A Discussion with Montreal artist Kezna Dalz on Art, Activism and Canadian Institutions
Kezna Dalz, or @teenadult, as she goes by on Instagram, is an artist based in Montreal. For the past 2–3 years Dalz has been making art full time as a multi-disciplinary artist. She makes paintings, digital and more traditional illustrations. She makes art for “a human collective that cannot function in division” (Teenadult) and involves herself in activist work in the greater Montreal community. Most recently, she’s been involved in art-making independently and as part of groups in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Dalz’s style has been defined as having a “pop aesthetic.” Upon being asked if the label of pop takes away from the political nature of her work, she says a definitive, “no.” Almost confused by the question, Dalz sees her work as pop, stating, “that’s a compliment for me.” The style of her art has been labeled pop neo-expressionism, with bright colors that grab the eye of viewers. Her paintings and digital prints differ from each other in style. The paintings appear more expressionist, using fine brushstrokes and melding colours while the digital works appear more conventionally pop– but the political and emotional power perpetuates across mediums. In her paintings, the application of the paint and colour is employed to express emotion–a sense of alienation and fragmentation among the individuals she presents. Like a Kirchner; her work is both beautiful yet jarring.
I attended a talk in which Dalz shared her experiences as a Black Montreal artist. I was then able to ask Dalz questions after the lecture and send additional questions through a follow up email. Drawing from these interactions with Dalz, this article will explore Dalz’s art, her experience as a Black Montreal artist making art in the wake of the Black Lives Matter social movement, and her experience with Canadian arts and academic institutions. Throughout, I will discuss works of Dalz’s in relation to the work of cultural and political theorists as well as where her work is situated within a larger history of Canadian art. In doing so, I hope to establish her work as political and cultural artifacts, critically assessing Canadian politics. In this way, I believe her art provides hope for the future of art and politics in Canada.
Dalz’s art mostly portrays Black women and girls and the emotions they experience as they grow. Dalz crafts her subjects’ faces carefully to embody a vast complexity of emotions and feelings, establishing interiority.
“Most of the things I do are about putting myself out there as a Back woman and talking about emotions vulnerably. That’s something that’s super important for me because the cliché of the strong black women as being super tough and not feeling things– is dehumanizing. So I think what I like most about my work is that it’s about feelings and emotions that are not necessarily anger. Although anger is totally fine– being able to be vulnerable on social media and my art is important to me.”
Dalz is referring to the trope of the Black women as being stereotypically portrayed as being strong and able to endure vast amounts of pain (Cineas). Another Black Canadian artist who has appropriated the Strong Black Woman figure is Khadejha McCall whose piece Strong Black Woman, (1989) displays a Black woman as being a super mom and a business professional– challenging the predominantly white image of the corporate world and asserting the embodied strength of Black women in a way which rendered that strength applicable for the contemporary business world (Ming Wai Jim, 350). Dalz’s prints take a different approach to subverting the image of the strong Black woman, as she is emotional and vulnerable– multidimensional in her subjectivity. Dalz’s work, as embodied through her artistic name “teenadult” targets growing Black women. She attempts to give people that “look like her’’ the representation that they lack in Canadian and American media. In this way, she finds strength in vulnerability and extends the power of representation to include young Black female Canadians.
As Stuart Hall discusses in his work on representation, meanings are constructed and perpetuated through discourses of power which are embedded in visual artifacts. Through contesting stereotypes in an artful way; to show Black subjects as embodying interiority, Dalz grants dignity to her subjects and contests images of Euro-centric beauty and whiteness as the societal norm. Dalz asserts that body acceptance and self-love are important themes in her artwork.
