Difficult Histories: An Interview with Deanna Bowen – Michèle Pearson Clarke

Last summer, I invited Deanna Bowen to interview me at the opening of my MFA thesis show at the Ryerson Image Centre. The work was about black queer grief, and I knew that she would ask me the questions that I needed in order to say the hard things that I wanted the audience to hear. Deanna’s work is also about hard things that are difficult for many people to hear about—American slavery, racism, the Ku Klux Klan. As both a friend and colleague, I have long been intrigued by her insertion of these things into the Canadian narrative, where they have most often remained invisible and unspoken. On the heels of her being named a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, we recently sat down together, so that I could hopefully return the favour and ask her the questions that she needed.

Michèle Pearson Clarke: I want to start by offering you a most heartfelt congratulations on being granted a Guggenheim Fellowship! You have just joined this dream team list that includes names like Adrian Piper and Glenn Ligon and Ken Lum and Denyse Thomasos and David Hammons. 

Deanna Bowen: Thank you. It’s a huge, huge thing in so many ways. Aside from the research itself, getting the Guggenheim as a Canadian, and also having my particular body of work affirmed in this way is really important to me. I mean, obviously I exist anyhow, but it reasserts my place within the Canadian art world and Canadian history. So, it’s just another puzzle piece that helps me to write my history into the Canadian fabric.

MPC: Can you tell me about the new project that will be supported by the award?

DB: The piece I’ve proposed is called An Exoduster’s Archive and it’s a project that will allow me to research my grandfather’s side of the family genealogically. I’ll be going back to Kentucky and Kansas to recreate my grandfather’s family tree, and then back to the sites that I can find from that family tree to document the landscape and actually find whatever family I can. I’m trying to piece together the story about how my grandfather’s side came to Canada at the turn of the century in 1908. That side of the family is Kentucky to Kansas to Alberta directly. So, researching and tracing that line is one part of this project, and for the other part I will create a suite of works based on whatever I collect on the road.

Exoduster is a term that was applied to blacks who migrated from the dust bowl in the South to Kansas, but it’s also an exodus in the sense of fleeing and migrating to another homeland. I see myself being very much a product of that. I am an exoduster in a sense, because I am constantly seeking out another hospitable landscape. It’s a bit of an homage to my family, and it’s also a bit more of me coming to know who I am and then stepping into that. 

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MPC: Researching your family’s migration from the U.S. into Canada has been a major part of your work for some time. How did you come to focus on this in your practice?

DB: My family doesn’t talk about our history at all, and my mom says I just think too much about the past. She thinks I need to let it go. When you whittle down my family genealogy, by the time you get to my generation, it is admittedly, a very bleak scenario. But because of that, from very early on, this work was about the very practical work of knowing who I am and where I come from in order to become myself and not repeat family patterns. Somewhere along the line, that became a much more important, much bigger thing than me. This process of knowing who we are has been an incredibly healing process for me, and I hope it’s been a healing process for other people. I’ve come to recognize how important this research is, which is why I share a lot of my work freely with as many people as I possibly can, both within my family and outside of it.

MPC: You mentioned your mother, and in previous conversations we’ve talked about the fact that your work is really all about working through your relationship with her. I love that. There is something so tender in you coming to understand your mother through understanding the historical forces that shaped her life.

DB: We had a very strained relationship for many, many years. Clearly, there are a lot of things in our family history that have deeply affected her, and then in turn affected the way she’s engaged with me. And I have said some really uncool things to my mom over the years in my desire to not repeat family cycles. My mom was groomed to be the one to take care, in the same way my grandmother was and her mother was as well. And I ran from it as soon as I possibly could. I just didn’t want to be the broad-shouldered matriarch that effectively took care of a very large and dysfunctional extended family. I just wasn’t that person.

