Toronto art collector showcases black community, identity and power

Kenneth Montague is the founder of Wedge Curatorial Projects, a non-profit organization focused on black identity in contemporary art. Aperture, an art book publisher, recently published a volume devoted to photography in its collection, titled ‘As We Rise’.Ebti Nabag/The Globe and Mail

Toronto dentist and art collector Kenneth Montague grew up in Windsor, Ont., and his parents sometimes took the family across the border to catch baseball games or visit the Detroit Institute of the Arts. It was there that he first saw a mesmerizing image taken in 1932 by New York photographer James Van Der Zee showing a black couple in raccoon coats posing next to their Cadillac roadster in front of a row of stones brunettes. This statement about the wealth and pride of the Harlem Renaissance immediately caught the attention of a boy who was the only black child in his class: in Windsor, he and his parents, who had arrived in Canada before the wave of immigration Caribbean in the 1960s. and 1970s, was a small Jamaican island in a white sea. This chic couple introduced her to a bigger world, a world where every month was Black History Month.

“I will cross the river [to] Detroit and its rich black American culture in the 70s,” Montague said in an interview.

“I’m watching the movie Tree, with my big brother. … And all these moves are happening that I thought were extremely exciting and important, black power moves … going with my mom to get her hair done at the House of Beauty in Detroit. Motown music playing…seeing a young Diana Ross putting out Motown records, I remember when I was little, with her little white gloves. Wow, there’s another way to live here. It opened my eyes to the multitude of black experiences.

Years later he sought out Van Der Zee’s widow and purchased a copy of the photograph. This is how he started collecting art.

He focused exclusively on black artists, establishing the Wedge Gallery in Toronto in 1997 and then the non-profit Wedge Curatorial Projects to show and support their work. Today, this Van Der Zee photograph is one of dozens included in As We Rise: Black Atlantic Photography, an art book published by Aperture, an American non-profit photography publisher. The subtitle is a geographical reference to West Africa and the countries of the diaspora: the Caribbean, Canada and the United States. The main title is a phrase Montague’s father, Spurgeon, would use to describe the responsibility of lifting your community with you.

Montague, whose mother, Ellen, was a hospital dietitian and whose father was a teacher, had an artistic bent and played in a reggae band. “I was a good son who liked to get a guitar for my birthday because I did so well on my math test. … I was going to be a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer, choose one,” he said. declared.

Kenneth Montague has said he cites an iconic image by British photographer Vanley Burke of a Birmingham boy in 1970 riding the Union Jack on his bicycle, as inspiration for his work. Vanley Burke/Opening

The same week they entered dental school at the University of Toronto, the band was offered a record deal. Montague has no regrets about choosing the safer path. “It ended up being a great choice,” he said, describing how dentistry paid for his artistic habit and left him to seek out purchases at dental conventions. “I might have become a dissatisfied 50-year-old musician.”

When Montague began collecting, he established the Wedge Gallery, so named for the shape of his Richmond Street loft in the Queen West neighborhood. For five years, it hosted salons and exhibitions dedicated to a growing collection of works by black photographers. Montague built the business as a testament to black identity and also liked the idea of ​​the gallery sticking to the mainstream. He continues to connect to the work in this way, quoting an iconic image by British photographer Vanley Burke of a Birmingham boy in 1970 riding the Union Jack on his bicycle, proclaiming his Britishness during the period that saw the rise national anti-immigration. Before in the UK.

“It was a very defiant and brave thing. … This young boy says, ‘Hey, I’m proudly British. I was born here and this is who I am.'” Montague directly relates: “I was a child of 10 years old who had a bike and I remember having a Canadian flag on it…. I know it sounds easy [but] it’s like the boy inside the man. … It happens just as much now: I will see new works by contemporary artists that I feel reflect my life, the life of my family and my community. It all stems from a very subjective and personal story. There is therefore a cohesion in the collection: it is not just about random images of black people. (As we rise divides his photographs into three categories: community, identity and power.)

Overwhelmed by the number of visitors he could not accommodate in the loft, Montague eventually closed the Wedge Gallery and maintained the collection as a nonprofit foundation with no dedicated physical space. He has expanded his interests far beyond photography, collecting works by African American artists such as designer Stephen Burks, painter Henry Taylor and multimedia artist Deanna Bowen, as well as the work of British painter Lynette. Yiadom-Boakye. Montague also collects Canadian artists including Stan Douglas, Michèle Pearson Clarke, Kapwani Kiwanga and Sandra Brewster.

While a lot of artwork by African Americans is snapped up these days, much of it comes from white collectors in the United States.

“Aperture understands the uniqueness of collecting – a black collector collecting black artists in Canada,” Montague said. The publisher is also planning an exhibition of the photographs at the University of Toronto Art Museum and the Polygon Gallery in Vancouver later this year.

After serving for several years on the Africa Acquisitions Committee at the Tate Modern gallery in London, Montague shifted his focus to Toronto. Since 2015, he has advised the Art Gallery of Ontario on its acquisitions in the field and was instrumental in its recent appointment of a Curator for Global African and Diaspora Art.

“I want young kids to go to the Art Gallery of Ontario and have this experience of seeing this art and saying, ‘This is me – or this is what I want to be. .

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Norma D. Ross