Another group of Black individuals who are often conceived and treated as though they are “impervious to suffering” in Canada are Black Children (Maynard, 276). In attending to the lack of positive representation of and for Black children in Canada, Dalz collaborated with Canadian author, Shanice Nicole, a Black feminist educator, facilitator, writer and word artist (“Shanice Nicole | CBC.”) to illustrate the children’s book Dear Black Girls, written to show Black girls how special they are. Through intervening in representational power of who gets to be represented and how, Dalz establishes politic power from her work. I asked Dalz how she sees her work fit into the two disciplines of art and activism and if she thinks that her personal interests as a Black woman lead her to be considered as an activist or political artist instead of a fine artist. Dalz responded,
“I truly believe that. I believe that there is also some sexism and racism behind that as I think being considered a “fine artist” is tainted with eurocentrism and is male-centered. There is not a lot of room in the typical and conventional art world for women and BIPOC artists. I also believe that, depending on who views it and uses the terms “activist/political artists” there may be some diminishing of the work of the artists who create such work, which consequently strips away the opportunity of being considered as a fine artist. As if there was no place for such art in the “real” art world. To me, the two definitely don’t cancel each other out. It is possible to be a fine artist who creates political art. I believe my art is politically charged because of what I choose to address and because of my artistic choices such as drawing black women/people whose bodies don’t correspond to society’s Eurocentric beauty standards. The fact that I decide to go against what’s typically shown is activism but, since I am a black woman, I think that the fact that I create such work can often place me in the artivist category and no others.”
Dalz also states that doing work at the community-level is important to her. Dalz’s activist work became apparent this year in response to the Black Lives Matter movement as well as through designing art for other projects. She designed artwork for Occupy the Hood, an organization against injustice of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), as well as for a protest in support of victims of sexual-assault. Dalz was also one of the Montreal artists who the City of Montreal commissioned to paint the Black Lives Matter road mural.
Art and Activism: The Black Lives Matter Mural
On July 14th, a Black Lives Matter mural was painted on the road of Saint-Catherine street, spanning 7 by 100 m between the streets of St-Hubert and St-Andre in the Gay Village. The mural was commissioned in response to the movement which had taken flight after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 in the United States. In response to Floyd’s murder and the civilian protests which occurred in Montreal, among other Canadian and American cities, the premier of Quebec, François Legault, denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec. The denouncing of racism in this context reveals how racism is able to be perpetuated and invisibilized–highlighting who is able to confirm or denounce its existence. This claim opposed Prime Minister Trudeau’s statement on June 1st, that anti-black racism was present in Canada. Moreover, the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declared racism in Canada systemic in 2016 (Maynard, 20). Nonetheless, the City of Montreal commissioned the mural, following suit with cities worldwide.
Given the tensions of systemic racism, which plagues the lives of Black Canadians while being invisible to white people; exemplified by the denial of its existence by the Premier, the mural proved to be troublesome to artists and citizens looking to fight for change–as it’s commission seemed essentially performative. In evaluating the performative aspect of the mural, the work of independent diversity scholar Sara Ahmed is useful. Ahmed establishes that making diversity an institutional aim can signify that a larger commitment to embedding diversity into the system is not an aim (Ahmed, 23).Those hired to create the mural can thus be seen as changing the idea of whiteness that surrounds the city but not the systems of injustice that prevail (Ahmed, 24). Through commissioning the mural, the city could be seen as hoping to clear themselves of larger responsibilities of correcting systemic racism. Thus, the mural embodies various tensions between communities and politicians in the fight against racism during the Black Lives Matter movement in Montreal. On a representational level, the mural comes to represent national pride through denouncing racism, which the Premier already denied the existence of. Upon the completion of the mural, it was used as a prop for politicians who took photos with it to support their service in public office. As Ahmed notes “Diversity could be understood as one of the techniques by which liberal multiculturalism manages differences by managing its more ‘trouble- some constituents’…Diversity can thus function as a containment strategy” (Ahmed, 53).
However, the creation of the mural was more complex. There are two ways in which the mural and it’s creation present positive influence for social change: (1) through commissioning Black artists to make the work together, thus enabling them to join as a collective in opposition to discrimination, and (2) through their intervening in public space by the redesigning of the road. The mural was put together by Foundation Dynastie and Never Was Average with the support of the city. Foundation Dynastie is a foundation which fights for diversity and inclusion in arts, culture and media. Never Was Average is an organization dedicated to developing feelings of belonging for minorities and advancing achievements among such groups through organizing and facilitating social change within the community. Never Was Average contacted local Black artists to decide how to present the message– LA VIE DES NOIR.E.S COMPTE (which translates to Black Lives Matter). Each artist was given a letter to design and paint in their own style.
