Dr. Julie Crooks is integral part of new ROM exhibit
January 18, 2018
At an early age, Dr. Julie Crooks acquired an appreciation for art through exposure to galleries and museums.
Her maternal aunt, Coretta Isaac who passed away seven years ago, led the way in fostering that love for art and art history.
On trips to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), she would often tell her niece about the various exhibitions she had visited and the impact they had on her.
“That really motivated me and created a passion for culture and art, especially as it relates to Blackness and identity and the way the art historical narrative doesn’t always include people of African descent,” said Crooks who co-founded the Black Artists Network Dialogue (BAND) with Maxine Bailey, Karen Carter and Karen Tyrell in 2009. “I was always focussed on how I could fill that void with the work that I do.”
Last June, Crooks was added to the AGO’s ranks of internationally recognized scholars as an assistant curator of photography. Her hiring is part of the museum’s strategy to strengthen its role as a leader in art scholarship across a multitude of areas while generating a greater number of collection-based exhibitions and programs for audiences in Toronto and across the globe.
“My role is to help mount shows around the collection of almost 70,000 photos, assist in the acquisition of new material and engage communities that would not necessarily come to the AGO,” she said.
Before the AGO hired Crooks, they contracted her to curate ‘Free Black North’ that featured photographs of people living in Ontario in the mid-to-late 1880s, many of whom were descendants of Black refugees who escaped enslavement in the southern United States.
Drawn from Brock University and the Archives of Ontario collections, the portraits -- many of which were shown in Canada for the first time -- revealed how the mainly unknown individuals presented themselves with style, dignity and self-assurance. The exhibition highlighted how historic Black Canadian communities utilized photography as an important tool to visualize and lay claim to their complex histories.
“That was an opportunity to build on my research about the history of photography in Canada involving Black subjects and looking at objects that were studio photographs that show Blacks who had settled in southern Ontario’s Black settlements,” she pointed out.
Inspired by New York University Tisch School of the Arts department of photography & imaging chair Dr. Deborah Willis whose research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, Crooks’ most recent curatorial project is a collaboration with Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) African collector curator Dr. Silvia Forni and Haitian-born independent curator and researcher Dominique Fontaine.
‘Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art’, which explores contemporary art, race and historical identity in Canada, opens on January 27.
“This is an important exhibition that grapples with current and historical interpretations of Black culture and identity in this country,” said ROM director and chief executive officer Josh Basseches. “The work represented in this exhibition not only encourages visitors to re-examine their idea of what Canada is, but offers a broader telling of the Canadian story through the Black Canadian experience.”
The exhibition features original work of Black Canadian artists Sandra Brewster, Charmaine Lurch, Michele Pearson Clarke, Chantal Gibson, Sylvia Hamilton, Bushra Junaid, Esmaa Mohamoud, Dawit Petros and Gordon Shadrach.
“This show is contemporary and the artists were selected based on their bodies of work,” said Crooks who is a Rebanks post-doctoral fellow at the ROM. “We thought they could best represent the overall theme of the show and, through their art and their kind of contemporary lens, really speak to the issues around current and historical interpretations of Black culture and identity.”
Crooks said ‘Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art’ is a culmination of the multi-year and multi-platform ‘Of Africa’ project she and Fontaine conceived. Since 2013, they have been working with Forni to develop a platform that would enable a more open and dynamic presentation of the diversity and creativity of the African continent.
‘Of Africa’ was the ROM’s public gesture to address the offensive ‘Into the Heart of Africa’ 1989 exhibit. The first exhibition of African art at the ROM drawn from the museum’s ethnographic collections drew the ire of many Black Canadians.
As part of its apology issued in November 2016, the ROM committed to build awareness and deepen the relationship with Black educational networks, establish two new internships with training opportunities for Black youths interested in museums, program an annual lecture on African-Diasporic themes, develop an inclusion plan that pays close attention to the specific issues affecting Black communities and continue to celebrate African creativity in its signature Friday Night Live series.
Prior to joining the AGO, Crooks curated and co-curated several exhibitions in the city, including ‘No Justice, No Peace: From Ferguson to Toronto’ and ‘Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest’. One of the exhibits in the display featured photos of Black American activists Dr. Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver who is a law professor.
“I admire both of these women who, in the 1960s, worked for gender and racial equality and parity,” she said. “When you fast forward to today, the same issues are prevalent. Photography is used as a tool and weapon in the hands of Black photographers as a way of documenting this kind of relentless need to challenge the ways in which Black people have been historically represented.”
Last year, Crooks curated ‘Ears, Eyes, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s-1990s’ as part of the Scotiabank Contact photography festival.
The featured journalists were Diane Liverpool, Jules Elder, Eddie Grant, Al Peabody and Jim Russell.
“The collective archive of these photographers reveal a comprehensive visual record,” said Crooks who participated on advisory groups for the AGO’s Frum Collection of African Art and its major 2015 exhibition, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time’. “Training their lens on politicians, community members, activists, protestors as well as entertainers and athletes, they tell a remarkable range of stories and histories of Black lives and experiences.”
Crooks is the second Walker Cultural Leader in Visual Arts for 2017-18. The series brings leading artists, performers, practitioners and academics to the Marilyn Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts at Brock University.
Her public lecture on January 31 will draw on current research that examines the ways in which Black communities is settlements in southern Ontario in the mid to late 19th century used photography as a critical and powerful tool for self-representation. Her research situates the Bell-Sloman collection as a ‘fugitive’ archive built with defiance and resistance in order to preserve and salvage the histories of Black communities whose stories and material artefacts are often untold or subject to erasure.
Eight years ago, Richard Bell – a Black Canadian whose family has deep roots in Canada – donated to Brock University his family’s collection of nearly 300 photos and papers spanning more than a century that document the Bell and Sloman families who descended from former slaves in the American south.
Born in England, Crooks – an only child and sister-in-law of five-time Olympian and Order of Canada recipient Charmaine Crooks who was the first Canadian woman to run 800-metres under two minutes -- came to Canada with her parents in 1968 and graduated from St. Joseph’s College School and York University with an undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies and a Master’s in English Literature.
She completed her PhD. in 2014 at the School of Oriental & African Studies department of history of art and archaeology in England.
Crooks’ thesis examined the practice of outstanding Sierra Leonean photographer Alphonso Lisk-Carew who died in 1969.
She explained why she chose to pursue her doctorate in England.
“I had a difficult time finding a program supervisor and committee in Canada that would understand the project I was proposing,” the married mother of three children said. “I found that in London. There had already being a lot of early work about the history of photography in Africa and my intention was to build on that through my studies. In addition, the archives I needed to work in were housed at the British Museum.”
Crooks dedicated the thesis to her parents – Freetown-born George Gaye who died in 1997 and Barbadian immigrant Evelyn Gaye who passed away five years ago – who inspired her interest in Sierra Leone, and her aunt Coretta Isaac.