In resisting that, I effectively cut her off for 20 years. But it was an enormous strain that I couldn’t sustain; I just couldn’t sustain that distance. The last 10 years or so have been about fixing our relationship, and my work has helped me to understand what she can’t speak to, and to accept who she is as a result of the life experiences she’s had. Certainly, there is a tenderness that wasn’t there before and an appreciation of who she is, with her barely 12th-grade education, perpetually working-class existence and very hard-knock life. I can’t say that I have always liked her, but I really like my mom now and I appreciate her as an incredibly resourceful survivor. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t taken up researching the Civil Rights period or slavery for that matter.

It took digging through these histories to understand the impact of my mother being raised by her grandmother, who was slave-born, very hard, and profoundly mentally unstable. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that, but the woman was cruel and sadistic and that has a lot to do with how my mother is and how she raised me.

This work that I do has given me the ability to see these things that she won’t name. But she still makes the effort to be connected, and we are doing the work and I just deeply appreciate her.

MPC: Going back to your family’s migration, what has your research revealed about what this migration looked like?

DB: On my maternal grandmother’s side, my family was brought to America through the slave ports in Georgia, transported to Alabama and then enslaved there for a very long time. In the late 1890s or early 1900s, my great-grandparents migrated from Alabama to Texas, and then onto Indian territory in Oklahoma, before it became a state. They left shortly after 1905 to come to Canada because whites effectively drove out all of the black settlers.

At the time, the Canadian government was attempting to settle western Canada, and in looking to recruit American farmers, they mistakenly put ads in black newspapers in Oklahoma and that’s why my family and other black families came north. But when they arrived, they were deterred at the border. The government had implemented entry restrictions to keep Blacks from coming in, but eventually they managed to cross the border into British Columbia. Later they heard about a black community in northern Alberta, and they made their way east and settled in a town called Amber Valley, the northernmost black community in North America.

Practically speaking, going back to the regions where my family has lived has allowed me to see and touch the land that they cherished, and to understand who and what political forces oppressed them. It has been important to see the immensity of the plantations, which has helped me to understand the harshness of slave labour. I can grasp how futile life would have been for my family, and with that, I have come to really understand how big the dream for freedom would have been.

MPC: How did understanding this history lead to projects like The Paul Good Papers (2012) and Invisible Empires (2013)?

DB: My grandfather’s family line connected to Campsie—another of the four Canadian all-black towns in Alberta—which is actually the entryway to my work on the Klan. I was raised with the understanding that Campsie was not the same as Amber Valley. Campsie is a less hospitable black town. It’s a town that is geographically surrounded by racist white people. My grandfather, and even my mother, can recall stories about racist run-ins between blacks and whites there in the early days. And because of that, my grandfather was very careful to explain that there are racist people in Canada, and he was the person to teach me about the Klan in the Prairies.

And so, that is what opened the door for me to do the work with Invisible Empires and The Paul Good Papers. Like everything else, these projects fulfill a personal need to affirm his teachings—especially because so much of it is invisible. I make use of archived recordings by the white American journalist Paul Good in both projects, in order to publically map the Klan’s migration and presence in Canada, and privately work through a suspicion that the Klan torched my family’s belongings as they made their way to Amber Valley. Both Invisible Empires and The Paul Good Papers helped me to reconcile with my grandfather in the same ways that my ongoing research reconnects me to my mother. I didn’t believe him when I was younger, and the process of researching the Klan in the West has helped me to come to terms with his wisdom and stoicism.

This work helps me to understand that there are volumes of knowledge buried beneath his silences, and that information needs to come out. It couldn’t happen in his lifetime, but it can in mine. It is important, not only because it clears up any lingering doubts I had about our intelligence and sanity, but also because of the sickness and cyclical traumatization that results from continuing to internalize it. Also, this history of anti-black racism in Alberta is somewhat like Africville’s history in that it’s been awkwardly recognized regionally, and then dismissed or minimized altogether on a national platform, so part of my work is about inserting it into the national narrative.

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MPC: Definitely. And in thinking about the theme reflect, I see your work reflecting to Canadians a Canadian history that most people have no idea about.