In discussing the process, Dalz reveals the tensions in the Black Montreal arts community in deciding whether or not to participate in the project, due to the artists concerns regarding the mural as being a performative act undertaken by the government. In Dalz’s opinion, the mural had the potential to facilitate positive change. She believes these words needed to be written in the city and its location on a busy street ensured that the mural would be seen at a population wide level. Considering the predominate whiteness of spaces in the City of Montreal, the mural’s presence prevented whiteness from going unquestioned in the specific area. Dalz discusses her experience making the work on the public street and the number of white individuals who confronted the group of artists about why they were creating the mural, ultimately denying anti-Black discrimination. Although the labour of answering these questions should not be on the artists, their presence and the position of the public art forced white people to question Black Canadians’ existence. Political theorist Bonnie Honig writes, public things, such as the mural, are “essential to democratic society as they are able to evoke reflection and debate” (Honig, 60). Once the mural was completed, the population was forced to contemplate the social movement which was prevailing and the injustice permeating their neighbourhoods. Since the mural followed a global social movement, it confirmed the movement’s message and brought it into the community. The creation of the mural was also a way for a group of Black artists to come together and decide how they wanted to change the physical space. Creating the mural should thus be seen as a political act on behalf of Black artists to do work for the city to address the city’s shortcomings in issues of discrimination and justice. However, recognition that this is not enough and that politicians must do more to address systemic racism is essential.
“For me, the reason I enjoyed it was because a lot of people would see it and also creating something with other Black artists from Montreal. It means the world, truly.”
“The terrain of this war that visuality visualizes is what we call history.”
The mural was erased from the street in October 2020. In discussing the mural, the subsequent erasure is an important aspect of identifying how historical and cultural artifacts are documented. In Canadian history, cultural artistic productions have not been embedded into cultural histories the same way that ‘high-art’ or art found in galleries has been (Verall, 315). Hannah Arendt holds that art has the power to shape and give stability to an ever-changing world (Arendt, 203). However, Arendt discusses the significance of art through its ability to out-last the contemporary moment– thus being able to stabilize time in the midst of change (Arendt, 203). As the mural has been erased, it is no longer a public thing for contemplation and debate, and no longer is able to signify a political moment in time.
If erased and unarchived in Canadian histories, the mural acts in accordance with the theory which Sarah Ahmed adopts in her work labeled- “conditions of hospitality” by the Quebec province (Ahmed, 42). This theory posits that the other — in this case the Black artists commissioned to make the mural in support of the Black community — as only welcomed on conditions which are relevant to the current political situation. Meanwhile, “whiteness is produced as host, as that which is already in place or at home” (Ahmed, 42). This is a useful theory to evaluate Canadian Black and Indigenous artists in considering what has been called the Indigenous Art Trend in Canada. In a similar manner, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States produced many cultural artifacts which have been disposed of. The effort to collect and archive these works has been delegated to activists, who identify archiving as an essentially political act. Thus, through the inclusion and exclusion of objects and artworks which are selected and saved for history, archiving artworks reflects the power relations which plague the country with racial injustice.
Dalz was given the letter ‘V’ in the mural–in which she employed her traditional style, displaying individuals embodying complex emotions. In describing her piece, she says “I think the characters in my letter communicate their anger and also a lack of understanding of what’s happening to them. But also a little bit of hope” (@teenadult) The mural above mimics the style in which Dalz has designed protest pieces as of late. In most pieces, Black individuals are presented with a large teardrop on their face and all embody multiplicities of feelings, which Dalz terms trauma. This trauma is a result of racism and discrimination which plague the lives of Black Canadians.
The Right to Look
In comparing Dalz’s work to a line of painting in Canadian history, the significance of Dalz’s art can be seen through employing visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of the politically-powered right to look– which Dalz grants to her subjects. “The right to look claims autonomy from this authority, refuses to be segregated, and spontaneously invents new forms. It is not a right for declarations of human rights, or for advocacy, but a claim of the right to the real as the key to a democratic politics” (Mirzoeff, 4). Dalz’s subjects meet the gaze of the viewer in ways which assert their power as individuals who are hurt but continue to fight oppression. Building off of this theory, Dalz not only gives her subjects the right to look, but through portraying hurt, they are given the right to demand accountability for the discrimination that they face at the hands of the State.
