skirt covered with synthetic braids meant to be symbolic of African hair. On the floor surrounding the garment are cotton balls stuffed with Jones’ own hair.

The work speaks to African identity, slavery and stereotypes of race and femininity.

“I always wanted to do something about cultural identity,” says Jones. “The most potent symbol of slavery is those cotton fields and I wanted to talk about how history, through its constant retelling, shapes the way Africans are seen in North America.”

Jones, a trained goldsmith and jeweler, took the opportunity to create the identity-based piece when the Royal Ontario Museum made a call for submission that addressed the absence or presence of Africans in Canadian history.

Many aspects of Jones' pieces were ideas she already had, including making braids into a Victorian dress and cotton balls stuffed with her own hair.

Jones’ choice to use hair as a marker of identity stemmed from research done on the hair export market in India. 

“The more I started to find out how much of this Indian hair ended up on black women’s heads, I started thinking about it in terms of cultural identity,” says Jones. “The reason why I was drawn to working with hair is because I have been raised with ideas about it.... In the black community, there is so much discussion about hair and authenticity, and it being also a racial and cultural marker as well.”

While creating Worn, Jones questioned her own identity.

“I thought, ‘Is my hair African enough to be symbolic of this?’ " she says. "But then I was really happy to have come to the decision to put my own hair in it because this work really is about my own identity as well.”

The choice to incorporate her own hair also speaks to the historic European fascination with female African sexuality. Specifically, Jones recalls and challenges the story of Sarah Baartman.

“[Baartman] was an African woman who was brought to Europe in the 1800s and was paraded around as a circus sideshow," says Jones. "She became very famous for her very large buttocks. She became symbolic of the African woman as animalistic sexuality and people were just really fascinated by her because they saw this as a symbol of sexuality and something primitive that they felt they didn’t posses in Europe.”

Upon Baartman’s death, some of her body parts were preserved and continued to be a spectacle for Europe to see. 

“They actually kept her buttocks and part of her genitals," explains Jones. "It was kept in a museum in Paris up until the 1980s. So there is sort of that dark side of museum collecting and I actually kind of liked the idea then that through my own agency I was putting myself in the museum."

The sexualization of Baartman relates to Jones’ interest in racial and feminine stereotypes.

While at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Jones researched racial and feminine stereotypes, often stemming from the Victorian era.

“Over the course of the 1800s, the bustle in Victorian fashion grew bigger and bigger," says Jones. "I was drawing the connection between [Baartman] as an iconic figure and somehow women were — consciously or not — emulating her body shape. And so that was also a large part of why I wanted to do a Victorian piece.”

Conversely, the Kaufmann Collection does not criticize colonization but rather celebrates the visual beauty of African masks, jewelry, sculpture and textiles. 

The information panel at the front of the exhibit states the Kaufmann family are of South African descent and brought the collection to London when they immigrated in 1972, "where John joined the neuroscience medical team at Western University, and Suzanne completed a degree in Visual Art and French."

The collection was bequeathed to the gallery in 2013. 

The collection is open until Mar. 21 and admission is free. 

Editor's Note: An earlier edition of the article incorrectly stated the Kaufmann family are not from Africa. They are in fact South African.

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Annie is a culture editor for volume 110. Previously, she was a staff writer for volume 109. She is in her fourth year studying English and political science. Contact her at annie@westerngazette.ca or follow her on Twitter @annierueter1.

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