“The rise and rise of African Canadian art.”

Denyse Thomasos, Just Beyond art exhibition now running at AGO

Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond, a spectacular art show is now running at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Black History Month.

It is a stunning retrospective of over 70 works of art, chronologically displayed to tell the story of an artist who is, arguably, the most significant painter to come out of Toronto, if not Canada, in the past 30 years though, most of us have never heard of her.

Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond, features the late Trinidadian-Canadian abstract painter, Denyse Thomasos’s oeuvre, of essential wall-sized abstract paintings, influenced by African weave work, American superjails, architectural drawings, and the artist’s various travels, alongside early drawings and intimately scaled paintings from throughout her lifetime.

I first met Denyse during my last year of undergrad, in 1994. There was a special showing of one of her wall-sized abstract paintings at Mercer Union, that I was invited to attend by one of my professors, John Armstrong, who was the show organiser, and a mutual friend and former instructor of Thomasos, to meet the artist and to get the word out so that there would be others from the black community at the opening, something important to the artist.

Since Thomasos’s tragic death of medical procedural complications, in 2012, at the age of 47, at the height of her career, Canada has gone from the peripheries to a central driver of global culture.

Just consider the International impact of creators like James Cameron in film, Drake in music, and Malcolm Gladwell in writing to name a few. Moreover, Canadian art is in the midst of a cultural renewal led in large part by black and indigenous artists.

Take the most recent 2022, and upcoming 2024, Venice Biennale – considered the Olympics of the art world – Canada is being represented, by internationally established artists Stan Douglas, and Kapwani Kiwanga, respectively, the first two African Canadian artists to represent Canada on such a world stage.

The point of all this is that Canada is in a rare moment where the world is interested in our creative output. If we, Canadians, are to make something sustainable and not just fleeting of this moment, then we need to be even more interested and supportive of our artists than those outside of Canada are.

Why you may ask, should we take such an interest in our artists? Well, because the success of our artists and creatives is the proverbial rising tide that lifts all sails. This is also what is at stake.

I, for my part, am just getting the word out, but this time not only to the black community but to all Canadians, for we all stand to benefit or lose by how we collectively respond to this cultural moment.

My second and final interaction with Denyse came six years after the first. I was applying to US graduate schools for my MFA; Thomasos, who was then a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and on her way to becoming an elite artist was one of the individuals I consulted.

Her words to me, that if a graduate art program (in the US) wants you, that tuition fee is not going to be a barrier, proved to be prescient.

I was offered and accepted a scholarship to UCLA’s distinguished graduate arts program, following in Denyse’s footsteps, who 14 years earlier had accepted a tuition scholarship to Yale. Unlike Denyse, however, I did not pursue my career abroad but here in Canada.

It is an unfortunate reality that all Canadian artists and creatives who compete at the most elite level must do so outside the country. The ability for Canadian artists to compete at the highest level without having to establish themselves abroad first is yet another reason why you should go see this show. This, as I see it, is the next barrier to be broken.

Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond, is a retrospective of a Toronto-raised Tinididaian-Canadian artist organized by two Canadian institutions – the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and Remai Modern, Saskatoon. It is being exhibited at a time when the rest of the world is taking an interest in Canadian cultural production.

Shouldn’t we, Canadians, be all the more interested in the creative output of our artists? The show ran in February.

By Stephen Fakiyesi

Nigerian-Canadian visual artist and commentary writer on art,  culture and society."The Urban Artist's Manifesto" is his forthcoming book.
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