Through comparing Dalz’s work to a history of Black female representation in canonized Canadian Art History, the interiority in which she displays her subjects is highlighted. As Black people have been a part of the Canadian landscape since being imported as slaves through the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, there is no shortage of depictions of Black individuals in cultural artifacts and artworks. Representations of Black people in Canadian Art History can be studied to identify vast occurrences of injustice and representational violence. Using Stuart Hall’s methodologies, power in art is created through attempting to fix representations. In de-constructing the systems and power relations in which these works were produced and by evaluating works created by Black Canadians who subvert these representations, we can begin to dismantle racism in Canadian art. Thus, Dalz’s work must be seen in the context of creating positive and democratic representations of Canadian subjects. To exemplify further, I will evaluate the work of Prudence Heward and her painting Dark Girl (1935) in comparison to Dalz’s Monotonous Interrogation (2018) for their formal similarities and vast representational differences.
Heward has been canonized in Canadian Art History, associated with the Beaver Hall Group, the Canadian Group of Painters, the Contemporary art society and the Group of Seven, with whom she exhibited (Skelly, Life and Work). Heward is acclaimed for her portrayals of female subjects. In discussing Heward’s portrayals of women, vast differences appear in her portraits of Black and Indigenous women in comparison to white subjects (Skelly). I argue that this difference is indicative of who Heward gave the right to look. Heward refused this right from her Black and Indigenous subjects.
Although Heward is known for displaying white women as starkly powerful and possessing rich interiority in the Canadian landscape, her style changed greatly in depictions of Black women (Skelly). Black women are presented mostly naked and immersed in a natural setting that does not simply re-call the Canadian landscape but rather often depicts exotic plant life, which as Prof Charmaine Nelson has argued, must be seen in the colonial context of discourse on Africa as the“dark continent,” as a “place teeming with moral and sexual vice”(Nelson, 27).
Heward’s paintings of Black women presented them as vulnerable and open to the viewer–recalling ethnographic documentations and the racist studies of Black women’s bodies which were circulated in the Western world throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (Sander, 120). Heward paints the Black women subjects as their eyes look down or to the side– denying them the right to look and consequently their subjectivity. The viewer is thus able to gaze at the painting without recognition of the sitter’s right to return the gaze. Further, the portraits of Black women are presented in a more realistic style, while Heward used a more expressionistic style to paint white subjects (Skelly). While not all of Heward’s white subjects firmly return the viewer’s gaze, they are presented as powerful through their poses and the settings in which they are presented–to constitute an image of a modern Canadian woman (Skelly, Life and Work). Such modern and liberating depictions were not given to Black women.
In comparing Dalz’s Monotonous Interrogation (2018) to Heward’s Dark Girl (1935) owned by the UofT Art Museum, the way that Dalz artfully crafts her paintings of Black women for representational advancement is revealed. In Heward’s painting, the hierarchical power relations between the Black sitter and the white painter are evident, as the white painter is free to represent the sitter as she chooses to. Such power relations would be reproduced through a gazing public, to evaluate the Black women's body once the painting was displayed. In opposition to Heward’s demeaning portraits of Black women, Dalz shows the subjectivity of her subjects through granting them the right to look. Through the emotion that she displays on their faces, they demand recognition of their pain by the viewer. The right to look becomes mutual as the subject in the painting returns the gaze of the viewer. As Mirzoeff writes, “it begins at a personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each person inventing the other, or it fails” (Mirzoeff, 1). Thus, only through replacing canonical and racist artworks with new works which demand the right to look–can Black Canadians be seen as participating in the realm of Canadian art.