DB: It’s a reflecting with the purpose of writing something in the present tense for the future, if that makes any sense at all. So, on the one hand, it’s reflection as a strategy of self-care for me, and on the other, it is reflection for Canadians in the sense that for most people the history of Canada is the British and the French and that whole narrative and then we’re done, right? But there are all kinds of other histories that aren’t in the narrative.

I also feel generationally that I have a responsibility to reflect. My mother’s generation, for a number of reasons, cannot do that work; maybe it’s too close. My grandparents are not interested or willing to do that work. They’re too busy just making a place for themselves, let alone reflecting. Reflecting would be an incredible privilege given what they had to do. There’s something about the generation that I’m in… I have infinitely more education than anybody else in my family. I have the perspective to understand the importance of our history and the need to reflect and tell our story in a particular way.

And honestly… if you are not white and not British or French in Canada, I don’t see how you wouldn’t be in a reflective place. It’s not like there’s anything out in the world that affirms your presence in any kind of way. So, the only way to maintain your own sense of self would be through a state of perpetual reflection. In that way, reflection is both a self-protective and generative strategy for me.

MPC: I also find it really compelling that in your work in Invisible Empires, and particularly in your performances in The Paul Good Papers where you are literally embodying white men, you are upending the expectations placed on black artists by reflecting not blackness but whiteness to your audiences. Where did this approach come from?

DB: It’s rooted in my early practice and trying to avoid blackness for a number of reasons—partly personal, partly professional. For the first 15 years of my practice, I very much avoided the use of the black body because I didn’t want to unpack the darkest part of my family history in front of white people. I also came to realize how I’m seen in the art world, as an artist and as an individual, and how my work can be used within the art economy. As a black maker and as a queer woman, there was a very fixed sense of what I was supposed to produce. And then not doing it really confounded people as far as, how do we distribute your work, how do we curate you, if it’s not as a black, blah, blah, blah.

Then when I did ultimately start making work about my life and history in a much more direct way, when talking about slave history and about Civil Rights history, and looking at the archives that support the work that I’m producing, there are a lot of brutalized black bodies. That seems to be the consistent representation of a particular portion of history. There’s an undercurrent of consistent victimhood in there that I don’t understand. The people that I know, the people that I was researching, the people that I was engaging with were not victims in any way. I made a very conscious decision to not reframe these people as victims, and in not wanting to do that, I really had to figure out a way to shift things.

In dealing with the archives, it became very clear that there are archival materials that inform Civil Rights history or slave history that are buried in the back of the library system because somebody has decided they’re not valuable and important. More often than not, those are white archives that are deemed to be secondary to the core archives that are black. So always in the construction of blackness, there is this invisible, unspoken construction of whiteness. It is determined to be the norm but it’s not brought forward. So, I wanted to bring it forward, in an effort to bring it into being. Whiteness is just such an intrinsic part of the black experience and it never gets fleshed out, but it’s important to unpack that as well.

In doing this, I’ve found performing whiteness to be a very liberating gesture in many ways. Not only from core expectations, but also, once you break through and do that, you can do anything. It has opened the door for me, artistically. I feel as though I could take up anything if I wanted to. When you get to that place you realize that well, white people do this all the time. They talk about anything that they possibly want to, but why is it that we feel so fixed to talking about blackness specifically?

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MPC: Preach, sister! But at the same time, I think that blackness is still relevant to your work, and you are just offering us a more complex way of thinking about it. In relation to this, I’m also interested in your consistent use of re-enactment, staging and performance. Are these strategies related to how you are choosing to represent blackness (or not) in your work?

DB: Absolutely, these are purposeful choices. The minute you put the image of a black person in front of say, a white person—and I have to say that because most of the audience members that I engage with in Canadian institutions are white—there’s a whole range of preset responses that have absolutely nothing to do with whatever you actually put in front of them. There’s a deadness too, in that response. What I’ve determined is that there are three things that I’m trying to work around: there’s terror, there’s disassociation, and then there is this notion of a lack of knowledge. But white people do know exactly what I’m talking about, and so firstly, I want to get past that dissociative place. Secondly, looking at an archival image, particularly a black-and-white image, sets up a dynamic that this is not real. It sets up a lack of emotional response. It’s a lack of feeling, a lack of caring.

