The works of Christina Leslie and Bidemi Oloyede explore the tensions of race, place, and belonging. Leslie’s photographs are drawn from her Morant Bay series—a personal meditation on loss, absence, and resilience in a small town in Jamaica. Leslie employs a distant, detached approach to photographing her subjects and uses the lush natural landscape as a backdrop. Her subjects are at one with their surroundings as they seek solace in a local waterfall known for its healing properties. The results are masterful photographs characterized by a reserved intimacy. Oloyede’s images are mined from his extensive personal archive of street photography featuring portraits of racialized subjects in Toronto. A new immigrant himself, Oloyede has experienced the pain of alienation and invisibility in a big city. As a result, he is not a neutral or detached observer. One can sense his presence and his insistence on making the random strangers he encounters hyper-visible within the bustling urban landscape that he walks and shoots. Through their works, Leslie and Oloyede position the global multiplicity of blackness both within the Caribbean and in Canada.
Christina Leslie makes photographs that mine/excavate and respond to her Jamaican-Canadian heritage and personal family histories. These concerns have preoccupied her work beginning with her series Every Ting Irie (2010), her graduate thesis work at Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) in Toronto. These portraits use the colour palette of Pan-Africanism and reference the jacket covers of Jamaican records and reggae and ska posters from the early 1960s and 1970s. Leslie’s insertion of the language of Jamaican patois offered intimate reflections from Leslie’s family on migration and notions of settlement and life in Canada. Morant Bay (2019) extends some of the themes that continue to preoccupy Leslie almost a decade later but from the perspective of the community in which her father grew up before immigrating to Canada.
The small town of Morant Bay is in southeast Jamaica and the capital of St. Thomas Parish. In 1865 the town was the scene of a protest (later to be called the Morant Bay Rebellion) by its local black and brown peasants against the country’s deeply unequal and racist social and political policies more than thirty years after the abolition of slavery. The protests escalated and were eventually brutally quashed by the colonial regime. In the aftermath over six hundred people were killed, many of them hanged for their roles in the rebellion. According to legend, after the Rebellion, Queen Victoria, in anger, broke her pen and uttered the words “those rebels, let them suffer.” More than 150 years later, Christina Leslie’s series confronts the residues of slavery and emancipation as evidenced in the economic decline of the community. Yet despite such precarious conditions, Leslie captures fleeting moments of transcendence. In the photograph Falls Leslie’s unobtrusive camera captures the contrasting moods of the dynamism of the thundering Falls against the perfect stillness of the lone figure in the foreground. Leslie’s Morant Bay portraits are shot with intimacy and directness to record the resiliency of the people whose lives she continues to document.
Bidemi Oloyede’s practice is chiefly concerned with Black subjectivity in the Canadian landscape. As a new émigré who arrived in 2014 to study photography at OCAD U, Oloyede has been intrigued with two things: the materiality of the photographic object and how to document the multiple and complex black communities in the urban Canadian landscape. Oloyede is not only interested in the photograph but also its making. This interest led to a fascination for the older photographic processes such as daguerreotypes and tintypes and their ability to produce vibrant and evocative images. In his final year research project Oloyede used a large format camera to take photographs of friends and acquaintances who are of African descent. He then created tintypes using the nineteenth-century process, which uses metal blackened with lacquer and coated with photographic emulsion. His tintypes of sitters wearing an assortment of hoodies, trainers, and braided Afro hairstyles places these objects in dialogue with the problematic history of photography and Black subjectivity.
In his series Canada Day (2019), Oloyede extends his explorations of blackness in Canada characterized by his intuitive eye and fluid street documentary approach. His curiosity about the long history of blacks in Canada served as the catalyst to photograph the Canadian cultural landscape and their presence therein. Here he records a range of individuals during Canada Day festivities. Over the course of an hour he captured a range of black subjects whom, as he observes, “enact self-fashioning gestures” to position their identities as Canadians. For example, in one photograph Oloyede captures two Muslim women. One woman confronts his camera with a weary gaze while the other, seemingly unaffected by the intrusion, takes a selfie. Their attire, the demure headdress under the cowboy hat emblazoned with the Canadian flag, sutures together the complex notion of “multiculturalism” that Oloyede is so keen to unpack in his photography. Oloyede’s moody photograph highlights such dualities framed within a public spectacle of nationhood. The works on view are part of a larger series in which he continues to explore the enduring presence of black subjects within the fabric of Canadian society.