In Dark Girl Hedward depicts the sumach plant to frame the sitter. The sumach plant is found in tropical climates but also in Canada (Skelly). Thus, the plant was employed to create a “tropical landscape” to frame the Black body (Nelson, 189). Dalz’s painting displays leaves framing her subjects in a similar manner to Heward’s. The leaves works as a reformation of Black Canadian identity–as their positioning could be interpreted in response to the aforementioned trope of Africa as a “dark continent.” Dalz re-claims the plant life to frame the portrait of the dignified Black women she portrays. As Professor Nelson notes, Black Canadian artists and subjects should be seen in recognition of “their unique Canadian-ness as well as their globally shared African and diasporic characteristics” (Nelson, 7). Through re-evaluating the representations of Black people within art and creating new representations, Black artists can claim new and dignified identities for Black communities in Canada by way of re-claiming previously stereotypical imagery.
Dalz’s creative career was brought on through her past studies of politics and art in Canadian institutions; which she states has played a large role in the work she makes and what she cares about as an artist. I argue that Dalz’s experiences with Canadian institutions display how Canadian institutions have failed–and that studying Dalz’s art is a critical way of identifying such shortcomings. Dalz’s interest in art began in childhood. She completed a year of CEGEP with a specialization in Fine Art, before realizing that she didn’t feel that she belonged. Being one of the only Black kids, she recounts that the content was presented in a way which did not reach her. Dalz then switched to studies in Social Science and continued studying Political Science and Human Rights at Concordia University before dropping out because she felt that she couldn’t relate to the political views of students that were given a platform by the University, which invalidated the existences and rights of Canadian minorities. Nevertheless, Dalz was able to access new political concepts and gather in groups of students with similar interests to solidify her interests in social justice.
Upon ending her studies, Dalz set out to apply what she learned in school. Dalz studies provided her with new languages that she found helpful in understanding her experiences and feelings. In this way, her studies stimulated her artistic passion and channeled methods of visually communicating her experiences and political views in her art. Her experiences created what she became artistically–“it created what I like to draw and paint.” Dalz’s experiences led her to find different modes of working to advance justice for individuals. I asked Dalz if she saw the work she does as being similar to more explicitly political jobs like lawyers, activists, organizers etc. Hesitant at first to agree, she ended by confirming my thought,
“I think that since my work is political and I am putting it out there, it creates discussion, people see it, I can change people’s political views- it’s the same fight. I think it’s similar.”
While Dalz’s story is inspiring and hopeful, traits she embodies as a person and through her artwork, a number of failures of Canadian academic institutions arise in such a discussion. These experiences are highlighted in Robyn Maynard’s book Policing Black Lives:State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, Chapter eight The (Mis)Education of Black Youth. Maynard establishes a history of white supremacy which has become embedded in the Canadian school system, resulting in the discrimination of Black individuals in public education. Supported by statistics, Maynard’s work compacts the lack of support for Black youth by teachers, the lack of content relevant to Black children’s lives, and erasure of Black histories. These factors in combination result in a number of injustices that expose Black Canadians to harm throughout their school years in Canadian institutions.
Another institutional setting I wanted to ask Dalz about were Canadian museums and galleries. To my surprise, Dalz responded that she had never been to one. This was due to the lack of representation they embodied, something that I have become growingly aware of throughout my own studies. However, as a white and educated female, Dalz’s remark made me question my understanding of racial exclusion and how museums are white spaces: unwelcoming and irrelevant to BIPOC citizens.
This is consistent with a speech given at the Whitney Museum in 2015, as Michelle Obama stated “I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself” (Obama). Although Obama stated this in an American context–Canadian museums should not be seen differently, as they too embody systemic racism (Blazer).
Due to the art world functioning around axes of oppression embedded in the institutional world, Black artists are at a disadvantage in establishing and circulating their work. When Black contemporary artists are given opportunities to display their art within museums and galleries, it is often in the form of a temporary exhibition (Nelson, 14). As a result, documentation results in the publication of exhibition catalogues- mediums which fail to make their way to university and college libraries for study (Nelson, 14). Therefore, the museum and gallery space, in association with Canadian universities and archives, excludes Black artists and individuals.
