Free Black North features photographs of men, women, and children living in Ontario in the mid-to-late 1800s, descendants of Black refugees who escaped enslavement in the Southern United States. These portraits, drawn from collections at Brock University and the Archives of Ontario, many shown here for the first time, reveal how these chiefly unknown individuals presented themselves with style, dignity, and self-assurance. This exhibition highlights how historic Black Canadian communities utilized photography as an important tool to visualize and lay claim to their complex histories.
The photographs featured reflect the medium's historical development and include rare tintypes, cartes-de-visite, and cabinet cards. These precious objects offer a critical opportunity to consider how Black individuals used photography to assert their presence in small Canadian communities in border towns and inland. Asserting and self-fashioning a presence was imperative given the pervasive racialized environment of Upper Canada in the mid-nineteenth century.
While many of the images defy easy readings, they highlight how a visit to the photography studio played a critical role in asserting one's identity in nineteenth-century Black diasporic communities. Collectively, they illuminate a tradition of early Black photography and how it contributes to broader narratives about the medium's history in Canada.
The exhibition is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and is curated by the AGO’s Assistant Curator of Photography, Julie Crooks.