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Black Canadian filmmakers featured in North Vancouver exhibit

The Polygon Gallery’s ‘As We Rise’ spotlights Black Canadian artistry

By Kikachi Memeh , in City , on May 4, 2023

North Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery has opened a new exhibit, As We Rise: Photography From The Black Atlantic,  that programming co-ordinator Sayo Olowo-Ake believes is making history in Vancouver.

“This will be one of the exhibitions that go down in history as one of the first Black exhibitions in Vancouver,” Olowo-Ake said.

The low visibility of Black art in Vancouver’s major art institutions provides an opportunity for Black artists and art practitioners within those spaces to make a change, she said. The majority of Black art showcased in the city is either organized by small collectives such as The Black Arts Centre or one-off instances in larger-scale institutions like the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Exhibitions of Black artwork and culture tend to be shared during Black History Month but, with this exhibit, the Polygon Gallery is spotlighting Black art and not confining it to February alone.

The three-month exhibition will not stand alone. The gallery is also curating a nine-week program to keep guests engaged and educated about the exhibition’s themes.  

As We Rise exhibition poster at the Polygon Gallery

“We’re trying to create an archive people can refer to,” Olowo-Ake said. It is being curated as a response to what she says is the systemic erasure of Black presence and community in Vancouver.

The programming spans the months of March, April, and May, and is centred on conversations, performances, and screenings of Black/African film, photography, and social narratives. “Blackness is not a monolith and we are not really focusing on one thing. Each filmmaker perceives their own community and will tell a story of that community or its issues”

The films showcased Mahalia Melts in the Rain by Carmine Pierre Dufour and Emilie Mannering, Awakening by Camille Turner, Patty vs. Patty by Chris Strikes, and Une Rencontre Fortuite by Sandra Mathieu, demonstrate the diversity of Black narratives. 


Patty vs. Patty film screening at the Polygon Gallery

The themes of community, identity, and power are prevalent in the Elliot Ramsey-curated exhibition.

“These different films speak to the themes Elliot and I were talking about in the exhibition,” Olowo-Ake said.

Chris Strike, whose short documentary Patty vs. Patty explores the theme of community through its display of the legal battle between the government of Toronto and the Jamaican community, said despite his film largely being relatable to people in Toronto, he appreciated the ability to give the film a chance to resonate with a different audience. 

The feeling was the same for Mathieu. “Events like this are helping a lot,” said the Quebec-based filmmaker. She said that showcases like this one help the ideas in the film to sit with different audiences. 

Listen to the full Q and A session with the filmmakers 

The hope is that this exhibit ignites further collaborations between Polygon and Black artists in Vancouver.

The gallery is set to collaborate with talents like Wanuri Kahiu, Jorian Charlton, Nya Lewis, Sade Awele, Jamila Pomeroy, Karice Mitchel, and several other talents in the Black and African communities within and beyond Canada.

According to Olowo-Ake, the programming for the exhibition is meant to be an extension of Kenneth Montague’s father’s famous phrase “Lifting as we rise,” a sentiment that is meant to encourage the idea of using one’s success to elevate others.

“It’s not just saying come and see what Black people are doing, it’s giving them the space to be, to show their work and engage with other people,” Olowo-Ake said.

In this case, the Polygon Gallery is using its platform to spotlight Black artists in the Vancouver community. 

As We Rise exhibition hall
As We Rise exhibition hall Polygon Gallery


The show comes at a time of change in the Black community in Vancouver.

“The Black population is growing and it’s growing rapidly,” University of British Columbia Professor and Director of the Centre for Culture, Identity, and Education, Dr. Handel Wright, said.

However, the move to showcase Black art and artists is slow.

A few art institutions are starting to open their walls to Black art and artists. In November 2022, Surrey Art Gallery, in partnership with the Black Arts Centre put together an exhibition, titled I See, I Breathe, I Am, which focused on the duality of blackness. Artspeak’s latest exhibition, No Neutral Language, which opened on  Feb. 9th is also set to run till mid-April.

“I think we should aim for it becoming the norm,” said Wright. “There’s something problematic about the fact that people only notice and want to talk about Blackness during one month,” Wright said. According to him, institutions and publications all scramble to get a quote or two out of him during February and disappear after February ends. “As soon as February ends, people don’t know about Black people anymore.”