Almost thirty years after St Lucian poet Derek Walcott delivered his Nobel Prize lecture in Stockholm, one hopeful and especially quotable sentence continues to resonate in the imaginations of Caribbean thinkers. “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” The Caribbean’s broken vase, Walcott suggested, is reassembled from the “shattered histories” and “shards of vocabulary” of our ancestral traditions — relics of five centuries of violence and oppression. “This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles,” Walcott wrote. “Antillean art is this restoration.”
Fragments of Epic Memory, a new exhibition at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario — which opened in September 2021 and runs through 21 February, 2022 — borrows from Walcott’s Nobel lecture both its title and the summoning idea that the task and privilege of Caribbean artists is to create new stories and images from the disjecta membra of our troubling past and present. It also reminds us that those stories and images must evolve over time — that each generation must indeed reassemble the fragments and reimagine the forms of our individual and shared memories.
Fragments of Epic Memory is the first exhibition organised by the AGO’s Department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, established in 2020 under the directorship of Julie Crooks. In her previous role as photography curator, Crooks managed the landmark acquisition of the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, thought to be the largest collection of historical images of the region outside the geographical Caribbean. Now Crooks has brought together selections from the Montgomery Collection with works by approximately thirty modern and contemporary Caribbean and diaspora artists, to “show how the region’s histories are constantly revisited and reimagined through artistic production over time.”
“The story of the Caribbean and its artists isn’t one story,” says Crooks, “but a kaleidoscope of histories and voices and experiences, best understood through the interplay of them all.” She also notes that Toronto is a major centre of the global Caribbean diaspora, and works by Canada-based artists are prominent here. These include a newly commissioned work by Toronto-based Sandra Brewster, whose Feeding Trafalgar Square (2021) is based on an old photo of the artist’s mother on a holiday visit to London — “turning a joyful moment into a moving meditation on what it means to be displaced.”
Among the other “fragments” assembled by Crooks are paintings by the Guyana-born modernists Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling, a large-scale video installation by Jamaican Ebony G. Patterson, and works by artists such as Christopher Cozier of Trinidad and Tobago, Firelei Báez of the Dominican Republic, Nadia Huggins of
St Vincent, and Kelly Sinnapah Mary of Guadeloupe. In the AGO galleries, these works are interspersed among approximately two hundred photographs from the Montgomery Collection, manifesting both affinities and discordances across time. What to make of those affinities and discordances — how exactly to assemble the fragments, into what shapes, and why — is the question the exhibition poses to each visitor.
For more information on Fragments of Epic Memory, see ago.ca/exhibitions/fragments-epic-memory