I heard about Dalz through my Art History professor at McGill University, Dr. Julia Skelly, who had found Dalz’s work on Instagram. Dr. Skelly believes Instagram is where the most exciting work being done right now is circulating (Skelly). In discussing how contemporary art can function more inclusively, Dalz and Skelly both assert Instagram as a place of empowerment and exposure for upcoming artists. They suggest that Instagram profiles can take the place of a gallery show for artists who aren’t being published through formal institutionalized structures. The challenge thus becomes how to archive works on social media, allowing them to reach larger and targeted audiences–including those who do not have Instagram (Skelly). For now, studying artists on Instagram is a political act–a new public space where information can be accessed and circulated.
On a personal level, Dalz wishes that there were a better way to archive her work. As she usually sells her work through Instagram posts and feels a loss when selling paintings. This happened with her favourite work, a three piece-painting called Mothers, Sons, and Fuck the Police. The piece consisted of three 36 by 12 inch paintings, the first depicting mothers crying. The second consisted of Black men with hoodies on. The piece was made in the aftermath of the murder of Treyvon Martin by police officers and was dedicated to Martin and his mother, as well as all mothers who have lost their sons at the hands of police brutality. The work was sold to someone that Dalz does not know and thus, she will never see it again. Dalz says this occurs with most of her paintings and that she would love to keep them in her house to better analyze and understand them instead of having to sell them right away, as selling them results in her inability to further experience the works.
The dismay which follows when art pieces are taken from Dalz to private owners reveals one of Instagram’s flaws in that on Instagram, one can only view an artwork as a reproduction–a copy or a photograph–of the original. Thus, while the new owner can experience Dalz’s paintings, Dalz and the rest of the public can only view their reproductions. This can be seen through the work of Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, stating that the work’s aura is removed when it is copied. The aura is imagined as the significance of the time and space in which a work of art is created, which Benjamin asserts is withered away through being reproduced. As it does, “the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility”(Benjamin, 24). Although this can be seen as an accurate reading of Dalz’s use of digital prints for representational and political value, as they can be shared as digital files on Instagram and printed in multiple copies, Dalz’s feelings about her paintings display an instilled investment in the aura of the work. This supports Arendt’s discussion on the political significance of the work of art to give stability to an ever-changing world (Arendt, 203). In providing a sense of stability to the political and cultural significance of the moment, the work of art is attached to a time and place in which it was created. The reproduction of the work, photos of the paintings, is unable to capture the work’s aura — which in the case of Mothers, Sons and Fuck The Police is Dalz’s hurt and grief-stricken response to an occurrence of American State violence.
Looking at Mothers, Sons and Fuck the Police, one can identify the vast amount of hurt found in Dalz and the Black community at a time of mourning and despair. The paintings work to change the narratives around murder of Black men at the hands of the State, revealing the loss and tragedy that fills Black mothers after losing their sons. This suffering can be used to mobilize resistance against discrimination and injustice which subsequently works toward bettering communities. Thus, such a work should be able to be experienced by a larger public than the private owner.
As Dalz is involved in the Montreal art and activism scene in a number of ways, without relying on institutions like stream-lined art schools, museums or gallery spaces, I began to think more about how we can stop looking to museums or galleries to assist in the circulation of art in the public sphere. Asking Dalz as a fine artist and activist what kind of public space she would like to see her work in, Dalz gives a sketch of what a future of inclusive art and community building could look like.
“I believe that if we are talking about a physical place, I would love it if it would be some sort of discussion-aimed place. Either some sort of coffee shop or, just a place where you can go and read or discuss with some friends but the walls are covered with artwork that are politically charged. Not only art that denounces/addresses sad and angering situations but also art that celebrates life, BIPOC joy, emotions and humanity. It would be a place free of the pressure that you may feel while visiting a museum or any typical art exhibition place. It would be community aimed and accessible to all. That would be quite ideal for a physical space. If we are talking about an online gallery, it would have to be on a website that features a lot of different artists, not only me and on which we can also find resources about important causes. Again, community-aimed.”
I asked Dalz how she circulated her work now in the public sphere during the lecture. To which she responded,“here, this is a way.” Putting the responsibility on chance occurrence, of an image popping up on Instagram for scholars like Dr. Skelly to see and decide to include in forms of teaching and discussion–it does not feel like enough–nor does it seem sustainable and reliable as a method for formulating reflection and change in society. In writing this article, I hope that this too is a way.
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