I feel like re-enactments get around that. If you look at a photograph, you’re relying predominantly on sight, but if you experience a re-enactment, you’ve got other senses that come into play that inform your understanding or remembrance of something. So for example, with the restaging of the CBC’s The Klan Comes to Town interview, it’s the rustling, it’s the sound of the costume as it walks past you; it’s the smell of the actors as they sweat on stage. It’s the intonation of the actors; it’s the projection that’s required to perform the piece. It’s the tone of the room; it’s the energy off of the audience members. All of those things contribute to a bodily acknowledgment of what’s being put in front of you in ways that a photograph or an archival video or a written document just can’t.

There might be a bit of sadism in there as well, because I want the audience to feel the discomfort that I feel. I don’t want what I produce to be an easily sloughed off, predetermined “meaningful” experience. I don’t want the response to be, “oh, I learned so much” and then they just go away and forget about it. I want whatever it is that I’m doing to genuinely affect their lives. If it’s only for a minute, fine. But if I do it right, I’m going to affect them for longer. And then hopefully that sets up some kind of change in their behaviour and their life. And if it’s not them, then it’s certainly going to change the institution in some way or another. These are some of the things I’m thinking about, and the only way I’ve found to address all of it has been through performative gestures. 

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MPC: There is also this unique tension that gets created by your juxtaposition of the emotional power of the re-enactment with the evidentiary power of the archival document.

DB: That relationship is key, because from digging around in archives, I’ve been able to understand just how fundamentally biased and subjective any document is; any document is fundamentally crafted by an individual who has determined that there are things that are important and things that are not important.

The mainstream narratives about the histories that I’m preoccupied with—slave history, Klan history, Civil Rights history—are so incredibly produced. Their construction is all rooted in this notion that documents prove these histories have played out as they have been subjectively arranged and presented. What’s important for me is to acknowledge the reality that there are all kinds of other documents that were omitted and deemed unnecessary or irrelevant for whatever political reasons at the time, and to bring forth stories that complicate ideas of a singular “truth” or singular narrative.

MPC: These histories are so deeply painful for so many of us, and I’m struck by your choice to make personal work using historical archives that are both personally and publically painful. How do you navigate rolling up your sleeves and excavating that emotional archive?

DB: I couldn’t imagine not doing it in a personal way. I couldn’t imagine coming at it from a textbook kind of place, an academic kind of place, because it’s not. It’s not an academic subject matter; this is deeply personal, deeply hurtful, traumatic stuff.

In doing the work myself, I think it’s important to name the pain that we’re all carrying and to confront it. And because I have found myself stronger and freer in doing that work, I feel it’s really important to do that work publically, with the understanding that it could potentially free other people. I’ve given artist talks about this, and I’ve had people, in Canada, come up to me and say “my family’s house was torched” or “I had a cross burned on my lawn, so thank you very much.” I’ve been able to see how telling the story from a personal place and putting in my family narrative helps other people. 

MPC: It gives a permission, you think?

DB: For other people to talk about it, yes. I mean, that’s not to say everybody’s jumping up for joy and telling a story, but it does open the door for a few people. Sometimes it’s not people that have experienced it directly. Sometimes it’s librarians or academics who know about stories that are being hidden. There are other people who know about groups like the Klan and want to contribute to the telling of the story.

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MPC: But what’s the pushback and what’s the personal cost?

DB: Paranoia. Lately, with the American election, it’s become less of a hypothetical scenario that I’m talking about, and it’s become very obvious that it’s not even paranoia I’m feeling; it’s just straight up fear. It’s real. That’s a definite drawback.

There’s also a real challenge when working in the dark places of people’s minds/memories. The initial pushback that I experienced in the local black community when I started this work five years ago has given way to acceptance and support, as anti-black violence and blatant racism has become more obvious in Toronto and globally. At the same time, some white audience members have a new kind of fear of me/my work because this same obviousness makes it harder to shoot it down with “I didn’t know” claims. Then I become “radical” or trouble, or… who knows. I haven’t quite nailed down how I am interpreted now, other than to acknowledge the heightened fear in some people’s eyes when they meet me.

