Celebrate Black History Month at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Sparrow, 2010, by Denyse Thomasos (1964 - 2012), acrylic on canvas.
Sparrow, 2010, by Denyse Thomasos (1964 – 2012), acrylic on canvas. Image provided by AGGV.

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is showcasing the works of Denyse Thomasos as part of their celebration of Black History Month.

Until March 13, 2022, visitors to the gallery can take a self-guided tour of Denyse Thomasos: Odyssey. The exhibition includes works from all phases of Thomasos’s career and celebrates her historic contribution to Canadian art. 

Denyse Thomasos (1964–2012) was a Trinidadian-Canadian artist whose epic paintings incorporate imagery from a range of sources, including Caribbean textiles, historic slave ships, industrial shipyards, graveyards, villages and maximum security prisons.

Thomasos explained her choice of subject matter in an artist statement in 2012, shortly before her untimely death: “I was struck by the premeditated, efficient, dispassionate records of human beings as cargo and also by the deplorable conditions of the slave ships—so many Africans stacked and piled into the tiny, airless holds. In my artworks, I used lines in deep space to recreate these claustrophobic conditions, leaving no room to breathe. To capture the feeling of confinement, I created three large-scale black-and-white paintings of the structures that were used to contain slaves—and left such catastrophic effects on the black psyche: the slave ship, the prison, and the burial site. These became archetypal for me. I began to reconstruct and recycle their forms in all of my works.”

The structures that confine and define us — whether political, social or architectural — served as the subject of her works. With her lush painterly approach, Thomasos compounded these subjects into form and colour. The result is a body of work that recalls the history of the African diaspora with boundless energy and force. Thomasos’ art enacts a delicate balance between representation and abstraction and holds a unique place in the history of Canadian art, adding to a narrative from which Black, Indigenous, and people of colour’s voices have for too long been excluded.

Young visitors can connect with her work through an activity sheet, inspired by the artist’s ground-breaking body of work recalling the history of the African diaspora. The worksheet is available to download for free to enjoy at home or a copy can be picked up at the front desk at the Gallery.

In addition, art lovers can engage with While Black: a forum for speculation on what the gallery can’t hold, a co-presentation of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown. 

Each of the ten artists in this iteration of While Black: a forum for speculation on what the gallery can’t hold has been asked to produce a document of their relationship to the art gallery and its systems of representation as Black artists working in Canada, including consideration of the project query ‘what the gallery can’t hold?’ Through multimodal and multimedia responses, these ten artists have offered questions, imperatives, proposals and insight into their own experiences within contemporary art institutions. Find it here: While Black Q & A.

Those interested in reading more about Black artists and curators in Canada can read also the AGGV e-magazine interview While Black: A Q&A with Charles Campbell, Michelle Jacques and Denise Ryner.