Deanna Bowen’s artistic practice concerns itself with overlooked histories of Black experience, often connected to her own family in Canada and the US. She makes use of a repertoire of artistic gestures to bring traces of a complex, deeply personal, and often violent past into public visibility. This billboard image forms part of A Harlem Nocturne, a solo exhibition presenting a terrain of research that Bowen undertook in Vancouver in 2017–18, recovered from civic documents, newspaper clippings, and numerous personal and organizational archives. In this work, Bowen traces a series of interconnected figures who formed an integral part of Vancouver’s Black entertainment community from the 1940s through the 1970s, including Choo Choo Williams, Bowen’s first cousin twice removed, who co-owned and danced at the Harlem Nocturne nightclub from its establishment in 1957 until its sale in 1968.
Throughout the exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, as in this image, the tools Bowen uses to retrieve and view archival materials form an integral part of the work. These apparatuses are the only means through which information becomes visible and legible. To borrow the words of another artist, Hito Steyerl, “A document on its own—even if it provides perfect and irrefutable proof—doesn’t mean anything. If there is no one willing to back the claim, prosecute the deed, or simply pay attention, there is no point in its existence.”
Special thanks to Swan Dive bar, Toronto