It also depends on the crowd. I am warmly welcomed in social practice and political artmaking circles, while the awkwardness amps up the closer I get to monied (thus, conservative) mainstream art/education institutions. In these encounters, there’s an additional fear of being associated with my works, though they would love to engage with my blackness—if only for their own sake and as long as the exchange is photographed. So, there’s an unattractive aura of inauthentic engagement that is a challenge to stay ahead of, because it has the potential to co-opt and tarnish a deeply personal and political healing gesture. All that to say, this work—or rather, the business of this work—has contributed to a heightened skepticism that I can’t always contain, especially because art business can be so casual and social.

That said, this skepticism causes me to be rather vigilant about who I work with and to really value and protect my connections to the people that commit to my projects, because they’re not just colleagues—they are courageous allies who have an unspoken understanding of the necessity of doing this work. I deeply appreciate the openness and trust my creative teams have in me, which means that I work very hard to ensure that my works are conceptually rigorous and factually sound. I can’t be flighty about this. This is so important because we are all working together in ways that put us in very emotional, psychological (and potentially physical) places, individually and collectively. We share an honest connection, and it helps anchor me when I am off-kilter or afraid of the material I’m working with.

But obviously, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I didn’t have professional supports along the way. The experimental film/video community and media arts/artist-run centres in Toronto have been a big part of my evolution and thematic experimentation. University art galleries like the Art Gallery of York University and the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania have also been important for grounding my works within contemporary art frameworks. But because of the whole art and (public) money thing, those kind of risk-taking institutions are few and far between generally, and then specifically in “small”(-minded) markets like Canada where the introduction of basic issues about identity is considered edgy and troublesome. And because I have such a vested interest in complicating Canada’s white lie/national narrative I can’t help but say that I wish curators were encouraged to take more thematic risks and champion more of this kind of complex work. More often than not, I find that in Canada they want to do nice, “safe” political work. They are willing to talk about some “difficult things” in Canada, but their approach is to take on things that are very far away and cause minimal discomfort, and certainly not radical things that could result in change locally.

Making the choice to do this work then, and to tell these truths, has meant a kind of political, professional stuckness. It’s put me in a position to really look to the U.S. for more professional support. But then again, because of what I’m addressing, it also has the increased potential to put me in harm’s way. So, that’s where I’m at. There are days where I wish I could just make a funny piece, you know? I know that some of that is just out of fatigue. Some of it is out of an acknowledgment that if I made easier work, I’d probably be in a different place professionally. But I don’t know how to do anything else but do this. 

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MPC: And thank you for doing it. The upcoming Guggenheim project sounds like it will also be difficult, so have you built in any relief for yourself in what else might be coming next?

DB: In a way, yes. With the one piece that I’m developing now, it’s still difficult, but it’s not as direct as taking on the Klan head-to-head. That’s not to say that I won’t do another piece like that, I just need to take a bit of a break.

MPC: A break from the Klan sounds healthy.

DB: Indeed. There’s also the fear of being pigeonholed as being that artist that does Klan stuff for the rest of my life. There have to be some differences in the body of work that I’m creating. The piece that I’m working on now is still about race and racism, it’s still about blackness and whiteness, but this time I’m dealing with the legal system. It’s early days yet. It’s set in the Don Jail. The personal reasons for making the work aren’t completely at the surface, but I do know that it has something to do with my lengthy self-interrogations about my practice and working within systemically biased institutions.

I think the project themes reflect my suspicions that despite the professional and artistic gains that I’ve made in recent years, I still feel that, within a Canadian landscape, it will be harder than it should be to find somebody to support the work—conversationally, curatorially, pedagogically—compared to other places in the world. This is not to say that I imagine myself or my work as being too edgy or smart for Canada. This is not about my art snobbery. It is more of a reflection of what I’m come to understand about making work about blackness here.

There have been all kinds of articles and reports about the white homogeneity of the Canadian art world in the last year or two. The work I am developing is a piece that’s archivally rooted in Toronto in the middle 1950s, and it’s not Canadians pointing at somebody else’s racism, this is about our very own stuff. Given the ways that I’ve seen the Canadian art world tends to repress difference and difficulty, I can’t help but wonder who can support this work here. I recognize that we’re at a crucial generational turning point in the art world, and with that I look around and wonder, who is going to take on the work of contextualizing this history within the greater Canadian art narrative and greater Canadian history? Who is willing to ask and demand answers to harder curatorial questions and take on the fact that there have been people talking about blackness and inequity in Canada for much longer than just the conversation of recent days?

Image Credits:

1. Video still from sum of the parts: what can be named (2010) Single Channel Video, 18:47 minutes, Colour, HD

2. Exhibition documentation of The Paul Good Papers (2012) – Co-commissioned by the Images Festival of Independent Film, Video & New Media and Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography. Toronto, ON. Photographer: Stuart Sakai

3. Performance documentation of the Paul Good/Robert Shelton Character Study (2015) – Six live performances through Feb 4-Mar 22, 2015 at Institute of Contemporary Art at University of Pennsylvania, approx. 30 minutes. Photographer: Constance Mensh; Performers: Martyna Majewska & Deanna Bowen

4. Set documentation of “The Klan Comes to Town” from This Hour Has Seven Minutes, CBC Studios, Toronto, October 24, 1965 (2013) – Single channel video, 19:35 minutes, Colour, HD. Photographer: Michele Pearson Clarke

5. Detail, “Appendix D: KKK Threat to Fran Fraser.” The Ku Klux Klan in Central Alberta. Baergen, William Peter. Edmonton: Central Alberta Historical Society, 2000. 296. Print

6. Video still from The Paul Good Papers: Atlanta Reels (2013) Single channel video projection, 90 minutes, B&W/ Colour, 8mm/Super 16mm/HD

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Deanna Bowen is a descendant of the Alabama and Kentucky-born Black Prairie pioneers of Amber Valley and Campsie, Alberta. She is a Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist and educator who holds a Masters Degree in Visual Studies from University of Toronto (2008) and Diplomas of Fine Art from Emily Carr College of Art and Design (1994) and Langara Community College (1992). Her work has been shown in Canada, the U.S., and Europe in numerous film festivals and galleries, including the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, the Kassel Documentary Film & Video Festival, and Union Docs Center for Documentary Arts. She is the recipient of the 2014 William H. Johnson Prize and has been awarded numerous grants, fellowships, and commissions in support of her work throughout her 23-year practice.

Deanna makes use of a repertoire of artistic gestures in order to define the Black body and trace its presence and movement in place and time. In recent years, her work has involved rigorous examination of her family lineage and their connections to the Black Prairie pioneers of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Creek Negroes (Black Indians) and All-Black towns of Oklahoma, the extended Kentucky/Kansas Exoduster migrations, and the Ku Klux Klan. The artistic by-products of this research were presented most recently at the ICA at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the McMaster Museum of Art and the Art Gallery of York University. Her works and interventionist practice have garnered significant critical regard internationally. She was an invited presenter in the Creative Time Summit at La Biennale di Venezia – 56th International Art Exhibition in 2015; and her writings and art works have appeared in numerous publications including Towards an African-Canadian Art History: Art, Memory and Resistance; Black Atlantis: A Literary Archeology of the Black Prairies; North: New African Canadian Writing – West Coast Line; and Má-Ka: Diasporic Juks: Contemporary Writing by Queers of African Descent.

Michèle Pearson Clarke is a Trinidad-born artist who works in photography, film, video and installation. Using archival, performative and process-oriented strategies, her work explores queer and black diasporic longing and loss. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally including at the Ryerson Image Centre, The Power Plant, Images Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam and International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Currently based in Toronto, she holds an MSW from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Documentary Media Studies from Ryerson University.